The tearing of skin. The brilliant flash of a bead of blood. Then, the sharp ache of a blister.
A build-up of pressure. A constant dull pain in the shins which intensifies into a knife-edge on any contact. The fear of shin splints, of stress fractures.
A fall, out of the blue. Grazed knees and palms which smart with the brush of the cold morning wind. A worrying seed which plants, suggesting that something else will go wrong, that something else has gone wrong, that something has twisted or pulled or bruised.
Do you keep going through the aches and pains? Do you carry on running or lifting or climbing past the first warning signs? Do you know when to take a step back?
I don’t. I’m bad at letting myself slow down or take a rest day when I haven’t already planned or scheduled it into the week. And I find that it isn’t until after I feel the sharp pain or see the blood that I take any injury seriously enough to stop.
When I first started running, I thought blisters where a badge of honour, a necessary evil that occurred whenever I pounded the pavements. I would run through the pain, practically tearing my feet into ribbons, leaving them tattered and torn and white-hot to the touch. It wasn’t until I changed my running shoes that I realised how wrong I had been, and I now get through 16, 18, 20 mile runs without a single blister. In fact, one of the first signs that I should change my shoes is when they get worn and my feet start to rub.
Blisters on my hand are more of an accepted pain. As a climber and a lifter, I’m used to having thick calluses at the base and edges of each finger, my body’s self-made protection against the pressure I put it under continuously. I’m used to the white peel of dry skin, of the top layer coming away to reveal a shiny patch of newly-christened skin, ready to face the onslaught of another hour at the wall or the bar.
Recently I took 2 weeks off climbing and lifting, as I was at home with no way of accessing my gym or my climbing centre. Coming back to climbing was like beginning anew – my calluses ripped off, leaving me with bleeding and raw messes to call my hands. I should have considered this a possibility, especially after not having stressed my hands with my bike handles for a month either, but I just didn’t even think about it. Because of my naivety and my rush to get back to climbing in exactly the same way and intensity as previously, I’m going to have to take another couple of days off before stepping back to the wall or the lifting racks.
On the other hand, some pain shows you the way to progress and to better form. The term DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is often used to describe the “good ache” which comes from pushing your body up to, but not beyond, its maximum capabilities. I know that whenever I have done a good intensive lifting session, I welcome the ache in my muscles the next day.
If you come back from a hard run, or a heavy gym session, and don’t feel tired and ache-y, it’s a sign you could have pushed yourself further. Especially for track sessions or PB lifting sessions where the aim is to test the limits of your body, no ache would show that your muscles weren’t put under the pressure they should have been.
Nonetheless, you shouldn’t come to expect the ache after every single session. Some workouts, like recovery miles or light lifting session or a fun afternoon playing about at the wall, are not meant to be intensive. Always waking up with sore legs or heavy arms would suggest that you need to slow down, to leave time for rest and recovery, otherwise it could lead to a more serious injury.
It works out as a balance, but getting and maintaining this balance is a constant work-in-progress. I still need to take steps back occasionally to check my progress, to examine my body and to just think STOP. Some weeks, I push myself too hard and pay for it with aches and pains, some weeks I don’t get enough sleep and make clumsy errors and fall. By recognising these weeks when they happen, I can change what doesn’t work for me, and adjust my training and my lifestyle accordingly. A week of stress here or there doesn’t make a difference in the long term, but if they start to run together into months of pain it could put my whole lifestyle at risk. There is no easy method to find out what works, as it isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and training has to fit around all the events of life which changes constantly.
Sometimes, I let myself wear my old shoes for too long, and come home with sore and bleeding feet. But, luckily, there’s a simple answer for that one at least – I just go shopping.
How do you maintain your progress without getting injured? Do you ever feel like you always get to a certain place in your training then get injured? How do you deal with aches and pains if they threaten your fitness?
As normal, I’d love to hear what you have to say on this topic! Comment below, or send me a DM or a follow on Instagram (@primallyimperfect). And have a great Wednesday!