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What Does Listening to Your Body Really Mean, Anyway?

I loved reading all of your comments about my Meat-Eater’s Guide to Vegetarians. It was one of those posts that was a lot of fun to write, and I’m glad so many of you could relate. Feel free to print it out and bring it to your next social gathering. It could end up saving you a lot of time. ;)

This past weekend, I was faced with a dilemma. On Sunday, I was scheduled to do my longest training run yet – the longest I will do over the course of marathon training – the dreaded 20-miler. But since Friday afternoon, I had felt a cold taking hold of my body. By Sunday morning, the situation had not improved. I woke up with my head pounding, nose dripping, and shards of glass scraping my throat every time I tried to swallow. Needless to say, running 20 miles was the last thing I felt like doing.

sick guy sneezing (Source)

The standard school of thought about training while sick is to use the neck/chest rule. Symptoms above the neck are typically okay to run through – headache, runny nose, etc. But anything below the neck (like a chest cold) could be made worse by running. You don’t want to mess around with things like bronchitis.

So, according to the rule, one would think I was okay to run. But the fact that I wasn’t doing just any old run made the situation more complicated. Running 20 miles is an intimidating task even under the best of conditions. Your body takes a beating over the course of all those miles. I wasn’t sure how my already sick body would hold up. Would running for 3 hours turn my head cold into something worse?

Not only that, but this weekend I will be running the Reach The Beach Relay in NH. RTB (just like the GMR I did in June) is a 200-mile, 24(ish)-hour adventure race from Franconia Notch to Hampton Beach, NH. I am incredibly excited about it, but terrified of being sick. As it is, it’s going to be a really intense race. I’m running a total of 21 miles in 24 hours with minimal sleep. Being sick wouldn’t exactly make for a fun weekend.

reach the beach Logo

So with all that going through my head, what did I decide to do? After moping around and mulling it over for a couple of hours, I finally decided to heed the advice I so often give others (and the advice others were giving me via Twitter): Listen to my body. I was going to go out easy, do shorter loops close to the house and just see how I felt. A nice, simple plan, right?

Not exactly. I wasn’t really sure listening to my body even meant running in the first place! To be honest, the only thing I really felt like doing was curling up in a snuggie on my couch and watching trashy television all day long.

snuggie Disclaimer: Let it be known that I did not purchase this snuggie. It was a gift ;)

But my training schedule is already tight. And I knew skipping this run would only make things more difficult in the coming weeks. Plus, it’s pretty hard to separate out the nerves that come from facing a 20-miler from the reluctance to do it because I was feeling sick. Which meant I had to at least try.

By the time I got 10 miles into the run, I knew I was going to go for the full thing…even if it meant I had to crawl. I wasn’t feeling wonderful, but I wasn’t feeling completely awful either. To be honest, I’ve had worse runs. Much worse, actually. I figured that as long as I could continued to put one foot in front of the other (and not pass out), I’d be okay.

At this point, I had traded the old “listen to your body” mentality for another, more intense adage — “mind over matter.” I knew I wasn’t feeling great, but I also knew that if I had enough mental strength, I could make it through the run. That’s really a big part of what marathon training is all about, anyway — building up enough mental strength to make it through several grueling hours of running. And as a very wise runner said recently, 20 miles is supposed to be hard. It’s very likely that I could have felt just as bad during the run even if I hadn’t been sick. Should I have quit just because I was tired?

It was a question I battled with for 20 long miles. If I kept repeating “mind over matter” and telling myself I could push through it, was I ignoring the signs from my body? How can we tell when it’s more than just the average fatigue that’s slowing us down? Obviously there are times when you clearly need to rest – puking and collapsing during a training run come to mind as pretty clear signs that your body is trying to tell you something. But what about situations where it’s not that clear-cut? What about those times when you have to weigh the pain (and potential consequences) of pushing through the discomfort with the long-term benefits of endurance and mental strength it could bring?

I don’t have a good answer for that. I think it’s something we runners always grapple with, no matter how long we’ve been running for. And depending on our training schedule and goals, the answer could change every time.

In the end, I finished those 20 miles. And while I can’t say I enjoyed them, I was pretty proud to have made it. My time ended up being much better than I expected, and I proved to myself that I could finish a tough run, even in less-than ideal conditions. But was it worth it?

I’d like to say yes, but at this point, I’m still not so sure. That cold that started off in my head has now moved down into my chest. I’ve spent the last two days wheezing, coughing, and hoping this thing will run its course before Friday. Basically everything that I was afraid would happen as the result of my stubbornness perseverance, did. But in the end, training for this marathon is my ultimate goal. I want to make sure I do the best I can to be prepared for that 26.2 miles. Of course I don’t want the decisions that I make to negatively affect the relay, but it’s not my top priority.

So this week, the plan is to take it easy and get lots of rest. Hopefully I’ll feel as good as new by Friday. But honestly, no matter how awful I’m feeling, this relay is not something I’m missing out on!

puppy sick


What do you think? Does listening to your body always mean ignoring putting your mind over matter? What would you have done in this situation? (i.e. do you think I’m crazy?? ;))

25 Responses to What Does Listening to Your Body Really Mean, Anyway?

  1. You forgot to mention I pushed you over the edge to run ;)

    Great run though! Those tough ones make us stronger in the long run (pun intended) ;)
    Matt´s last post ..Spicing Things Up

  2. Haha, yes. You may or may not have been extremely influential in that decision. ;)

    But thanks — you’re right. I’m hoping it’ll all pay off when it matters (meaning, the marathon)

  3. What exactly is your poor pup wearing?
    I think situations like this come down to a gut feeling. Sometimes you just know you shouldn’t push yourself too hard, but it can be hard to step out of the situation and look at it for what it is. The changing of seasons always seem to be difficult to adapt to. Drink lots of green tea with honey and start sucking down zinc. I live off of those things during cold season.

    • haha oh just some apparatus I use to torture him when he’s bad. ;)

      He had surgery recently and had to wear that cone around his neck to keep him from being able to reach the stitches.

      And I’ve definitely been living off of zinc this week. Not sure how many a person can safely take in 24 hours, but I’m pretty sure I’m pushing that limit…

  4. Well done on the 20miles!! I probably would have done the same as you – 20miles is like, a distance you HAVE to do, and it would be a tough one to make up..I think if I’m feeling like that on my 20miler, I’ll still go…but probably feel awful after too :P
    Freya @ Brit Chick Runs´s last post ..Whole Foods- Take Two

  5. This is SUCH a hard issue. for me, its with running pain. i have knee and IT issues and i struggle with knowing when its “good pain” (hurts so gooood!!) and bad pain (stop or you will hurt yourself.) i think it is easy to make excuses either way. something i am working on. congrats on those 20!!!
    Courtney (Pancakes & Postcards)´s last post ..The Case of the Disappearing Posts!

  6. Haha, thanks for the shout out! I don’t know if I’d call myself wise though ;)

    First of all, I am so sorry you still don’t feel well. My fingers and toes are crossed that you’re better for your relay this weekend!

    I honestly have no idea what I would have done in your situation. Actually, I probably would have ran. I probably would have downed Tylenol and then gone out doing an easy pace to gauge how I felt.

    I’ve never done a long run when I was sick- more a timing thing than choosing not to do it. But I think all long runs are mind over matter. Running is primarily a mental sport.

    And I have no clue what listen to your body means either :)
    Jen´s last post ..Stupid runners

  7. My body whispers so sometimes it’s hard to listen. I probably would have done the same thing you did. The relay is all for fun, but the training run was a priority.

    Don’t worry about the relay anyway. After each leg, I will wrap you in a snuggie and feed you spoonfuls of honey. You will be cured.
    Becky´s last post ..A Monday Lesson

  8. Wow, this is a tough one. For me, sometimes I get confused and think my body is telling me something, when in actuality it’s my mind. For example, when my alarm went off at 5:00 this morning and I really felt like just shutting it off and going back to sleep instead of getting in my workout – sure, my body was tired b/c I wasn’t up and about yet, but really, it was my mind telling me to forget the workout, not my body. Does that make sense?

    Obviously this situation you’re describing is very different. I just wanted to point out that I don’t think it’s always super clear if the message is a mental or a physical one, you know?
    Katie @ Health for the Whole Self´s last post ..Easy Shrimp and Artichoke Salad

    • No, I know exactly what you mean! And I think the same thing applied in this case too. I wasn’t sure if it was my mind telling me not to do the 20-miles because I was nervous or my body telling me not to because I felt a little sick. I totally agree — sometimes it can be so hard to separate the mental issues from the physical ones.

  9. I hope you feel better for the weekend relay.

  10. I relate to so many comments you made! I know that I should know better, but sometimes I can’t help but move. I can’t believe you did it! I would have capped it at 10, great work girl.

    But definitely hope you’re feeling better!

  11. So tough to say what I would have done. I probably would have gone to the treadmill and been in a controlled environment with tissues, cold medicine, etc. Actually I did that last year around this time when I got sick AFTER Ragnar. Take care of yourself during Reach the Beach and definitely rest up because you won’t get much sleep!!! Pretty amazing that you finished 20. You go girl!!
    lizzy´s last post ..CSA Week 11 &amp Easy to Make Meals!

    • Thank you! Yeah, I’m a little nervous because going in sick to a race where you don’t get much sleep isn’t going to make things any better. I’ve gotten sick after past relays, so I guess I’m just hoping that (somehow) my immune system kicks it into high gear in the next couple of days!

  12. Tough decision! I would like to say I would have waited for my cold to lift, but I probably wouldn’t have.
    BostonRunner´s last post ..Priorities

  13. You are so cute in that snuggie! Just looking at it makes me want to curl up with a cup of tea!

    20 miles is a REALLY tough run even in the best of conditions, and I don’t know what I would have done in your situation. Like you said, you had a hard time distinguishing nerves from sickness. I think for me, my nerves would have stopped me (being sick would have just been an excuse). I’m very impressed that you pushed through! I’m hoping your chest cold goes away before you know it, and that you’re 100% soon!

  14. I think everyone is different in a situation such as this. I went with the mind over matter mentality too long, and now I am being forced to listen to my body-NO running (for now). I have made my knees unhappy and now have to nurse them back to health and it wasn’t even anything near as noble as a marathon run that did it.

    I am SO impressed that you are even able to do 20 while feeling perfect! It’s nothing that I would ever want to do, but I so admire those who are capable of it.

    I hope you’re feeling better!
    Justine´s last post ..Christmas in September

  15. haha i do have to first say that you in a snuggie is a priceless picture!! haha ADORABLE!! u kind of look like some people here in the winter after a cold snap rolls in LOL

    i do think that in ur situation, pushing through with the mind over matter was the best decision. Unless our bodies have visible or profound injuries, i think its important to continue pushing. most of the time its a lot of mindless thought chatter thats preventing us from succeeding during a workout. i mean sure, if u were so tired u were falling asleep or about to keel over, then it it wouldve been best to stop. but in your case, u reached a higher level of mental clarity and focus and jumped a hurdle that needed to be tackled <3


  16. I never knew about the chest/neck thing! Sounds like a good rule to me. You are so cute in that snuggie! And I looove your dog. I probably would have done the same thing with running buut maybe resting would be better in the long run? I never know!
    Megan @ The Oatmeal Diaries´s last post ..cocktailing

  17. I realize I am a few days late here and you are probably feeling so much better now (or at least I hope you are perfectly healed) but I just wanted to throw in my 2 cents. I don’t think you are crazy at all to go on or at least attempt the 20 miles because if it did then I would be accused of being crazy too. ;) I am always pushing the limits when it comes to a training schedule.
    Bekah @ runtrackmind´s last post ..H2O

  18. Congrats on the 20miles! That is amazing!! Thank you so much for the reminder to listen to our body. I find I either push myself to hard, or not enough… either way, if I take a moment to pay attention, my body lets me know. :)

  19. So excited for you :) registering for that race is the best and to get to in the early round is SO AWESOME :)

  20. Well congratulations for your 20miler marathon. I couldn’t even finish 1 mile, how much more an additional of 19miles. And he’s right, we should listen to what our bodies tells us, or else, we’d end up in a hospital or worse, in a funeral.

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