NOTE: if you don't run, you probably aren't interested in reading this. You're probably saying, "Hey, Ellen, I come hear to read rants about goats. What's all this running stuff? I feel betrayed!" Well, not to worry, my hypothetical friend! At the end of this post is some of my usual nonsense! HOORAY! So you can stop crying and skip on down to the last paragraph. I mean, you could read the whole post, which is the polite thing to do, but I don't want to bore you with things you don't care about. You should probably at least read the whole last paragraph, though, even though it starts off about running. You know, for context and stuff. Anyway, proceed as you wish.
Right before my sophomore year track season, my lower calves started hurting. I told myself to suck it up. A few weeks later, it turned into shooting pain with every step. I convinced myself it was just soreness from hard workouts. It was only when I finished a warmup lap with my legs shaking--it looked like they were having some kind of seizure--that I asked my coach if that could be a problem.
Obviously, she said yes. So I went inside to the training room and had them look at it. Then a doctor had to look at it. He told me he wasn't sure, but if I had what he thought I had (compartment syndrome), I would probably need surgery.
Next, I went to a sports medicine doctor. Thankfully, he told me it wasn't quite to the point where I needed surgery, but I did have a bilateral calf strain, meaning I had pushed my calf muscles in both legs far past the healthy point.
I only ran in two meets that season. I was only allowed to complete half the practices, and I had to take an ice bath after practice every day (which, for some reason, feels ten times worse when it's to keep your injury from getting worse rather than to get you ready to compete). I also had to go to physical therapy several times a week.
Moral of the story: listen to your body when it tells you to stop. If I had gotten my calves checked out right when they started hurting, I probably could have gotten away with just the ice baths and some extra stretching. But I thought I could push through it and ended up turning a small problem into one that basically made me lose a whole season. As a perfectionist, I used to think injuries were a sign of weakness and that taking time off to fix them would do more harm to my overall fitness than good. Not so much. Every runner gets injured at some point, but the impact that injury has depends on how responsive they are.
I'm not by any means telling you that you should rush to a doctor as soon as you feel a little sore. Soreness and pain are two very different things. If you're pushing yourself, you should feel a little sore sometimes. That's good. That means you're working hard and getting stronger. My point is that you have to know your body. Your body will tell you when something is wrong. It might not be quite as obvious as my shooting pains and shaking, but there is definitely a difference between being sore and being injured. My advice, if you can't tell if you're injured or just really sore, would be to ask someone--a doctor, coach, trainer, or a more experienced runner--if they think there's a problem. If there is, then not only have you caught the injury early enough that it probably isn't very serious, you also have a reference to know when to stop if you feel that same type of pain in the future. If there's not, then you know you probably don't have to stop if you feel the same pain in the future. It's a win-win situation. Of course, if you don't ask, you're taking a gamble that could jeopardize your running career permanently. There's always a reason for pain. I think of it as your body's way of calling for help. The longer you ignore it, the louder it will yell and the more distracted and frustrated you will get, so acknowledge it early on. If you were a firefighter and you heard someone calling for help from the top of a burning building, would you leave them up there until the last second so you could maybe save them? Of course not. You would get them out of there as soon as possible before the fire spreads any more. Injuries work the same way. That metaphor makes perfect sense to me. If it doesn't to you, sorry. I only do one metaphor at a time. Go make up your own. Oh, you don't need a metaphor, huh? Well, aren't you just a special little cupcake with awesome frosting and superior sprinkles. Some of us are just humble muffins who like metaphors. If you don't, you're not allowed in the secret club. I don't CARE if you don't want to be in the secret club; the point is that you can't. Plus you don't even know the secret handshake. You're a cupcake and you don't even have hands...what? Well, no, we muffins don't have hands either, but that's not really the point right now. Actually, if you're a cupcake, why are you reading a post about running? That just seems silly. You're silly. No silly cupcakes in the secret muffin club.