First-Time Finisher: Knowing When to Take a Day Off

While nursing an injury, Annie realizes that taking time off from running is a lot of work.

When training for a marathon, it's never a good sign when you have to bust out the ice pack.

“Someone where in the world, someone is training when you are not. When you race him, he will beat you.”

For a while in college, I had this quote tacked onto my wall. I hoped, at the time, it would coerce me into faster workouts, extra push-ups, or a more disciplined attitude—you know, the Stuff of Champions. It’s from two-time New York Marathon winner Tom Fleming, and it’s one of the many “inspirational” (read: neurotic) quotes that drive runners into self-destruction. (Or two gold medals, as the case may be).

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

“There is no bad weather, just soft runners.”

No wonder so many of us end up sidelined with cracked foot bones and wandering knee caps. In an effort to follow in the footsteps of these superhuman athletes, we’re inspiring ourselves into osteoporosis.

Sorry if I sound cranky—I haven’t been running the past few days. If pain is weakness on the way out, my right hamstring is going to be truly tough by the end of this week.

It’s an inevitable point in training: The miles pile up on your weary bones, the hours of training zap your energy, and the typical aches of day-to-day jogging compound into pain.

Making the decision to take a couple days off for recuperation is never an easy one. It could get better on its own, you say. Much more noble to just run through it. Like Tom says: Everyone else is getting faster! And you’re not soft—you ran through a hurricane last week, dammit!

Eventually, though, sense has to trump these insecurities. While anyone training for the Philly Marathon has a pretty high momentum right now, it’s early momentum. The race is more than two-and-a-half months away. And I’m told there’s nothing worse than making it to the 10-week mark in training, having put in the time and effort to run 15, 16 miles at a time, only to have to watch that work (and your registration fee) whiz past you from the sidelines because of a bum IT band.

(Plus, if I were to tear my hamstring tomorrow, this blog series would get boring, fast). (Editor’s note: True!)

Of course, the other catch is that nursing an injury is work in and of itself. While it’s tempting to spend your off days on the couch, runners, coaches, and all-knowing trainers agree that off days should be used productively, working to stay fit and get better. Bike. Swim. Do rehab exercises. Stretch. Stretch more. Ice. Repeat.

Not working out is work.

At the end of the day, it probably takes just as much work and discipline to let yourself heal properly as it does to run 20 miles and do sit-ups. And, of course, you do both for the same reason: There’s a race to run. Yes, somewhere in the world, someone is doing intervals while you are not. Yes, he might beat you. But in a few weeks, when you’re charging up hills and rounding out tempo runs, somewhere out there will be another runner, one who’s icing his shins, and thinking nervously about yet another runner—one like you—who’s out there getting faster than him.