For amateur athletes and weekend warriors, pushing through pain is a common refrain. But pressing too hard can lead to injury, illness and exhaustion, and worsen existing injuries. Fitness routines that make space for rest and recovery can help.
While training for a half-marathon last fall, Janet Sherman, 57, started noticing pain in her right leg and left foot. A diagnosis of a quadriceps strain and plantar fasciitis led to shoe inserts and cross-training. Before long, the Wyoming-based teacher was “just good enough” to get back to training, and so she did, although she opted to drop down to a shorter 10K race distance.
On race day, Sherman’s foot began bothering her early, and by a water stop two-thirds of the way through the course, she knew she should drop out. “It was so painful, but I was stubborn and finished out the race,” she said. “Afterward, I could barely walk.”
Sherman recognizes that failing to quit the race probably led to a month-long layoff from the sport she loves. “If I say I’m going to complete a goal, however, I’m going to complete it,” she said. “I regret that I couldn’t pull the plug psychologically.”
To the inactive, Sherman’s attitude might be hard to understand. But for amateur athletes and weekend warriors, pushing through pain is a common refrain. “As a society, we are more active in sports than ever before,” said Adrienne Langelier, a Texas-based sports psychology consultant. “But at the same time, as a culture we have developed a ‘no days off’ mentality.”
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That needs to change, said Mark Cucuzzella, a physician and a professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. ” ‘No pain, no gain’ — no, thank you,” he quipped. “For too long, we have glamorized that way of thinking. It’s not sustainable.”
There are plenty of contributing factors to our society’s “push until it hurts” approach. Cucuzzella speculated that some of it began decades ago with the National Football League and associated sports-brand advertising. “We were given the message that in order to succeed, we needed punishing workouts,” he said. “In the short term, that might work, but the burden of proof now shows that it’s damaging in the long run.”
Langelier added that athletes often look to others as reference points rather than considering what’s best for themselves. “This might stem from a lack of trust in your own ability, or wanting to emulate what the pros do,” she said. “It can translate into an all-or-nothing approach.”
Some who become immersed in a sport fear a loss of hard-earned fitness if they take off even a day or two. “People worry that if they stop, they won’t start again,” Langelier said.
But pressing too hard can lead to injury, illness and exhaustion. With running, for instance, pushing through pain can lead to a secondary injury, said Adam Tenforde of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard Medical School. “A stress fracture, if you continue to run on it, may progress to a full fracture and require a much longer recovery period, for example,” he said. “I advocate for addressing pain early, rather than ignoring it.”
Cucuzzella recommends learning from mistakes and determining the right amount of stress for your body. “Monitor how you are feeling: Are you tired? Getting enough sleep? Is your mood bad?” he asked. “Also, get lab work to ensure all your markers are good. All of these factors are indicators of whether or not you’re headed in the right direction.”
Langelier said that reframing rest as part of training can also be helpful. “Every day can’t be hard,” she said. “Leave some time in there for taking care of yourself, and make it an integral part of your training.”
There are signs the tides are beginning to turn. “I think the fitness industry is starting to speak out some on the value of rest and balance,” she said. “It’s just a matter of that message catching up to the ‘more is better’ message.”
Jonathan Levitt, 28, a Boston-based sales manager, has been part of a new push to make rest more alluring. An avid participant in the popular November Project fitness movement, Levitt joined with Olympic swimmer Caroline Burckle and elite Spartan course racer Amelia Boone to create the hashtag #restdaybrags on social media in January 2017. “We see the glorification of working hard everywhere,” he said. “But we never see the downtime that helps us recover.”
Admittedly, Instagram photos of hammock time aren’t as sexy as a shot from the top of a mountain, said Levitt, but they’re just as important. “It did start out as a bit of a joke,” he said, “highlighting things like ‘couch to refrigerator’ intervals. But we started getting all kinds of messages from athletes telling us they appreciated seeing this content.”
The #restdaybrags Instagram account has 4,000 followers, and the hashtag is used repeatedly on multiple platforms. “It’s been organic growth — people see it and share it,” he said.
Levitt is a big believer that athletes need to understand that stress is stress, no matter where it is coming from. “I see amateurs who want to train like pros, and they end up getting hurt,” he said. “They forget that pros have a schedule that allows for all the rest and recovery they need, without a job interfering. The rest of us need to balance our hard training with low- and no-effort training.”
Since experiencing her injury last year, Sherman has learned from her mistakes and pays attention to niggling injuries before it’s too late. “I’m an avid weightlifter, and I recently had a strain in my gluteus muscle,” she said. “I probably could have kept training like I wanted, but I realize that the price might not be worth it.”