You've heard it before. You may even believe it yourself. "No pain, no gain" is a common sentiment among athletes across sports and levels of fitness. Endurance athletes like runners and triathletes often prescribe to the notion that pushing through discomfort is just part of the training equation – while the truth is that pain can lead us to a running injury instead of the finish line.
The flaw in the "no pain, no gain" theory lies in the distinction between types of sports-related pain. Muscle fatigue, soreness and stiffness are one thing. Feeling winded because your endurance level is not where it should be is another. But joint pain? That is an entirely different scenario.
As an overweight runner, I spent months telling myself that the aches I felt in my right hip were a sign of not being in shape. I told myself that as my marathon training progressed, my endurance levels would improve, my weight would decrease and the pain would simply go away by itself. I know that I am not alone. Many other runners lace up their shoes each day, making excuses for the pain, while ignoring the fact that the pain is becoming more severe.
Recovering from a running or sports-related injury can only occur when an athlete, whether they are new to fitness or a professional, acknowledges that there is in fact an injury. While the United States Marine Corps once trained soldiers by saying that "pain is just weakness leaving your body," Britta Gilbert, a physical therapist at Results Rehab and Fitness in Fairfax, Va., distinguishes between muscle soreness from a challenging workout and actual joint pain. There are many fitness enthusiasts who wear muscle soreness like a badge of pride after a challenging workout, almost reveling in the fact that they can barely walk down the stairs. But joint pain, as Gilbert reminds us, is actually "cartilage leaving your body" and should not be ignored.
Identifying a sports injury
The roadmap to recovering from an injury starts first and foremost with identification. Reaching the point of frustration and pain with a running injury looks different for each runner. Knowing when your aches and pains need to be seen by a doctor instead of just treated with ice and stretching can be difficult.
Pain that causes swelling, reduces your mobility and motion, or restricts you from weight-bearing activity is a good indication that it's time to call the doctor. In my case, I waited almost nine months from the first twinges of pain in my hip to the afternoon where my pain radiated with every moment – making it difficult to walk after a run – to call my doctor. That delay increased the inflammation in my hip and IT band so severely that I had to cancel my marathon training plans.
[Read: 4 Exercises Trainers Hate.]
What type of doctor should I call?
Orthopedic and sports medicine physicians are the front line in identifying a sports or running injury. In many cases these physicians will order x-rays or MRI scans to pinpoint the injury. If you aren't sure which type of orthopedist to call, your family doctor can be a great first step and resource in the identification process.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common sports injuries are:
• Knee injuries
• Achilles tendon injuries
[Read: 5 Tips for a Smooth Doctor's Visit.]
Runners in particular are prone to their own list of potential injuries from the frequent pounding on our joints. Women runners – because of the way that female bodies are built and stresses related to childbearing – are especially prone to hip-related pain and injuries. Some of the common running-specific injuries are:
• Iliotibial band syndrome
• Shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome)
• Stress fractures
• Plantar fasciitis
• Labral tears of the hip
The good news is that with time, patience and persistence, it is possible to recover from a sports or running injury. Transitioning away from the "no pain, no gain" mentality to one where we respect the limitations that our body puts on us is key to long-term fitness success.
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Elena Sonnino is a writer, public speaker, strategist, traveler, runner, cancer survivor and chaser of dreams. Her inspirational wellness, travel and social good stories have been published in the National Wildlife Federation's e-book "Be Out There," at the Huffington Post, TravelingMom.com, HiltonMomVoyage.com, ThisGirlTravels.com and BlogHer. Elena is passionate about fostering self-sufficiency and empowering others on her website, LiveDoGrow.com.