When to Push and When to Rest: an Exercise in Common Sense

When we exercise in any regard, we look to push our limits. We want to do better than before, to feel good about progress. I know after I run a route that’s new and maybe a little tougher than I’m used to, I feel it—maybe feel it a little too much. Soreness can be debilitating and injuries can flat out handicap you…and if you push your body when it has already had enough, it could cause an injury that is the beginning of the end. Yet, how do we make this distinction? How do we know how much soreness is too much soreness? Furthermore, is it possible that this soreness is just in our head, that we’re making something out of nothing and are missing days for ‘recovery’ when no recovery is even needed?

Well, it’s not all in our head, but it turns out that some of it may be. According to an insightful study conducted by Eric Hall and Nicole Razor at Elon University, there is a potentially heavy implication of “fear avoidance” that may or may not incite a vicious cycle that prevents runners from resuming normal activity, which translates to delayed healing. That delayed healing consequently means extended pain and inhibited performance. Basically, runners and other athletes may be worrying so much about their injury that they actually amplify its effects—insane, but understandable.

Hall and Razor essentially just gave a few questionnaires to various athletes that told them to indicate the degree to which they agree with sentences like “I will never be able to play as I did before my injury” & “I worry if I go back to play too soon, I will make my injury worse.” They also administered the Fear of Pain Questionnaire, the Pain Catastrophizing Scale and an anxiety questionnaire. For the record, these questions were given to injured athletes before intense exercise.

Perhaps predictably, the athletes’ answers seem to have played a role in how much pain they were feeling in the one to two days following their workout. Athletes who scored higher on these tests also reported more pain after exercising in addition to a greater fear of re-activating their injury. Just as well, athletes who cited experiencing levels of high anxiety also cited more pain and a greater fear of re-injury.

Now, we should keep in mind that, of course, this is not a cut-and-dry case, and this does not necessarily mean that soreness is all in our heads. The concept of the fear-avoidance model is subject to much debate, and as a result still needs to be substantially proven. The current results of Hall and Razor’s study merely provide a foundation for what will hopefully become a topic researched in great detail. In the meantime, its results/implications are intriguing.

For instance, if you stay off a sprained ankle too long because you are so afraid of hurting it again, you may actually be hurting it more in the long-run. Our injuries certainly need time to heal, but too much recuperation only results in a weaker, more vulnerable, more likely-to-be-hurt-again recovery that does nobody any good, least of all the athlete in question. Yet, if you get right back out there with an injury, you may only be making it worse, thus resulting in the same weakened recovery.

There is a balance to be struck and often this balance can only be found with experience. It takes time to realize what injuries are bad, which ones are minor, and which ones can be endured. I suppose the main takeaway here is this—listen to your body.

Pay attention to the degree of pain and to the extent of the injury’s seeming vulnerability. If it’s not that bad, act accordingly and deal with it. If the pain is excruciating, act responsibly and take some to time rest. More research will come; but in the meantime, practice common sense.

Alexi Harding, Running, Mental

Cognitive Benefits of Running

It is nice to change things up a bit. When I run outdoors I’m usually accompanied by throngs of runners as we circle the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. It’s close to my apartment and it’s a quick 1.3 mile run if I need to build up some energy before I go into the office. Today I happen to be in Florida….finally…..outdoor weather above 50 degrees…..and it’s relaxing to have a little solitude…but as I ran by what seemed to be endless channels of lakes I had a discomforting thought “If an alligator exited these waters and came after me, could I beat it?” I smiled at a security guard when I ran by his post and thought “Well….if I couldn’t beat it, I could certainly beat the guard….and that would buy me some time” ☺

Alexi Harding, Running, Mental
Ten years ago I would not have been so confident….not about the guard of course…but about my own running ability. I was never the athletic type. For me, sprinting involved running from my current bar to the next bar. This all changed in 2003 when my girlfriend at the time, a photographer, told me over drinks she needed a male model for her Banana Republic photo shoot. I of course volunteered, but to my horror she unhesitatingly replied “Baby, I love you but have you seen your belly?”
That night I didn’t sprint to the next bar. I went home instead to absorb the humiliation alone. I felt embarrassed. I felt undesirable. Then I decided to fight back. I am the captain of my fate. I am the master of my soul. If I did not want to feel this way then I had to do something about it!

Alexi Harding, Running, Mental

The next day I walked past Banana Republic on 86th street and went into Equinox on 85th street. I paid for a one-year membership in advance to limit any chance I might try to back out and then I got to work. At first I tired easily. Within twelve minutes I was breathless and I felt foolish for even trying to be the next Asafa Powell. But then it occurred to me that all the other people at the gym had to start somewhere. They were not instant athletes. I had just seen a Star Trek episode where even Data was beaten at Stratagema until he figured out the right approach….so I had to figure out what all these other people knew that I did not.
Over the course of the next year I sprained my ankle, broke 3 toe-nails and hurt my neck, but that taught me the importance of proper shoes and I looked at the posture of others around me to learn proper form which would allow me not to tire so easily. I chose equipment near the mirror in order to analyze my form so that I could adjust it to that of others in the gym who were exhibiting superior performance. Ultimately, the belly fat went away but by then my mind (and my aspirations) were on a higher plane. The true benefit of the experience was not the weight loss, but the discipline that had been instilled in me to bring about that weight loss. I had started running thinking of it purely as a physical challenge but it is in fact a mental challenge. I am reminded of people who walk on hot coals. For years, they have said the same thing; training their minds was the key to their success.

Alexi Harding, Running, Mental

As running is now a permanent part of my life I have bolstered my gym routine with an educational component, so I am always reading about new methods and watching videos in an attempt to improve my own technique. I came across a Forbes article a couple of years ago “How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow” which details running’s substantiated effect on “neurogenesis.” Neurogenesis refers to the brain’s ability to generate new cells. What’s more is that neurogenesis is prominently associated with endurance exercise (such as jogging). While the exact reasons behind this association is not known, evidence of the correlation exists. To elaborate, it has been demonstrated that “exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 which is released into our blood as we sweat.” Eventually, this increased presence of FNDC5 facilitates and incites additional production of BDNF, another protein. It is this BDNF that is in turn responsible for supplementary production of “new nerves and synapses-the connection points between nerves.”

Effectively, when you run, your brain becomes stronger and quite literally grows. Your capacity for memory and affinity for learning increase to a noticeable degree. So, not only does your lung capacity increase and your heart’s resilience improve, but you receive added psychological benefits as well. Besides a tangible improvement in one’s health, running provides quantifiable mental enrichment that improves one’s quality of life both personally and professionally. While we are on the topic of brain functionality I thought some of you might like to watch this video. It’s not about running but it’s an artistic visualization of brain activity that you may find interesting.

It’s funny how one former girlfriend (yes, former) hurting my feelings has led to a lifelong love affair with running. I feel better, look hotter, and think smarter. What was a step back over ten years ago has become a 100-pace leap forward. Every runner has a story. This is mine. I suppose all I can say to my girlfriend of 2003 is, “Thank you.”