Thoughts on pain

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Last week marked my return to the gym after several weeks of almost complete inactivity. Since one of my goals for this year is to complete a 5k race, all of my gym workouts so far (three last week, one so far this week) have focused on running. It’s been a while since I did anything more (running-wise) than short sprints, so I’m starting with five-minute running intervals interspersed with three minutes of walking.

I am a huge fan of barefoot running. I run in my beloved Vibram Fivefingers Komodo Sports. During the colder months, my VivoBarefoot Neo Trail Runners are my everyday shoes (because my toes get too cold in the Vibrams). All of this is to say that I am used to minimalist shoes and have stronger than average feet, ankles, and calves, so I was surprised at the degree of soreness I’ve had in those areas this past week. Interestingly, there has been little to no soreness in my thighs and shins, which used to get sore when I’d step up my running distance or speed in the past.

Leaving the gym yesterday, my calves ached with every step. The left calf in particular was not doing well. It led me to think about the place of pain in athletic endeavors.

It’s popular in certain circles to claim that “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Sometimes this is clearly the case. Just about everyone has experienced soreness after a tough workout. In my “other” sport, pole fitness, bumps and bruises are common and expected. While I have been getting away with fewer bruises these days, I used to come home from pole class looking like someone had seriously roughed up my legs. The picture below doesn’t quite capture the full effect because you can’t see the intensity of the bruises on the front of my knee.

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It turns out that however graceful dancers may look, pain is often part of the process. The inside of every pair of pointe shoes I ever wore in ballet class as a teenager had at least a few bloodstains.

The flip side of this coin, of course, is that sometimes you’re in pain because something is wrong and you really need to stop what you’re doing before you get injured. I know where this line is in dance–I can tell “good” pain from the kind that is not so good. Bruises? No problem. Soreness after a tough class? Bring it on. Pain on the skin of my inner thighs when friction against that skin is supporting my entire weight on the pole? I’ll take it as long as I can before wimping out and hopping down.

But in running, I’m not experienced enough yet to know when to stop. So I face the question of what my workout should look like tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I need to dial back on the running at least a bit and work up to it more slowly. But that’s hard for me to do–I want to see faster progress. And besides, other than the pain, I’ve been enjoying the running workouts. Of course, I really don’t want an injury that will keep me out of the gym and off the pole for weeks.

My plan for now is to scope out how busy the pool is on my way to the locker room. If there’s an empty lane or two, I’ll swim. (I hate having to share a lane. It stressed me out.) If not, I might just do some walking on the treadmill, then move on to my usual flexibility work. Either way, I think the decision to slow down on the running for now is a sound one.

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