As endurance athletes we take pride in pushing hard and not backing down at any challenge, and while these qualities have their place, they can also be dangerous if taken too far. Paying attention to your body when it is in pain and ignoring warning signs can have serious consequences.
Recently one of my best friends had a heart attack at the age of 42. Two years ago she had a hip problem after an endurance race. The lingering pain and denying anything was wrong for a year led to a labrum tear and hip surgery. Her PT released her this past spring to start working out. It was a gradual process and she felt like she would never do a long endurance race again. So she decided to race shorter races like 5ks, but as you know, short races do not mean easy. While she wasn’t running ultras any more, she was still pushing her body pretty hard.
After a triathlon this summer, she had chest pains. Her doctor, PT and I all came to the same conclusion that it was most likely exercise related. She went hard and fast and her HR was above what she had been doing and also longer than what she has done in the past two years. A week later and three more episodes, she decided, reluctantly, to go to the ER. She was still in denial, and struggled to skip her morning run, but knew that she needed to go to the ER. She wanted to turn around at every exit she passed. She went into the ER with her swim bag with the attitude the doctors would tell her she’s fine and then off to swim she would go. After an abnormal blood test and EKG, she was moved to an inpatient and a cardiac catheter was performed.
She had 3 blocked arteries with one that had a section that was 95% blocked. If she would have gone running that morning as planned, the outcome would most likely been different. The final diagnosis is spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). This is a common diagnosis in seemingly healthy, young women and the cause is still unknown. While this is not a typical scenario, it does illustrate the dangers of ignoring the warning signals the body is trying to send.
While less extreme, I have had a lingering foot issue. And like any good endurance athlete, I self-diagnosed it as plantar fasciitis. But I had a feeling that it might be something worse, so after my last race (of course I waited until after I raced) I went to the podiatrist and found out I have a stress fracture in my heel. I am now in a boot and not sure when I will be able to race long again.
Do you see the pattern? Denying that anything is wrong when your body is telling you something, can set you back for long periods of time. We all do this. We all tend to think that the little thing is just an ache, it will go away, it’s not a big deal and I will get it looked at after my A race. This can be true in many cases, but it is best to be proactive in your approach rather than having to react to something larger. If you don’t get it looked at before the A race you may not be able to make it to the start line.
One really easy way to avoid this scenario is to work with a coach. The trick is that the athlete needs to be upfront about pain. I see this a lot in coaching, an athlete who is unwilling to share their pains with me in fear of me changing the plan. However, it is my job as a coach to pick the best way to get to the starting line as healthy as possible. There are many roads that lead there, and a coach is there to help to identify which road makes the most sense at any particular time. It is very easy to over do it if you are solo in your athletic pursuits. A coach offers an objective set of eyes. She or he will recognize patterns of behaviors and see warning signs even when an athlete is not always forthcoming with being in pain.
An occasional ache and pain is part of sports, but chronic pain or any pain that affects your joints needs to be dealt with right away.
We spend countless hours training, a lot of time away from family. We invest in our health with exercise and eating well, and we need to do the same when it comes to seeing a doctor if we are in pain. Take care of your body it’s the only one you have.