One Dirty Magazine

Deciding When Not to Run

Here are six questions to ask yourself before every run.

David Roche March 21st, 2017

Deciding When Not to Run Photo by James Harnois

For many motivated trail runners, the most important workout is deciding not to run.

Nearly every major injury or setback starts as a minor concern. Like a leaking ceiling, it’s a little drip you can ignore. Let it drip for too long, though, and the whole ceiling could come crashing down.

Stress fractures are the best example of what can go wrong from a persistent drip. A 2002 article in the Journal of Athletic Training provides a comprehensive overview of all the research up to that point. Bone endures stress from activities like trail running, remodeling itself from that stress “to more efficiently endure external forces.” So running actually makes your bones stronger … to a point.

A little too much stress can cause the bone to deform slightly. At this point, the bone might be mostly fine structurally—a few days off could heal it. But continue pushing, and it progresses to a stress reaction, or damage similar to bruising on the bone surface. Stress reactions take longer to heal. Wait even longer, and it’s a stress fracture, which could take six weeks to several months to heal, depending on the location. A similar progression of maladies can happen with upper respiratory illness if you train through chest congestion, or over-training syndrome if you train through severe fatigue.

So the key is to stop early, guided by the principle that a few days off is no big deal, a few weeks off is frustrating but manageable and a few months off is worse than a caved-in ceiling.

This cautious approach will be over-inclusive for many injuries or illnesses. Sometimes, you’ll be taking time off when you’re totally fine. But just because five of the chambers are empty doesn’t mean you should play Russian Roulette with your health.

Here are the questions to ask yourself each day before you hit the trails:

 

 

 

 

“Tired”

Fatigue is normal, especially if you have kids and/or a busy job. But if you feel like a low-energy Jeb all the time, something more worrisome could be going on, like iron deficiency or the presence of abnormally high levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Unchecked fatigue can culminate in over-training syndrome, which has the potential to take you off the trails for months or even years. But even if it never reaches that point, persistent fatigue is probably a sign that your lifestyle is not healthy. It’s important not to push through chronic tiredness without a strategy to get better.

 

“Injured or Sick”

I have a tongue-in-cheek rule with the athletes I coach: if the first time I hear about a stress fracture is when they are going to a doctor, they owe me $500. The idea is that most injuries like stress fractures start out as a minor annoyance. Stop while you can still run, rather than waiting until you’re at Rite Aid buying crutches and checking the status of your health insurance.

The same goes for sickness—a surefire way to turn an innocuous sniffle into a bout of bed-shaking bronchitis is to run hard while sick.

If you are both tired and injured or sick, even in small doses, the most strenuous thing you should be doing is watching Netflix.

No runner has ever regretted taking an extra rest day or three when dealing with an injury, illness or fatigue. When in doubt, ground yourself now so you can fly later.

 

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and Team Clif Bar, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

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23 Comments on "Deciding When Not to Run"

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Mark
Guest

Great advice. Was deciding whether to run today or not because I have pain in my achilles where it attaches to the heel. Most times it goes away while running, but returns afterwards, but I’m going to take your advise and not run today.

David Roche
Guest

Awesome decision Mark!! It’s so hard sometimes, but over-resting is better than over-training.

Mark
Guest

Yep. It’s very hard to take time off. I’ve been battling this in both feet for over 4 years. I’ve tried about everything I can think of to get rid of it with no results. I guess I’ll try rest , as that’s something I haven’t really tried. 🙂

Mike
Guest

I’ve had that same pain. It never improved with rest, and never got worse from running, so I decided to stop whining and and wasting my life away. What did help is that I got one of those splints (like a giant boot, open in the front) and put it on one foot at a time overnight for a few nights. Within a few weeks, both feet had gone through the cycle and I’ve not had any issues since (over a year now).

Mark Purl
Guest

Thanks for the advice Mike. Do you know what the boot is called? I’d love to try it.

Mike
Guest
The one I got was from Amazon, a United Surgical Adjustable Night Splint. It was almost 2 years ago so there may be other or better options, but just look for a night splint. I’d go to a doctor for persistent pain, of course, but for that nagging pain on the back or side of my heel this was the home remedy that I found recommended online. A precursor to this passion was morning foot stiffness, which this also fixed. After the month of treatment (about two weeks per foot), it has been 18+ months with no further issues despite… Read more »
Mark Purl
Guest

Thank you. I think I’ll give it a try.

Topsy
Guest

That sounds like insertional Achilles tendinitis. I got this in January after running in snow and doing speedwork. If you haven’t seen a PT yet, please do. There is a progression of relative rest and eccentric strengthening which can help. I had to take two weeks off and do pool, bike, elliptical – before slowly adding back runs every other day. That was because I caught it early, just as David advises in this article. Good luck!

Mark Purl
Guest

Thanks for your advice.

Paul
Guest

As someone who suffers from mild depression, I disagree with your “tired” flowchart leg. These can be classic depression symptoms, and exercise is one of the best forms of therapy. Obviously people have to know themselves, but I tell myself and those whom I have encountered with similar condition to get out and run whenever they are feeling fatigued, lethargic or unhappy (which can all lead to lack of eating). It may not be correct every time, but it works most of the time.

David Roche
Guest

Thanks so much for the wonderful clarification Paul! It’s essential for each runner to know themselves and honestly look inward to analyze how they feel. You do that so well, which is awesome. I really appreciate you sharing your journey! An article is in the works on the topic of anxiety and depression!

Kenzie
Guest

The point of knowing yourself is extremely important. I am perpetually sick- I have Lyme disease- but part of my treatment is ‘exercise as tolerated, but try to get out every day’. Knowing the intensity that your body will not break under is important.

lisa hilton
Guest

I have had some slight pain in my right knee for a year and a half now. Sometimes a stinging pain and tightness. I quit racing, which has been depressing for me. I also cut back on running and only run 10 – 15 miles per week. Now I’m starting to have knee pain in my left knee and lower back pain. I have quit running this week and am even more depressed. I have had x-rays, MRI’s, PT,…but no answers and no help. Do you have any suggestions??? Thanks

Kate
Guest

Check out a sports chiropractor who specializes in functional movements. They may be able to help figure out some imbalances in your body leading to other areas compensating. Walking in with your imaging results will help speed along the process.

Mike
Guest

Wow. I shouldn’t run if I’ve been tired for a few days, I’m still tired after the first mile, and I’m nutritionally lacking? Sounds like advice from Runner’s World for aspiring 5Kers, not something targeted to trail runners.

David Roche
Guest

Thank you for your input Mike! Check out my coaching page and see the pros on there. They have had that success not because of hard workouts, but because of staying healthy and resting when needed. Many, many more top trail runners have been ruined by doing too much than by doing too little.

Mike
Guest

With all due respect, I do not believe there’s a top athlete out there who has avoided hard workouts, regardless of their primary distance. I agree with treating underlying issues causing fatigue, but I personally have benefitted a great deal from those runs on tired legs, an empty stomach, or little sleep. But I’m not a 5K guy. Tired/hungry/alone/persistent training is appropriate for the kind of races I’m doing.

David Roche
Guest

Keep on rocking it! Great job!

Mike
Guest
Thanks! And to be clear, I totally respect what you’re saying (and doing as a coach). I’m just arguing against using the tired column as an excuse. You have to know when and how to push yourself. For someone just getting running, you don’t want to overdo it, but the more experienced athletes you coach–and you–know that for long distances you have to embrace the suck, and a great way to do that is to embrace it whether it’s at mile 1 or 100. If you’re dealing with an injury or are overtrained, then you need to listen to your… Read more »
Sissy
Guest
I think it’s important to differentiate between fatigue and tiredness. For example, I was beat after a long run Saturday and had a cycling workout the next day that I was dreading but I did it anyways. However, for the last 3 days, my resting pulse rate has been way up when I wake up in the morning and I’ve been so tired when I wake up in the morning and throughout the day despite getting 7-8 hours sleep these last few days. That shows me my body needs a little extra TLC for a couple of days. Oh yeah,… Read more »
liz
Guest

This is a Great article. I have been battling fatigue and a persistent right foot pain for over a year. I got the foot pain checked out a few months back to verify it was not a stress fracture (nope!) and I continue to run through it now. I just found out my iron levels are very low. I hope to have more energy soon, but I am often too tired to run so I run/walk.

David Roche
Guest

You are awesome Liz! Get that iron right and you’ll feel like a new person. YOU GOT THIS!

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[…] and an article published in Trail Runner magazine this week by coach and author David Roche, Deciding When Not to Run. This stood out in that […]

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