Listen to your body – what it really means

Listen to your body. A phrase that was probably first uttered in a running context by someone smart, like George Sheehan, but has been rendered meaningless by repetition and lack of understanding.

A session last week with one of my top gurus, running coach and Alexander Technique teacher Malcolm Balk, reminded me that there is more to listening than having ears.

If pain is the body speaking, then most runners respond as they would to a spouse in a tired marriage: with barely an acknowledgement before turning their attention back to their smartphone or newspaper. They don’t exclaim ‘Oh, are you hurting? Where exactly is the pain? What movement makes it hurt more, or less? What can I do to help?’

I’d been running on a sore foot for three weeks and it wasn’t getting any better. I claimed I’d been ‘listening’ to my body by running less, eschewing the track and sticking to softer surfaces. But if I’d really been listening then I’d have ‘heard’ that this wasn’t doing the trick. I had thought I could appease my foot by backing off my training a bit, but it hadn’t worked. I’d assumed I knew what to do instead of bothering to find out.

Malcolm observed that I was shifted over to my left – away from my bad foot. With my body’s cries going unheard, it had taken action to protect the foot, but this asymmetry was creating other problems – hip pain and a stiff back. He also noticed that I was sort of ‘bracing’ my sore foot on each landing, as if to soften the blow. (A potentially airy-fairy sounding observation, but one that was confirmed by the physio who treated it a couple of days later, who said the foot was very ‘locked up.’) Malcolm worked with me to first be able to stand without pain, then walk, and then run a little. ‘And if standing wasn’t OK, then we could have looked at lying down,’ he said.  The idea is that each run is a new experience for your body – not merely a repeat of the day before. So you have to tune in and listen each and every time you put your trainers on – and crucially, respond accordingly. It’s frustrating when your programme says 5 x 1 mile at threshold pace but your body says ‘no thanks’ – but ultimately, if you keep ignoring the attempts to communicate, you risk far greater troubles further down the line. Just like that marriage I mentioned…

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