Jessica Kuepfer has been running since 2010. Since then she has dealt with two stress fractures but has come to learn that not every pain requires her to take time off.
I ran on the varsity cross-country team on my final year of university. I remember feeling pain in my leg on one particularly challenging practice so I informed my coach who had been watching me run. His response stuck with me and is still advice I abide by today. He said it wasn’t a serious issue and informed me that being in a bit of pain somewhere was common for runners who train at high volume. “You won’t know where your limits are if you don’t push them,” he told me.
I wasn’t sure if I believed him.
Fast forward a number of years to this past weekend. I was at my sports massage therapist’s office for a quick tune-up and I was explaining that I was feeling strong, despite having little niggles of pain here and there in my legs.
“That’s the mark of a smart athlete,” she told me. “Knowing what to run through and what to take time off for. You have had years of figuring that out behind you.”
Have I ever.
In the summer of 2014, I was training for my second marathon. Put simply, I had no idea what I was doing. I was following up high intensity workouts with extensive long runs and hoping that training hard would be better than training smart. Throughout the summer, my shins were giving me pain– I rolled my calves and shins furiously hoping that they would improve.
But on race morning, nothing had improved and I decided to race anyway. I ran it, qualified for Boston but I wasn’t happy– I was in pain the whole time. It was later when I found out that this pain was a stress fracture in both tibias.
Getting two stress fractures was the best thing that ever happened to me as a runner. I immediately began to doubt my ability to tell the difference between small niggles that every runner gets and pain that should stop me in my tracks. I started listening to advice from the professionals around me.
It was psychologically difficult for me to run through any pain after this experience but I learned that there are sometimes situations where it is safe to do so. For example, some of my chronic issues in the past have become tendinosis– a healed tendinitis that is in need of retraining with the help of a little easy running. Increased blood flow to the site of pain actually helps to heal the area rather than cause further problems.
Another example would be my recent bout with shin splints after starting back on the track for my speed workouts. Instead of stopping (and believe me, once you have had stress fractures, that is your first instinct) I went to my physiotherapist for acupuncture, got a sports massage and consulted with my coach. All of them gave me the same message: proceed with caution. I increased therapy, decreased the number of days per week on the track and did what I could to keep the inflammation down. Within a week, I was pain-free and racing.
I think the biggest takeaway for me is that as a runner, you must always be moderating your muscle pain, listening to the professionals and continuing with ongoing therapy. It’s not necessary to stop running for every single little pain you experience in your training.