Illness? What illness?

Sunday 6th February 2011

This week I got ill. Nothing terrible, nothing life threatening, just the kind of cold that tends to befall most British people at this time of year. With my long term running goals in mind I decided to take 3 whole days off running, as well as missing my Thursday track session. It could have been so different however. I know that 2 or 3 years ago I would almost certainly have tried to train through it. You see, most runners like to think that the rules don’t apply to them; they believe that unlike the other runners who are mere mortals, running when you can barely drag yourself out of bed, let alone to work, will not affect you. Who cares if you’re running at half your normal speed? Who cares if you’re coughing up colours you didn’t even know existed? You got your run in and that is the most important thing.

I confess that I am often guilty of taking this approach to illness. Distinguishing between discomfort and injury is an important part of being a successful athlete, and I have been considering why we find it so difficult to make this distinction.

One explanation that I can think of is that most amateur athletes, of which I am one, have 2 main reasons for doing it. The first is the ‘runner’s high,’ the thrill of a great run, the adrenaline and the endorphins. Put simply, running is addictive. That’s not to say that it is fun all the time, but every time we run we go out in search of the same thrill. The second reason is competition. We run to better ourselves and to be successful, and to improve our times and placings. Now, most of the time these two elements work together to great effect. We run for the thrill and as a by-product we improve. Job done. However, when illness or injury or severe fatigue rear their heads, a problem arises. One part of the brain says run. The idea of having to face the withdrawal symptoms associated with taking time off can be a daunting one for the dedicated runner, even if training means making yourself feel worse. The competitive part of the brain urges caution, focusing on long term goals and the need for the body to recover. A logical, rational thinking outsider would not understand what the problem is, or why we even consider running as an option when ill or injured.

I was pleased I did the right thing. A few days later and I feel fine and raring to go again, indeed stronger for having allowed a full recovery. But still a little voice nags, telling me I shouldn’t have missed those runs. I can see why people find runners hard to understand.

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