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How to differentiate between an injury and harmless discomfort

Signs it's time to call your run quits

Running is often described as painful. There are days when it can really feel like you’re trudging through mud, unmotivated and uninspired. But then there are the other days – the days when you feel like you’re floating and your body was put on this earth to run. While those difficult and uninspired days are part of the process, pain shouldn’t be. Runners often get injured from ignoring their bodies’ cries for help in the form of pain on a run. While running can be uncomfortable, running should never be painful. Here’s how to distinguish between the two feelings and de-code your body’s signals.

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Lauren Roberts is a Toronto-based physiotherapist and owner of The Running Physio. Roberts says that usually by the time you’re experiencing some pain while running, you’re already halfway to an injury. That being said, there are many different types of injuries  – some you can run through and some you can’t. “There’s a big difference between acceptable pain and pain that means you need to stop running. For example, any kind of tearing, stabbing or sharp sensation means your run is over for the day. Whereas a discomfort that’s under a four out of 10 should be attended to post-run, but it’s not necessarily time to panic yet.”


Signs you’re injured

Roberts says if runners feel something off during their run, they should monitor the pain in the hours and days after. “Anytime pain persists into one day after, you’re in the yellow zone. You’re not necessarily in trouble, but you need to be mindful of the workout you choose going forward. Pain two days after, you need to back off.”

Runners often confuse injury and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Both will present discomfort, but with DOMS, there won’t be any sharp or stabbing pain associated, it feels like like an ache or heaviness in the legs. “A big red flag is any pain that’s over a four our of 10 and is sharp, stabbing, tearing. A sharp pain means throw in the towel on that workout. Pain over a five out of 10 also means your day is done.”

What if things feel better as I run more?

Some runs can begin feeling achey and difficult, but by the end, your body is moving well and feeling strong. If a muscle or tendon is slow to warm, Roberts says this is something to monitor but not necessarily a reason to stop running right away. “This is likely some kind of low-grade chronic strain to a muscle or tendon. These will often feel good when they warm up, but the next day they’ll feel worse. In this case you don’t necessarily need to stop running, but you do need to train that specific muscle and look at the biomechanical imbalances that are causing it. This is telling that there’s something going on, but this might not be a full-blown injury yet.”

In this case, Roberts still recommends seeing a manual therapist as there are likely ways with strength and stretching to kick this discomfort to the curb. “Be careful of these kinds of injuries, because an intense effort can aggravate them. Best practice in this case is to go in a see a massage therapist or physiotherapist, to nip it in the bud. Very rarely do I tell people with this kind of issue to stop training. You might need to modify your schedule, but with a little strength training you can get over it quickly.”

What about if I have popping or clicking?

Roberts says popping and clicking is rarely an issue for the runners she sees. “Clicking is usually just a tendon flipping over a bone. Unless the pop or click is accompanied with pain, don’t worry about it. This is usually your anatomy sorting itself out.”

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