The Myths and Truths of “Listen to Your Body”

Foam rolling to nurse an aching leg before a run

Listen to your body.

How many times have people said that to me over the past ten years since I decided to become physically active?

But what does it mean? The implication is: If your body tells you it is tired, if your body tells you it needs a rest, then give it a rest.

But it’s not that simple, is it?

The easiest thing in the world is to use “listen to your body” as the best excuse in the world not to go to the gym, or not to go out and run, or not to get on that bike and cycle. That’s what physical activity does: it makes you feel tired. You’ll have aches and pains. You’ll get ravishingly hungry. You’ll feel hot or cold or itchy or sleepy or mentally pushed to your limit. If every single time we listened to our body when it told us we didn’t want to do something, we would hardly do anything.

I cycled across Europe last year. I know I go on and on about it. But it was one of the best experiences of my life. And I learned so much from it. On that trip I felt tired every single day for a two-month period. E V E R Y  S I N G L E  D A Y. There were times on that trip when I had cycled for more than 100 kilometers, I was lost, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was hot… but I kept pushing myself to get to my next destination. I complained in my blog posts during that trip incessantly. I complained about how tired I was. I complained about my aches and pains. I complained about all my anxieties. It’s what I do. I express myself to get the feelings out of my head and be done with them. I got many messages from people telling me it was all right to take a break. It was all right to slow down. It was all right to give myself a rest. Yes. It would have been all right. But I didn’t need to. I could and I did keep going because I knew I had it in me despite the aches, pains, and anxieties. I knew I had the physical and mental strength to do exactly what I set out to do. And on the few rare days when I felt I really needed a break, I gave myself one as a treat.

I’ve been training for a marathon now for months. I’ve found this experience even more grueling than a two-month cycle across Europe. It’s been just as much a mental challenge for me as it has been a physical challenge. I’ve had to train through the fall and the very cold British winter. I’ve had to run in rain, in freezing temperatures, and through snow, mud, ice, icy puddles, muddy puddles, and water puddles. I’ve had to run up steep hills and down steep hills. I’ve had to pick my tired body up and take myself out of the house and run on days when I’d really rather not. I’ve had to keep running when I felt I was all out of breath. I’ve had to keep running when my muscles feel like they don’t have a single ounce of energy left in them. I’d come home and find bloody blisters on my feet. I’d sleep through restless nights because my muscles were hurting so much that at times, it has felt like someone has taken a hammer and hurtled it at my leg. I’ve had to nurse my blisters and my aching legs, self-massage them, ice them, and take them to a physiotherapist. I’ve had to stop doing all my other physical activities because this one was taking too much out of me. I’ve had to work with a personal trainer to strengthen certain aspects of my core and legs to keep me strong and injury free.

If everyone who trained for a marathon crumpled at the first blister or the first feeling of exhaustion or pain, no one would be running marathons. No one.

If everyone who went to the gym to push themselves to be the best person they can be stopped going with the first aching muscle, no one would go to the gym.

I want to be healthy. I want to be strong. I want to push my limits. I want to do things I used to only dream of doing. And the only way to do that is to keep going despite the pains, the exhaustion, and the sometimes very boring routine of it all.

BUT…

There is a fine line. Sometimes the body really does need a rest. And it is very important to learn how to be able to tell when your mind is playing games on you, when your body is throwing a temper tantrum, and when, on the other hand, it is addressing you with an adult voice and telling you it’s time to take a break.

I’ve found that I have a deep, deep well of resolve I can always rely on. I can keep going if I know I can. But in rare instances, and they are always rare, I can tell that my body has nothing more to give right now. If I keep pushing it, I could damage it. If I keep pushing it, I might not get out of the activity what I should be getting out of it.

I don’t like it when people use the “listen to your body” mantra as an excuse not to go out and get that workout done. I don’t like it when people assume they know what my limits are and tell me to listen to my body and to take a rest. It’s important to push through the pain in order to become stronger and faster and better. And it’s just as important to take care of that body so that it can continue to become stronger and faster and better.

Over the past few months it has been tremendously hard to play that mental game with myself and make sure I get my training sessions done. It is probably even more difficult to decide that my body won’t get through this, it won’t cross that finish line, unless I give it a break right now.

I’ve decided to re-organize my training plan as the Barcelona Marathon nears. Even though my physiotherapist has told me I can run on my painful leg, I can tell that if it continues to ache this much, I risk not being able to cross the finish line. I am trading some precious training days on a painful leg for getting my leg healthy to be able to run a marathon. In the meantime, I’ll keep fit through non-running activities that won’t cause impact on my leg.

I am listening to my body. It doesn’t mean I will stop. It doesn’t mean I’ve given myself the green light to be lazy. It means I will continue to do whatever I can to be the fittest and strongest I can possibly be.

I am dedicating my training and marathon to raise vital medical expenses for a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a cancer of the bone marrow. Please visit http://www.gofundme.com/runningforlife and donate whatever you can. You could be saving my friend’s life.

 

3 comments

  1. Nice post.

    By the way, I miss reading your bike-adventure posts from last year. I looked forward to them every day. I would get up, make a cup of coffee, turn the CBC news on and then open my laptop to see what “Inner Workings of My Mind” was up to.

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