You may have heard the term ‘listen to your body’ as a runner. It is good advice, but it can mean a number of different things.

Let me give you an example of the kind of ‘listen to your body’ that I think is most useful, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced runner:

The day before writing this, I was on my usual 10 mile Wednesday run. I wanted to average 8 minutes per mile, which can be a stretch for me when I’m in the middle of a reasonably meaty block of training for an ultramarathon.

Four days earlier, my long Saturday run had been a 40 miler. My legs felt surprisingly good after that, but I am very aware that my legs are at greater risk of injury in the week after such a run. Consequently, I had run an easy 8 miler on the Monday and a moderate 6 miler on the Tuesday. I felt ready for the Wednesday 10 miler at 8 minutes per mile.

On that 10 miler, I got to 7 miles averaging 7.59 pace, a bit tired, but no problems. Right on track.

Then out of the blue, I felt a tightness in my right buttock. 5 years ago I would have ignored that tightness and pushed on at 7.59 pace, keen to hit my goal.

Unfortunately, I’ve had far too many experiences over the years of doing just that, then becoming aware of that tightness getting worse and worse. Sometimes it would let me run to the end with a slightly crooked gait, and other times it would become a pain that forced me to stop.

Either way, that tightness would typically cost me 3 days to 3 weeks of quality training while I went into recovery mode.

But not this time! This time I listened to my body.

As soon as I became aware of the tightness in my buttock, I slowed down. Within 10 seconds, I realised that the tightness wasn’t going away, so I slowed to a walk.

I walked for half a mile, I gently mobilised my hip joint, then I started to jog again. This time it felt fine. I slowly built up my speed and finished the run at a sub 8-minute mile, at an average of 8.32 for the whole run.

I had lost 5 minutes. That might have bugged me 5 years ago, but this time I patted myself on the back for recognising the signs early, doing the right things and still managing to finish the run, injury free.

I had also gained 3 days to 3 weeks of training time that I almost certainly would have lost 5 years ago.

This piece of advice is about sacrificing a little today to make sure that you’re back out training tomorrow. I’m a great believer that accumulation of hundreds of good training runs is far more powerful than a few amazing runs scattered between injuries and recovery.

To summarise this type of ‘listening to your body’:

  • Tune into your body as you run
  • Ideally, avoid listening to music or podcasts as you learn this skill
  • Be especially aware of how your muscles and joints feel at different paces
  • Be on the lookout for signals being sent in the form of twinges and tightness- a state of watchful awareness, ready to react quickly and calmly to problems.
  • Once you become aware of a twinge or tightness, slow down immediately
  • If the niggle hasn’t settled after 10-20 seconds, slow to a walk
  • You may want to gently stretch or mobilise the affected area. Obviously, you don’t want to stretch a strained muscle with any vigour, so this might be one for more experienced runners
  • Once the twinge or tightness subsides, feel free to run slowly
  • Build your running pace carefully, even more aware of the status of the niggle
  • After the run, make a note of the problem in your training diary so that you can identify trends or patterns

There are nuances, of course.

Some runners will experience recurring niggles that we learn to cope with over the years. When they return, you may innately know that you can continue to run without causing a catastrophic breakdown of your body.

For anything new and unfamiliar, I’d say that caution is the best approach. Tune in, back off and react quickly.

The reality is that niggles happen. If you never experience twinges or tightness, then you’re not pushing the limits of your athletic performance. Just make sure that you develop the internal awareness necessary to spot them and that you’ve got a strategy for when they inevitably happen.

It took me several years to drive this information deep into my brain. It turns out that some lessons need to be learned time and time again!

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