Should You Race If You're Hurting or Injured

I've been dealing with aches and pains for probably 89% of my life as a runner. If it's not tight calves, it's sore quads, tight hips, an evil piriformis muscle, an achy TFL, sensitive IT band,  or ankle problems. Something is always popping up. But I've never had a break or tear that fully taken me out of the game. 

(Remember when I rolled my ankle a week before the Berlin marathon? I almost broke 4 hours a week later. Sometimes, PT's can be magic.) 

I know how incredibly lucky I am to have Finish Line Physical Therapy here in Manhattan because not all physical therapy clinics are a haven for endurance athletes. And at Finish Line, besides being the premier physical therapy clinic on the east coast, there isn't a PT who doesn't understand how difficult it is to succumb to an injury and sit a race out.

Every day, they deal with stubborn patients asking them, "But I can still run...right?" They do their best to prehab and rehab their patients, from first time half marathoners struggling with IT band pain or plantar fasciitis to Boston qualifying hopefuls and Ironmen prehab-ing the inevitable. They do everything they can to get us to race day and across the finish line in as little pain as possible 

I'm just as stubborn as the next runner but putting my heart and soul into my impossible goal to qualify for Boston has made me even crazier. I'm working my ass off every single day, fighting through doubt and fear, making sacrifices to see friends and family, and literally giving every single bit of myself to running. (Which sounds truly bogus reading back but it is what it is.) 

Last year, had I not been traveling to London for my goal race, I would have made the decision not to race. I knew I was hurt and the closer we got to race day, the more I knew that I wasn't going to be able to race. But because I'd invested money to travel to London with my best friend and then vacation post marathon, it made the decision to drop even harder. I kept thinking about the fact that London is so hard to get into and that it could be years before I get another chance to run it. (Again, sound logic. Why would anyone willingly endure a marathon injured and have a miserable time just because you think you'll never get another chance.)

I stupidly decided to race and hoped that I would magically have an amazing day.

(I crashed and burned.)

Eight months of soul searching and rehab later (it was eight months of a very dramatic, very angsty, and very annoying Kelly), I finally found myself eager to try again. Two months into training, the pain in my TFL, piriformis, and hamstring were back. It was a dull pain and totally manageable, but a literal pain in my ass non-the-less. 

Every week at Physical Therapy, like a crazy person, I only heard the hopeful information and ignored anything that didn't sound like, "You're getting better". After all, this time around I did more squats, lunges, planks, and foam rolling than I've ever done in my life. In my mind, there was no way I wasn't getting better.  

But I wasn't.

So my PT Raechel started to lay down the law. Raechel gave me a 4 week deadline and if I didn't improve in those 4 weeks, we would postpone my marathon. 4 weeks later, we postponed my marathon.

I was a tiny bit disappointed because I'd gotten pretty far in the training cycle but the truth is, I was actually excited about pushing it to fall. I had so much fun training in the spring that I'm really excited to do it again TRULY healthy.

So I quickly swapped my goal race from a marathon to a half marathon. I'm in great shape! Blowing it out of the water in a half marathon seemed like the best way to throw a cherry on the lackluster end to my four-month-long marathon training cycle.

So I got pumped! And I convinced myself that my strong as hell half marathon was going to be awesome!

UNTIL I went PT the week of the race.

I'd raced my face off in a 10K and then ran stadium stairs on a strained hamstring the week prior and I was living in a hell of pain.

 ACTUALLY IN PAIN. Turns out running stairs isn't good for a hamstring strain. WHO KNEW?

ACTUALLY IN PAIN. Turns out running stairs isn't good for a hamstring strain. WHO KNEW?

I'm used to spending 24-ish hours in pain after a hard workout but it wasn't going away. Sitting hurt. Driving was excruciating. Sitting on a plane was UNBEARABLE. Going to bed and trying to get comfortable was horrible. But pain was my normal and I figured it would go away with a day of rest.

IT DIDN'T. 

I went to Finish Line and my PT Raechel looked at me like I was crazy when I told her that I wanted to break 1:40 in the half that weekend. 

She said no. 

I asked her no what. 

And she told me that I couldn't run the half marathon that weekend. I laughed and then she told me that it wasn't funny.

I immediately started negotiating. 

She said no.

I argued some more.

And then I caved.

 She's happy I agreed. I'm bummed I can't run.

She's happy I agreed. I'm bummed I can't run.

I've never been told no by Finish Line before.

OK, that's not true. They've told me no a few times before but I've always gotten, "OK fine. My advice is no but if you have to run, promise me you will drop if you're in pain."  

I always raced and I never quit or dropped out when I was in pain. Because if you cross the starting line, I will almost always finish.

Deciding not to run or race when you're hurting is impossible. ESPECIALLY if you're close to race day. Why? This is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • Races are expensive.
  • They're sometimes hard to get into.
  • You spent so much time training, you don't want to disappoint anyone who has watched and supported your training.
  • You want that race day photo.
  • You want the personal best you trained for.
  • You've come too far.
  • You don't want to feel like a quitter.
  • You don't want anyone to think you're a quitter.
  • You don't want to have to stand on the sidelines when all your friends get to run.
  • Running is your lifeline and you're terrified of life without it.
  • You're afraid of gaining weight or losing the fitness and strength you've worked so hard for

This list can go on forever...

I know I'm not the only one who does this because I get over ten emails a month going, "It hurts when I run but I can still race...right?" 

But talking with Raechel and then having her show me how bad my strain is, I get it now. (I feel crazy that I didn't realize how serious my strain is. I knew I was hurt but I honestly didn't think it was that big of a deal. I was seriously delusional.) And before this, my answer would have been exactly what Finish Line used to tell me: Go ahead and try to run but if it hurts during the race, drop out.

But let's be real! You're not going to drop out if it hurts. I know because I've never dropped out when I should have countless times. So here's my new answer: No, you can't and shouldn't run. 

If you're hurting, don't show up to the starting line. If you want to run for life, you have to be smart.

There WILL be other races. 

 Literally me saying, "But I can run the Brooklyn half...right?" 

Literally me saying, "But I can run the Brooklyn half...right?" 

Does it suck? YES.

Will you be disappointed? YES.

Will you disappoint anyone else? NO.

Your health is infinitely more important than running a race (even one that is impossible to get into again). It can feel soul-crushing to let go of this notion that you're going to lose the fitness you've worked so hard to build. And yes, you are going to have to work harder to regain that strength when you get the green light to run again. But you can't compare where you're at to where you were. Focus on what you've learned through your training. That mental strength isn't going anywhere and that's what matters.

Building physical strength is about putting one foot in front of the other and showing up. Mental strength takes years to build and once you have it, it only gets stronger. So celebrate what you've accomplished in training because race day, as much fun as it is, isn't remotely as rewarding as the journey. 

Focus on the journey. Be flexible with yourself and the pursuit of your goals. Just don't give up.

Kick ass. Take names.

And most importantly, run healthy.