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Listen To Your Body
I am sure at some point, someone told you to ‘listen to your body’. You probably nodded in agreement and said to yourself: ‘But what heck am I listening for?’
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I am sure at some point, someone told you to ‘listen to your body’. You probably nodded in agreement and said to yourself: ‘But what heck am I listening for?’ Maybe you even asked that out loud, but did you get a clear answer?
We often get caught in the everyday grind and we forget to take a breath and stop to reflect and check in with how we are actually feeling, but it also takes a bit of skill to know if a certain pain or discomfort is a major red flag or if it’s harmless and just part of the adaptation process to training, etc… Luckily, like any skill, it can be trained, although it can take a bit of time.
We can break things into two main sections: Physical and Emotional / Mental
We are referring to physical pain, discomfort, etc. The things that are technically supposed to make us stop doing whatever it is we are doing that is causing unwelcomed sensations…
If you are here reading this, chances are you are an endurance athlete, or if you don’t consider yourself ‘an athlete’, you are a very active individual. I don’t know about you, but as an athlete, I am very good at ignoring discomfort and I have learned to push through the pain and various physical symptoms that I should have paid much closer attention to. I am fairly sure a lot of you are nodding in agreement, right?
Here are examples of physical symptoms you should ‘listen for’:
Muscle / tendon discomfort or pain. As an example, lets say you went for a run and you started feeling discomfort in your Achilles. Do you:
Shrug it off and keep running (or limping) in the hope that it will go away
Stop, rest for a day or so, then try again. Chances are, the discomfort will still be there, so you stop, rest for a day or so and try again. This cycle often gets repeated for a bit too long…
Stop, rest and take appropriate action to solve the problem
In case it isn’t obvious to you, the correct answer is #3. It makes total sense, but I can’t tell you how many people ignore things and just keep going... Or they simply take time off but do not take action to solve the problem, so it happens again and again, potentially leading to compensation patterns that make things much worse. This is a very simple example of your body telling you that something is wrong and you should seek professional help to get to the root of the problem.
Additional physical things to pay attention (listen) to
Below are some specific physical things our body is telling you there is a problem you need to pay attention to (in no particular order):
Increased resting heart rate (that is chronic)
Tension / discomfort / tightness / soreness in various muscle groups, especially if it becomes chronic
Breathing pattern changes during exercise
How the perceived effort feels relative to power output and/or pace - Is it harder than normal? Easier than normal?
Changes in appetite
Inability to sleep properly, waking up early and not being able to go back to sleep, etc
Sexual dysfunction (I don’t need to spell it out for you, do I?)
Getting sick more often than before
The Emotional / Mental Things
We are referring to symptoms like feeling drained and/or ‘foggy’, excessive worry, anxiety, irritability, mood changes and generally varying levels of stress.
Are you dreading your next workout? Are you feeling a significant lack of motivation to train? Are activities that you enjoy just not fun anymore but you are pushing through anyways? Any of these are a big thing that you need to pay attention to… Of course, it’s completely normal to experience any of these things from time to time, but if these become more frequent, that is certainly something to listen for!
For more things to listen for (physical and emotional / mental), check out my article below on burnout, motivation and stress.
As mentioned in the beginning, listening to your body is a skill that needs to be practiced and I find that the best way to get started is by keeping track.
It’s pretty common to keep track of training, including power and heart rate, interval times, etc. But most athletes neglect to keep track of how they felt during those sessions and outside those sessions: if things hurt, if there was discomfort, sleeping patterns, perceived effort and any of the things listed above…
I find that a lot of athletes forget things as time goes on and/or minimize their severity and impact, so keeping track of how you are feeling (physically and mentally / emotionally) really helps seeing a pattern emerge and it also helps in developing awareness and perhaps the curiosity to (safely) explore the differences between normal training adaptations and red flags (it’s a fine line, so asking for professional help could be beneficial).
The best place to keep track of everything is one that you will actually use consistently, but also the same place you are keeping track of your training, preferably one that has functionality that makes it is easy to refer back to.
Despite being most people’s go to tracking / recording app, Strava is not great for anything more than keeping track of basic miles and elevation. My go to is Training Peaks (personally and for the athletes I work with), but other software like Final Surge and Today’s Plan are good options also.
I’m curious - Do you listen to your body? If so, what are you listening for? Do you have specific things you are paying attention to?
For me, I typically pay attention to fatigue levels for a given effort as well as sleep disturbances (insomnia), feeling ‘foggy’, concentration issues, short term memory loss and muscle aches that are not in line with my activity level. These are specific symptoms that affect me when I am in the midst of a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome relapse. Luckily, I do not get relapses very often anymore, but keeping track helps me greatly.
I hope you found this article valuable and interesting. I would love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to comment below and share this post with others!