4 Lessons Learned from Listening to My Body

By , SparkPeople Blogger
After my thwarted attempt at running a marathon this spring, I gave up on running for awhile. I walked, I practiced yoga, and I rode my bike. I wanted nothing to do with running. 

That lasted less than two months. I missed the exhilarating feeling of flying down a hill, the sense of accomplishment when you reach the top of one, and the sound of my breath, deep and even, as I jogged through my neighborhood and let my troubles blow away.

I was slow to return, and I didn't set any goals. I started from scratch with a mile here and there. When I felt better, I slowly added mileage. With no pressure, no race deadlines and no plans in mind, I felt free. I fell back in love with the sport.
I did something else, too.

I started to listen to my body a bit more. Remember that quote I love and continue to share with all of you? "We don’t have to make such a big deal about ourselves, our enemies, our lovers, and the whole show." --Pema Chödrön

I started to apply it to running. I started leaving my music at home sometimes, setting out with no course or destination in mind, with no distance to reach. I ran at a pace that felt comfortable, until I felt like walking or going home. Sometimes I ran for 10 minutes, sometimes an hour--though that length of time came much later.

I stopped looking at abbreviated runs as failures. I stopped thinking of runs in terms of miles logged or calories burned. I stopped scheduling them, too.

I found that I started looking forward to my runs more. They weren't a chore, they weren't something to check off my to-do list. They were a treat, a respite from my overly scheduled, jam-packed, grown-up life.

After a great deal of research, I made the transition to minimalist running shoes (mine are the Merrell Barefoot Pace Gloves). (I'm no expert, so please know that this blog reflects choices that are right for me--I'm not offering advice. Please consult with an expert before you make any major changes to your fitness routine.) I also read the book that so many fellow runners have cited as a major influence on their running philosophy: Born to Run.  Footwear aside, the Tarahumara Indians and the American ultra runners featured in the book inspired me. They run to run, and many of them embrace the simple, tread-gently-on-the-Earth lifestyle that I value.

I'll switch back to regular shoes if this barefoot lifestyle proves not to be right for me. Until then, I'm very slowly and cautiously increasing my mileage and easing back into running. In shifting my focus from prepping for a race to just running to run, I've gleaned four lessons, just from listening to my body:
  1. Soreness is not an injury.
After so many years of not being strong, my commitments to yoga and running have paid off. I am strong. I can lift my own body weight in myriad ways, and I have run distances that I never imagined I could. Until recently, I didn't have much experience with injury, and I was unable to distinguish between injury and soreness. Every tweak, every twinge, every ache scared me. Was I injured? Would this ruin my race plans?

This SparkPeople article about post-workout muscle soreness helped me, but I benefitted most from the miles I logged and the hours spent on my yoga mat, getting to know my body. I learned to expect the tightness in my IT band after longer runs, which I combatted with foam rolling and yoga poses (Gomukhasana is my favorite!).  Spending time in backbends means sore quads the next day from pulling myself back up. This is normal for my body--and I know that now.  
  1. An injury doesn't always happen suddenly.
I suffered chronic stress fractures while training for the marathon. They were misdiagnosed as a couple of other things, but I know that lack of rest and overtraining were to blame. Each time I felt pain, I rested for a day or two, then immediately dove back into training, exactly where I left off. Sometimes I even pushed harder. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, I was injured again. I knew the warning signs, but I wanted to feel strong and push through. This time, I thought, would be different. I was fitter and faster.

You know that old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and complains that when he "does this" his arm hurts? The doctor says "then don't do that." When it hurts--not just soreness but pain--to do "that," be it running, yoga, whatever, I don't do it. Which leads me to lesson #3…
  1. Rest is good for you.
I have a rule that I don't skip yoga class unless I'm sick or traveling. Not for happy hour, a work dinner, or a bike ride with my boyfriend. I made the commitment to a daily practice, and I uphold that--my social life is scheduled around my yoga practice. I treat yoga like an appointment, and I don't let other things interfere because that is such an important part of my life. That said, I practice Ashtanga yoga, which is quite rigorous. I go to the studio four days a week, then practice at home another two.

Some weeks, I can't do my full practice every day. Maybe I'm stressed, tired or sore from another activity. I still do a modified practice, and I respect that some days my body needs to do less. I give my all to that abbreviated practice, and the mental and emotional benefits from the shorter sessions still give me that mind-body connection I crave from yoga. I know it's better to practice for less time but be 100% present rather than push through a longer session and feel terrible physically halfway through. This isn't an excuse, but it's a way to honor what my body needs.

Another component of Ashtanga yoga is built-in rest days--full and new moons, Saturday, and the first three days of your cycle. I observe these days, and rather than be harsh on myself for not moving more, I enjoy the rest and give my body time to rebuild and heal.

I apply that same principle to running. For me, resting more days than I run each week is the right balance. That's not to say I'm sitting on the couch eating candy bars on my rest days. Those off days from running, I'm at yoga, or walking or doing a workout DVD.
  1. Training plans are not etched in stone.
I told you that I'm slowly increasing my mileage. My longest run in the last few months was 5.5 miles. This week, my goal is to add another half-mile. Though I know that I can safely increase my mileage 10% each week (according to running experts like Coach Nancy), I'm taking the "tortoise" approach, ala my colleague The Slowest Loser. Adding a half-mile each week is gentler on my body and gives me more time to adapt to my new style. I'm still not focusing on speed, as my goal isn't to race but just to run.

This is a marked difference from my last training plan--four days a week, long runs every Saturday and short runs Monday, Wednesday, and Friday--no excuses and no changes. If the training plan said I had to run hills, I ran hills. If it said tempo run, that's what I did.

I'm not trying to say that I know better than the experts--I certainly don’t. But I know my body better than they ever will. I know my body prefers a thrice-weekly running schedule, with more rest days.

Some of my runner friends keep telling me to sign up for a race, but that's not a goal for me right now. (And the reasons behind it are another blog for another day.) For now, I'm going to keep running, focus on staying present and enjoy every step I take.
Right now my body is telling me this is the right thing to do. And I'm going to keep listening.
Do you listen to your body? What is it telling you today?