You’re an experienced runner. You’ve heard all the advice. Apply RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) to most running injuries. Warm up at the start. Stretch as you cool down. Listen to your body. It’s all, of course, true. And very important. But after reading and hearing the same things over and over again, it all tends to wash over you. What does listening to your body really mean or look like? What’s it like for someone who truly lives to run and runs to live? How does a world-class athlete know when to play through the pain and when it’s time to stop, change up the routine and let things heal? We sat down with national champion Jenny Barringer, one of Team New Balance’s elite multi-event runners who is currently in training to recover from a femoral stress reaction, to talk about how she tells the difference between pain that’s ok to train through and pain that sends up warning flags that should be heeded immediately. For Barringer, it’s all about balance – between training and competition, cross-training and running, confidence and humility and even the two sides of one’s own body.Barringer draws a distinction between soreness that’s helpful because it signifies the tiny muscle tears that are necessary for strength conditioning and growth, and pain that signifies the potential for lasting physical harm. As she developed as a runner, she built a set of expectations that guide her practice of listening to her body. There are certain aches and pains she expects, and certain others that are unwelcome intrusions into her sense of equilibrium. Knowing when to play through the pain is, in part, an exercise in recognizing those different types:
“If I’m out on a run, one of the first things, especially up at elevation, is that my respiration gets really labored. I get an hour into a run, and one of the first things I notice is that I’m starting to get a little more erratic in my respiration and breathing patterns. So I try to rein that in and bring it under control. Now, I don’t think that at some kind of sustained running level I’m ever going to push myself beyond what I should be training at aerobically. I don’t think I’m ever going to go out and run so hard that I can’t breathe. So any type of respiratory laboring is never something that I worry about.
But then, later on into a run or really, really hard workout, maybe my hips start aching a little bit, or my muscles start burning or something. That’s still really common. That’s something I experience on most of my hard workouts, most of my hard runs. So that type of stuff doesn’t send up red flags.”
She identifies two characteristics of the type of pain that signal that they should be taken more seriously – asymmetry and localization.
“What does [send up red flags] is when I have something that’s not balanced. If both of my calves are hurting, and I’m going up a really hard hill, that’s not surprising to me. But if one side is hurting significantly more than the other, that’s something that immediately throws up red flags to me. Because that means that there’s some inconsistency, or some discrepancy, with how I’m running. And how you’re running should be a really symmetrical movement and the pain that I have should be really symmetrical.
The other thing is you never want to be able to point exactly where something hurts. At least for me, really typical pain and muscle breakdown you’re going to come back from and recover from, is not something that you can point directly at and say this is the specific spot where I have pain. It’s more a general thing, a general fatigue or a general soreness. …If I can say ‘oh it’s right in the middle of my foot, right on top of this bone it’s hurting,’ that’s a really bad sign”
Barringer uses these guidelines to tell the difference between types of pain when she’s in training. But when it comes to race conditions, the criteria are different. Aches and pains and even strains are something of a normal occurrence in training, but she does not expect to feel them in a competition setting. On race day, if she has prepared properly, all of those day-to-day issues are quiet and obedient.
“In my experience, the daily aches and pains should never manifest themselves in a race, especially because the adrenaline is so high, and your sense of expectations are so high. If those things are actually minor daily aches and pains, they should fade into the background when you’re racing. I have only been in a race once or twice where I really did experience extreme pain and discomfort. And I knew that whatever it was I had to either get it under control or I had to stop racing until it was under control.”
There’s a natural, quiet confidence that Barringer typically develops in the lead-in to a race that helps put her mind in the right place to focus on winning rather than evaluating her own body situation at all times. This confidence is earned through repetition and effort, by going through the event’s time and distance itself again and again until it becomes as routine as possible. When pain presents itself in training but doesn’t require her to alter her routine, she can train through it and come out the other side with the right amount of confidence to take on a field of elite athletes. But when pain requires her to change her regimen, and de-emphasize running over cross-training, it’s clear to Barringer in hindsight that it has an effect on her performance.
“New York [the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League] was a really great race. I think I ran to the best of my ability that day. I don’t think I was compromised at all by my injury, and then it was in the following weeks where it just didn’t get better and didn’t get better. And then in the couple of weeks leading in to the National Championships, I was running on the ground probably 3-4 times a week, and the rest I was cross-training. So when your ratio of cross training and running on the ground becomes that severe, it’s just hard to keep up your level of fitness, your level of race readiness when you’re not actually, you know, doing your sport every day. And I think it also erodes your confidence.
I went in [to US Nationals] really tentative and thought maybe if I just get in the race and hide away for a little while I’ll be able to really push the last mile. And I think, partly due to that tactic, I really continued to experience the pain throughout the whole race. And then when the race got going with a mile to go, with 3 laps to go, I really didn’t have the confidence and I also didn’t have the training to back me up from the last couple of weeks to be able to go with them.”
When coming back from an injury, playing through the pain is out of the question. Barringer believes that you shouldn’t return to your event until you can confidently execute for a week with no pain whatsoever. To that end, she is dedicating herself to staying off of the road and instead staying fit with biking, running, and physical therapy sessions, and using an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill to keep her running muscles tuned and stamina up.
If in normal training conditions Barringer expects some aches and pains and in races she expects none, in recovery training she’s focused on tracking down the source of every new ache and pain that may arise. With all of these new activities to get used to and without her usual expectations to fall back on, she leans on sports training professionals to help her better listen to her body. She meets with training staff every morning to evaluate any new pain she’s experiencing to determine whether it’s from these new activities or the original injury.
For Barringer, knowing when to push herself and when to rest and seek further evaluation is all a matter of keeping in balance and setting expectations against specific contexts. Knowing this and executing it are two very different things, and Barringer is quick to point out that it’s much easier to be responsible to someone else’s decision than to have to choose for yourself. As a professional, she enjoys a newfound level of control over her own path — that control more often rested in the hands of her coach in college. With the decision about whether or not to compete at Nationals and beyond in her own hands, it took that in-race experience of discomfort and doubt to convince her to put the season aside and work on healing. As you might expect, although she knows it’s the right thing to do, Barringer has a difficult time staying away from her love of running. She pleads, “My really intense sessions are not running right now. And it’s so hard!”