Meredith’s Training Diary: The Difference Between Good and Bad Pain

Meredith’s Training Diary: The Difference Between Good and Bad Pain

Welcome to Training Diaries, a Lifehacker series about my journey to the 2023 TCS New York City Marathon. This series will cover all the ups, downs, and hill repeats on my journey to the biggest marathon in the world. Leading up to race day on Sunday, Nov. 5, I’ll go over proper fueling, injuries and setbacks, treadmill tips, wardrobe malfunctions, long run logic, and just generally reflect on what it takes to cross a marathon finish line. I’m guided by a mantra both corny and true: A marathon is actually hundreds of miles; race day just happens to be the last 26 or so.

Training for a marathon takes mental fortitude. But for anyone deranged enough to run a marathon, it’s all too easy to let mental fortitude slip into self sabotage. Certain kinds of pain you need to push through—and you come out the other side stronger for it. Other kinds of pain demand your attention and care, and it’s straight-up foolish to ignore the signs your body is screaming at you.

For me, I’ve been exceedingly grateful that this is my first training cycle without suffering from plantar fasciitis. Technically speaking, plantar fasciitis is inflammation in the plantar fascia in your foot. Practically speaking, it’s a nagging, stabbing pain in your heel—not just while running, but whenever you walk or stand. The hardest part? There’s no “cure” for plantar fasciitis. In the past, I just pushed through the pain and hoped it would go away on its own once I finished the race. This genius approach of “What if I just ignore my problems?” somehow, shockingly, didn’t work.

The only way I finally got the stabbing pain to go away was from taking a few months off running. Which sucked! And was probably avoidable! Now that I’m back and in the thick of training, I’ve been proactive—and borderline religious—about stretching and icing post-run. (Stretching and icing are divisive topics in the fitness world, but hey, I’m sharing what works for me.)

The takeaway here is a classic athlete’s story: If you don’t listen to your pain, you’ll wind up with a much worse injury than if you had taken care of yourself in the first place.

Runners expect to feel some muscle soreness and joint aches, especially when increasing mileage or intensity. Shin splints, stitches, runner’s knee—it’s no wonder so many beginner runners wind up discouraged. On the flip side, I’d wager just as many experienced runners foolishly push through pain they should be addressing. So how do you know if the pain is just a sign of getting stronger versus a warning of potential injury? Here are some ways you can learn to interpret the signals your body is sending to tell the difference between good growing pains and bad ones.

Signs of “good” pain

  • Aches that start mildly during or after running and fade within 48 hours
  • Soreness isolated to specific muscles and triggered by exertion
  • Discomfort that does not worsen over time or with continued training
  • Manageable soreness that does not affect your running form, pace, or range of motion

Warning signs for bad pain

  • Sharp or stabbing pains, especially in the joints, knees, ankles, or feet
  • Intense soreness that lasts for several days after running
  • Widespread pain not traceable to a particular muscle group
  • Pain that begins mildly but progressively worsens over weeks
  • Discomfort that causes you to limp, favor one side, or abruptly stop running

What to do when you feel running pains

If you feel any signs of bad pain, stop running immediately and avoid aggravating the area further. Give it adequate rest and ice if inflammation is present. If pain does not improve within a few days off or continues to worsen, consider consulting a sports medicine doctor. Getting an accurate diagnosis could be key to proper treatment and preventing further injury.

For general muscle soreness and joint stiffness without other warning signs, try light active recovery like walking, foam rolling, and stretching. Moderate temporary soreness from intense exertion is often unavoidable as your body adapts to increased demands. And lots of marathon runners learn to weirdly love that soreness! But pain should never persist or become chronic, one day forcing you to stop running altogether.

Learn your body’s signals as your mileage increases. Address good pain with rest and recovery, but respond promptly to bad pain to avoid short-term injury and long-term damage. Ache versus agony—know the difference to keep running strong.

For me and my plantar fasciitis, I’ve learned to listen to the first warning sign that danger is afoot (pun intended): calf tightness. If my calves or ankles feel painfully tight, I’ll stop my run to stretch them out. Taking a bunch of stretching breaks isn’t ideal, but it’s far better than being forced to take one big break from running altogether. So far, this prevention mindset has allowed me to train for NYC relatively pain-free.

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