Injured? When to Run, and When to Sit Tight

Whether you’re a new runner or a veteran, you’ve probably experienced a running-related injury. You may even have had to take time off or miss a race to recover.

Running injuries usually occur when the body isn’t adequately prepared to handle the stress of going faster and farther. They can be acute, meaning they happen abruptly from something traumatic like a fall. But more often they creep up slowly — and all too often we ignore the warning signs until it’s too late.

One of the best ways to stay injury-free is to listen to your body. This can be difficult when you’re training for a specific goal and have the mindset that any missed workout may derail your plan. But missing one or two workouts when you feel an injury lurking is far preferable in the long term.

Below are three crucial questions that’ll help you decide whether to head out for some easy miles or take a day off.

1. What type of pain are you experiencing?

The first question to ask when experiencing running-induced pain is: What type of pain is it? Most pain can be grouped into two categories: sharp/shooting and dull/aching.

Sharp pain is usually a warning sign to stop whatever it is you’re doing. Whenever that pain occurs, pinpoint its exact location and what you’re doing, then address it immediately. If you’re out on a run miles from home, you may want to call for a ride rather than risk further injury. If you can walk pain-free, you may be able to walk home without doing any additional harm. Once home, use the traditional RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression and elevation) to help jump-start the recovery process.  

Dull, aching pain can be trickier to assess because it’s less specific and harder to isolate. It rarely necessitates the same immediate attention that sharp, shooting pain requires. If the pain feels more like generalized soreness and you completed a tough workout in the past 24–48 hours, you may be experiencing the effects of DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness. This occurs as a result of microtrauma in your muscles after exercise, but your body should recover and adapt to make you less sore the next time around.

Dull pain may be more symmetrical than sharp pain, meaning it occurs on both sides of your body (both quads, calves, glutes, etc.). It also tends to be worse when you’re sitting or inactive for long stretches of time, and it improves with activity.

2. Does it improve with easy running?

If you determined that your pain is dull, your next step is to figure out whether it improves with movement. Prior to your run, complete a dynamic warmup routine to loosen up and get ready to run, then start running at an easy, conversational pace. Pay close attention to your pain as you begin. Pain that improves with activity is a good sign. But you should still play it safe and keep your run short and easy to give yourself time to recover and not overdo it. If the pain gets worse as you run, head back for rest and treatment.

3. Does it impact your running form?

If your pain is dull and you’re able to run easily without more pain, you’re well on the way to determining that you may continue to run. The final piece of the puzzle is determining whether or not your pain affects your running form.

Whenever you change your running form — even if it’s only due to soreness — it puts you at risk for more injury. After you’ve been running easily for 5–10 minutes, check in to see if your form has normalized. If you continue to compensate, you’ll likely put more stress on areas of your body that aren’t used to it, they may become overloaded and the result could be another injury. Then you’re dealing with two problems instead of one. If you can’t run with your usual form and don’t loosen up as your run progresses, stop and rest or do some low-impact cross-training instead.

When dealing with running-related pain, going through this three-part assessment will help you determine when it’s safe to run and when you’re about to cross the line from soreness to injury. In general, follow this mantra: When in doubt, sit it out. By listening to your body and responding appropriately, you’ll avoid injuries and be able to train more consistently for longer.

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Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason Fitzgerald is the head coach at Strength Running, one of the web’s largest coaching sites for runners. He is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field–certified coach; his passion is helping runners set monster personal bests.