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SparkPeople Blogs  •  running  •  injury

When Exercise Hurts More Than Helps

By , SparkPeople Blogger
For the past 9 years, I’ve called myself a runner.  It started because I moved to a new town with no access to the workout facilities I’d had before, so running became an easy substitute- no equipment needed.  Running quickly became an important part of my life, both physically and mentally.  There was a period of time when I wouldn’t bother with a run that was any shorter than 6 miles because I didn’t consider it to be much of a workout.  Because of kids and other life circumstances, those days are long gone…..
In the fall of 2010 I experienced my first serious running injury, Achilles tendonitis.  I made the problem worse by continuing to push through pain instead of listening to my body and resting.  I ended up in 6 weeks of physical therapy and had to stop running for a few months.  When the PT told me I couldn’t run, I panicked.  Running was such an important part of my life, and who would I be without it?  How would I relieve stress?  How would I get a good workout? 
My injury actually taught me a number of valuable lessons I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.  The first was that I’m not invincible and I shouldn’t just try to push through pain.  It’s important to take care of your body, and pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.  I tell people that all the time, but just wasn’t willing to listen to my own advice.  The second thing I learned was that I’m not defined by a specific activity.  Although I love running, if I can’t log the miles I used to or can’t run anymore at all, it’s not the end of the world.  There are plenty of other activities I can do and still lead a happy and healthy life. 
I’ve learned this lesson, but I know others who have not.  There is someone in my life who I believe is being hurt more than helped by exercise.  He’s one of those crazy runners, just like me.  He loves it, and it’s a big part of who he is.  I get that.  But he continues to push through pain (his is a permanent problem that rest or doctors can’t fix) instead of listening to his body.  When I try to talk to him about it, I can see the walls of defensiveness going up.  I’m not sure what drives him to continue:  the love of the sport, the fear that he’ll never find another activity that gives him the kind of workout or feeling that running does, or the fear that if he stops running, he’s going to fall off the exercise wagon completely.  He doesn’t want to face the fact that he’s doing his body more harm than good.
So I struggle with what I can do to help him.  I’d love to see him try some other activities that don’t cause him so much pain or at least cut back significantly on the ones that do.  I’d be happy to do them with him.  “Want to go for a bike ride?  Let’s do it!  Could we try running just a few miles instead of training for another half marathon?  Great!”  But in the end I know that I can’t force him to change.  He has to come to that realization and decide for himself.   
I see members on SparkPeople’s Message Boards every day who are injured and want someone to tell them that it’s okay to just push through the pain.  Eventually it will get better, right?  Well, probably not.  You could be doing all kinds of permanent damage to your body by sacrificing rest and recovery for a few hundred calories burned.  Is it really worth the trade-off?  There’s a big difference between being sore because you pushed yourself to work hard, and pain because you’ve got a potential injury that needs to be addressed. 
Have you been one of those people who didn’t want to listen when your body told you something was wrong? Do you have someone in your life that’s doing their body more harm than good?  Do you think it’s a lesson they need to learn for themselves, or is there something you (we) can do to help?

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I do tend to push to a certain point, but I also pay pretty close attention to the nuances of pains and aches and research things if it doesn't ease up quickly. DOMS, for example, may have me hobbling for days, but moving around, stretching and time are all it takes to recover. Tendonitis or a calf sprain, on the other hand, take full-on attention and care to avoid worse or lasting injury.

I had to stop walking mid-January due to a foot issue I'd been experiencing since mid-December. I'd eased up by January, it felt better, then I pushed without thinking. When it started hurting again and more, I dove into reading up on foot issues - and discovered a key one is plantar fasciitis, which for many is chronic and takes such extremes as surgery and steroid shots. I've since been limiting my walking, doing stretches and exercises, icing it, elevating it. It's greatly improved to where normal walking is mostly fine, but I'm in no hurry to re-injure - preferring to keep my substitutes for now (recumbent bike and elliptical).

I can't imagine losing my ability to walk comfortably for the next 40 years of my life just to walk more today.

I don't think I personally know anyone who is physically harming themselves with exercise. I do know people who harm themselves in other ways, whether it's odd diet extremes or two jobs and some 36 hours of working with breaks, lunch, and travel, but no sleep.

I think we can try to gently warn of the dangers, but if someone won't listen to us once (or to their doctor), they aren't going to hear it because we start nagging them about it more. Heart-breaking as it is, other than what you mentioned (trying to lead them toward other activities as well), we can't do much more for them. Report
I have been there. I am still learning though -- "I can't Quite but can take a break..." Report
Good reminder message. We don't have to sprint to the finish line. It's more important to just finish injury-free. Report
I am recovering from a lengthy illness and am determined to lose about 80lbs and become a healthy person again. I took time after my surgery to heal, then began to attend a water aerobics class. The teacher was young and pushed the class to extremes. Eventually I injured my leg. I can't afford to track down exactly what happened with my leg, because my health insurance is horribly expensive, then doesn't cover anythiing until I spend $4800 each year - so I have only gotten a partial diagnosis. I think I have pulled a muscle in the back of my leg. I decided to begin lap swimming, which doesn't hurt my leg. I started out doing 5 laps - one lap being down and back - and now I'm up to 38 laps each session. The injury has continued to hurt for the past 6 months, so now I've decided I've got to be really proactive with my leg. I'm massaging it daily, heating and icing it and swimming. By the way, I read that most people with a bad knee, ankle or foot have injured themselves in exercise classes. If I had it to do all over again I would have been lap swimming all along. Report
I use common sense. It seems to be in short supply these days. Report
I think that endorphins, the calorie-burning benefits of exercise, the desire to "keep up with the Sparks" and the newly discovered (or rediscovered) feeling of athleticism lead a number of us astray.

Exercise feels great afterward (and sometimes during) - those endorphins and that sense of accomplishment are extremely potent drivers. Some of us also read about the interesting and sometimes extraordinary achievements of Sparkers (went from 300 to 200 pounds and ran a marathon 6 months after starting C25K) and feel that we should be able to do the same thing, at the same pace. Also, our cardiovascular and respiratory systems often get stronger faster than our bones, muscles, joints and ligaments, so sometimes our hearts are ready to do something that our joints aren't ready for. And many of us love the idea that if we just exercise (a lot) more, we can eat (a lot) more.

That's a recipe for injury, and I have baked this one too many times to mention. I'm still learning. One of the over-arching principles I try to follow is this:

"Exercise today in a way that means you'll still be exercising next year." In other words, don't push yourself past your physical or mental limits, or you'll burn out or break down.

One thing that has helped me follow this approach is to NOT use exercise as an excuse to eat more. Unless I'm training for an endurance race, I only aim to burn about 1200-1500 calories a week through exercise and, therefore, I've accepted the fact that my daily calorie intake (in maintenance) is going to be around 1400-1800 calories. I've become accustomed to (and satisfied with) eating within this calorie range, and so I'm not tempted to exercise more so that I can eat more. Report
No matter what the circumstances, it's always difficult when you want to help a friend that simply does not want anyone's assistance. Perhaps you can find a way around your pal's defenses by approaching the subject by telling him you're worried for him? Or perhaps invite him to try another sport or activity with you. Then he won't be out there on his own trying to find something new. In the end, though, there is only so much you can do for another person, and sometimes our only option is to just wait it out and hope for the best. Report
Yes, Jen, I've been there and done that. My achilles tendonitis basically sidelined me for the better part of 18 months. Now, I'm learning to embrace cross-training, even yoga. But I'm thrilled that I can still get our there and run, even if I'm not as fast as I used to be.

I love all your articles. Keep up the good work! Report
God Yes!!! I suffer with REALLY severe Osteoarthritis, Fibormialgia, and a host of other health issues. I'm only in my early 50's, and at 49 had to have a knee replaced and the other one is well on it's way for a replacement. I dread that...I have many days that I'm just not able to do th gym thing...when I go I get on the treadmill and do an hour with a small incline, and can easily burn of 400 calories...I try to do strength training every other day. But at this point, I am too sore to go and do anything....with the disease I have, we have "flare-ups" and they can last for weeks. I'm in the midst of one now. I feel guilty and out of sorts by not going and watching my fitness score be zero. However I am eating right and ever so slowly the c=scale goes down. but not like it is when I am training. It's frustrating as Hell. I totally understated what you must be feeling, Bless your heart. Report
I went through it many years ago and it caused more than a couple of year's of rehabilitation. I went on a a run without stretching and pushed through the pain. As I start on a new fitness regiment that is always in the back of my mind when exercising. I now know the difference between mental and physical discomfort. Report
My problem is I don't know the difference between working through the pain, and an injury. I have lost 50 lbs in the last few months, and still have over 50 to go. I ended up burning myself out working out 6 or 7 days a week, and then totally stopped for the last month. I am just getting back into it, but again, are my hips, knees, and shoulder truly injured, or am I just being a baby and need to work through the pain? Because I'm so competitive with myself, and want to hit my goals I set, I'll just keep working through it. Report
I'm going through this right now. I've been consistently working out for about 90 days and refused to take breaks. I felt like if I did I would fail and not be consistent. I felt like I would easily give up. I'm realizing that I was overtraining and doing more harm then good. Now I'm on a 3-5 day break, but I will definitely stick with my calories so I don't feel fat during this break. Report
I was so obsessed with walking that i was with a surgical shoe on and with pain pills. I felt if i did walk at least 5 miles a day i would gain weight. Finally my foot put me down and I had no choice to get off it. I had to stay off my foot for a couple of months. Now I'm back walking again but only a mile a day. And when my foot starts hurting I don't walk at all. LESSON LEARNED Report
While lifting, I decided to do the 100 pushups challenge on my rest days. I got to doing 63 pu in a row before my bicep tendon snapped in 2 and my bone dug through my labrium. I started running again and went from my "now and then" 3mi run to 6+ miles in a week and a half. I did that 4-5 days a week for about 6 weeks til I couldn't walk. That was a neuroma. I spent $5000 in medical bills that year. It took injurIES to teach me that I couldn't exactly trust myself! I'm crazy. Fitness is FUN. I love the endorphins!! I love that it burns off stress. It's not helping, though, if it's hurting! Report
I tried to start running a bit, but started having some hip pain when running or even walking at an incline. The pain isn't horrible, if I was determined, I could "push through it" but it's not worth it. With so many people embracing running right now it's easy to see it as "the way" but there are other alternatives.

So now I'm doing more biking. My BMI is still just over 40 and maybe I will try again once it is less than 35. If it doesn't work. I'll take a Karate class, maybe find another sport. By accepting true limitations, you open yourself up to more possibilities, Report
I finally came to this realization yesterday. I have had a back injury, but last July it got to the point I could hardly walk and had numbness down my leg. I ended up having a cortizone(?sp) shot. I thought it was strange because I was working out and stretching. Well in January (this month) I started back up doing all the machines and pushing myself again and guess what. Well there goes my back again. I was doing some machines all along and stretching, but taking it easy. Last week I was ill and did not work out and my back spasms stopped. I believe that it is the weight on my back/hips that causes this issue. Time to find a new way to work out without using machines. Maybe after a few months of water arobics and things like that, but for now no weight on the back. Next thing is to make sure this does not discourage me in keeping up with my excercise. Anyone out there find anything that worked well for them? Report
i fell off my bike and had to have major surgery on the left knee. I was forced back to work (to move furniture?) and had other issues after that. I've know left that job and I'm back in the gym. I tried to jump right back in there, and boy did that hurt the knee. so Im starting back slow... gotta build myself back up. Pushing too hard, past pain, never works. Just like working a job that you hate and hates you - doesnt work. be gentle with the body and let it heal. Good post! Report
I broke my ankle during a 5k race in 2010, and in a way that type of injury was good because there was no question as to whether or not I could "push through the pain" and still run. I was shocked at how much it hurt mentally though, I did not realize how much I had allowed my running to define me. The forced down time gave me an opportunity to think and realize that injury was not the end of the world, and I learned how to pool run and bike, and eventually elliptical train to get some of the same results. After the break in May I did a half marathon in November and since then all has been well. Report
Unfortunately, people have to learn this the hard way. Report
I have been pushing thru the pain with a sciatic nerve problem. I have continued to exercise by walking and doing 20 min of Zumba but I am in constant pain now and I I can barely walk. Im going to the doctor today to see if I can get some relief. Thanks for the Blog! Report
I was one of those people and because of that I am not able to run anymore... and to drop the pounds... and to maintain a healthy weight... I have picked up Karate and it has helped to keep me active and to get me out of depression, but it will never feel the same as running... [sighs] Report
I tend not to allow enough time between strength training when I get excited and then the sore muscles remind me, and my workout schedule is derailed until the soreness lifts. It would be much better if I had just alternated body parts on consecutive days. Report
I have definitely been a person who has run through pain to the detriment of my health. I end up having to go back to ground zero. But each time that happens I think I am a little smarter and I embrace more fully the concept that mind over body doesn't always work, that my mind needs to listen to my body. Two slow easy steps forward is faster progress than one giant fast step followed by a crash into a brick wall. I am two months into my training for the Boston Marathon now and have given myself a year to qualify. So far I have done a great job of making a good plan yet being flexible when I realize I need to back off a little and recover fully before moving up a step. NOBODY can teach anyone else this lesson. It has to come from the inside of each of us. I pray each day that I have learned it but only time will tell . . . Report
This is a lesson it has taken me years to learn - and one that I have to remind myself about regularly. Report
This is a real eye-opener .... sadly :( Report
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