Say What? How To Listen To Your Body

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Listen to your body” before. It has been frequently referenced in training books and articles over many decades. Ask someone how they stay healthy throughout a training cycle and they often respond with “I listen to my body”.

Listen To Your Body

You may be wondering where that phrase came from. The phrase was coined by the late George Sheehan, considered by many to be one of the greatest running philosophers. But many people that speak of the phrase don’t quite know what it actually means.  One of the gaps I see in a lot of advice is between the message and how to actually implement it into your training.  So how do you actually apply that advice?

How Do You Listen To Your Body?

When I think of the phrase, a few key considerations come to mind: physically, mentally, and objectively.  These are the keys to implementing a “Listen to your body” approach.  This approach is a skill that takes practice and is learned over time, not something you just read about and do.  My goal is to provide you with the tools to understand how to listen to your body, so that you can practice it, become more intuitive, and become a better runner as a result.  

For this article, I’m going to focus on listening to your body physically. In my  next article, I will go over listening to your body mentally and objectively.

Listening To Your Body Physically

When you’re training for a race like the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run, you are likely to encounter fatigue, soreness, aches, and pains of all types. Some are dull, others more acute. During each run in your training, your body is sending you thousands of signals.  Everything from how you feel at the level of effort you are putting out to the sound/impact of your feet hitting the ground. You might also be receiving signals from a gps device telling you the pace you’re running, which further influences how the run feels. Usually when the pace is faster than it feels, you consider that a “good” run or when the opposite is true, it is considered a “bad” run.

There’s a lot more to it than good or bad, faster or slower. 

These feelings are signs from your body of the physical stress you are putting it through. Now obviously, if you are trying to push yourself to run a new distance or set a PR, you are likely to experience higher intensity feelings from working hard. The key to understanding these signals is to look for patterns both during your runs as you interpret the signals and after your runs when you reflect. This is best done by tracking your training in a log or journal, because you can make notes after each run about how you felt and where some issues might be.  With that information, it is easy to identify trends and figure out how to proceed.  

Listening to your body means paying attention to feedback, recording it, and managing it.

Now that you understand what it means to listen to your body from a physical perspective and how to track it, let’s talk about an example of how to address an issue.  Let’s say you developed a little tightness in your calf toward the end of your long run, but nothing significant. When logging your run, you note that the run went well but your calf seemed to tighten toward the end. Then a few days later when doing a tempo run, you notice that the pain has shifted toward the bottom of your foot. So you note that after your run. You continue to run through the soreness until you reach the point in one of your runs where the pain just gets worse and you are forced to stop, also noting that in your log.

Your body is clearly showing you signs that something isn’t right and listening to your body will give you insight that now it is time back off. In this case, you probably should have listened earlier when the signs pointed to worsening pain. But because you’ve been listening and making notes, you are able to identify when the pain started, where you experienced it, and the training prior to it that might have contributed. This could have been due to a sudden increase in mileage, not listening soon enough, etc. It gives you a direct means of tapping into how your body is handling the training stress from a physical standpoint. It also gives you a story to tell a specialist (like a professional at CUCB sponsor MedStar Health Sports Medicine) if you need to see one so that they can use their expertise to identify a root cause.

The goal is always to catch issues before they force you into time off, but even the most proactive runners sometimes push past the point and require help navigating an injury. By listening to these signs, you can do your body a favor and manage fatigue over the course of your training cycle.

My tips for listening to your body from a physical standpoint can be boiled down as follows:

  • If the issue/pain gets worse over the course of the run, cut the run short and call it a day. Look back at your log to analyze for any trends or risky training. Never take medicine (i.e., ibuprofen) to manage pain just so you can keep training. It will just mask the pain and force you into a deeper hole.
  • If your training paces continue to get slower while your effort remains the same or higher, it might be time for a pause in training or a focused recovery period.
  • Take inventory of how you are feeling and why. For example, are you tired or does your form feel off and uncoordinated? Maybe it’s because you got a poor night/week of sleep or you ran way faster than planned the previous day? There’s a big difference in how to respond to each of these feelings. Conversely, if you are feeling great and it is time to work, don’t be afraid to push harder if the workout calls for it. Let your body guide your decisions more than your watch.
  • Some days are just “bad” days when you feel off and others are great. They both happen from time to time and that’s perfectly normal. As long as you don’t trend to have more bad than good. If you do then it might be time to reassess your training approach.
  • It’s always easier to take a day or two off if you’re feeling run down than a month or two to deal with a chronic issue or injury.
  • Becoming self-aware of these signals will enable you to pace better in workouts and races by improving your sense of effort and helping you work through common physical issues that can occur.

What If I’m Feeling Good?

While we often need to back off due to negative signals, sometimes our body lets us know that we can handle more. Say you’re in the middle of a 4 mile tempo run and the goal is to run comfortably hard for the duration. You get to mile 3 right on goal pace feeling really smooth and relaxed, despite running pretty fast. Since you still feel good, your body is sending you signals to let you know that you can kick the pace up a notch for the last mile and still be in that effort level.  Note that this example is during a workout, not an easy/recovery run.  Running easy or slow has a time and purpose, so don’t take your body’s green light to mean you should pick up the pace whenever you feel good. But in this example, you can also use these signals to tune in and get more out of your body than perhaps simply following the guidance of a watch with pace might tell you.

Listen Up!

Once you’ve grasped the concept of listening to your body, you’ll be able to know on any given day how to handle the signals your body is sending.  Being in tune with your body’s signals will enable you to make the right call faster (sometimes on the fly), leading to less downtime when things feel off and a higher likelihood of running success when you make it to the starting line of your goal race healthy and ready to reach for your goals.

How do you listen to your body?

If you are registered to run with us on April 2 but won’t be able to make it, or if you didn’t get in but still hope to run, the Bib Transfer period is open through February 28th!

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