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What Does Listening to Your Body Really Mean, Anyway?

Posted Sep 14 2010 6:47pm
I loved reading all of your comments about my Meat-Eater’s Guide to Vegetarians . It was one of those posts that was a lot of fun to write, and I’m glad so many of you could relate. Feel free to print it out and bring it to your next social gathering. It could end up saving you a lot of time. ;)

This past weekend, I was faced with a dilemma. On Sunday, I was scheduled to do my longest training run yet – the longest I will do over the course of marathon training – the dreaded 20-miler. But since Friday afternoon, I had felt a cold taking hold of my body. By Sunday morning, the situation had not improved. I woke up with my head pounding, nose dripping, and shards of glass scraping my throat every time I tried to swallow. Needless to say, running 20 miles was the last thing I felt like doing.

sick guy sneezing ( Source )

The standard school of thought about training while sick is to use the neck/chest rule. Symptoms above the neck are typically okay to run through – headache, runny nose, etc. But anything below the neck (like a chest cold) could be made worse by running. You don’t want to mess around with things like bronchitis.

So, according to the rule, one would think I was okay to run. But the fact that I wasn’t doing just any old run made the situation more complicated. Running 20 miles is an intimidating task even under the best of conditions. Your body takes a beating over the course of all those miles. I wasn’t sure how my already sick body would hold up. Would running for 3 hours turn my head cold into something worse?

Not only that, but this weekend I will be running the Reach The Beach Relay in NH. RTB (just like the GMR I did in June ) is a 200-mile, 24(ish)-hour adventure race from Franconia Notch to Hampton Beach, NH. I am incredibly excited about it, but terrified of being sick. As it is, it’s going to be a really intense race. I’m running a total of 21 miles in 24 hours with minimal sleep. Being sick wouldn’t exactly make for a fun weekend.

reach the beach Logo  

So with all that going through my head, what did I decide to do? After moping around and mulling it over for a couple of hours, I finally decided to heed the advice I so often give others (and the advice others were giving me via Twitter ): Listen to my body. I was going to go out easy, do shorter loops close to the house and just see how I felt. A nice, simple plan, right?

Not exactly. I wasn’t really sure listening to my body even meant running in the first place! To be honest, the only thing I really felt like doing was curling up in a snuggie on my couch and watching trashy television all day long.

snuggie Disclaimer: Let it be known that I did not purchase this snuggie. It was a gift ;)

But my training schedule is already tight. And I knew skipping this run would only make things more difficult in the coming weeks. Plus, it’s pretty hard to separate out the nerves that come from facing a 20-miler from the reluctance to do it because I was feeling sick. Which meant I had to at least try.

By the time I got 10 miles into the run, I knew I was going to go for the full thing…even if it meant I had to crawl. I wasn’t feeling wonderful, but I wasn’t feeling completely awful either. To be honest, I’ve had worse runs . Much worse , actually. I figured that as long as I could continued to put one foot in front of the other (and not pass out), I’d be okay.

At this point, I had traded the old “listen to your body” mentality for another, more intense adage — “mind over matter.” I knew I wasn’t feeling great, but I also knew that if I had enough mental strength, I could make it through the run. That’s really a big part of what marathon training is all about, anyway — building up enough mental strength to make it through several grueling hours of running. And as a very wise runner said recently, 20 miles is supposed to be hard . It’s very likely that I could have felt just as bad during the run even if I hadn’t been sick. Should I have quit just because I was tired?

It was a question I battled with for 20 long miles. If I kept repeating “mind over matter” and telling myself I could push through it, was I ignoring the signs from my body? How can we tell when it’s more than just the average fatigue that’s slowing us down? Obviously there are times when you clearly need to rest – puking and collapsing during a training run come to mind as pretty clear signs that your body is trying to tell you something. But what about situations where it’s not that clear-cut? What about those times when you have to weigh the pain (and potential consequences) of pushing through the discomfort with the long-term benefits of endurance and mental strength it could bring?

I don’t have a good answer for that. I think it’s something we runners always grapple with, no matter how long we’ve been running for. And depending on our training schedule and goals, the answer could change every time.

In the end, I finished those 20 miles. And while I can’t say I enjoyed them, I was pretty proud to have made it. My time ended up being much better than I expected, and I proved to myself that I could finish a tough run, even in less-than ideal conditions. But was it worth it?

I’d like to say yes, but at this point, I’m still not so sure. That cold that started off in my head has now moved down into my chest. I’ve spent the last two days wheezing, coughing, and hoping this thing will run its course before Friday. Basically everything that I was afraid would happen as the result of my stubbornness perseverance, did. But in the end, training for this marathon is my ultimate goal. I want to make sure I do the best I can to be prepared for that 26.2 miles. Of course I don’t want the decisions that I make to negatively affect the relay, but it’s not my top priority.

So this week, the plan is to take it easy and get lots of rest. Hopefully I’ll feel as good as new by Friday. But honestly, no matter how awful I’m feeling, this relay is not something I’m missing out on!

puppy sick


What do you think? Does listening to your body always mean ignoring putting your mind over matter? What would you have done in this situation? (i.e. do you think I’m crazy? ;) )

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