Health & Fitness

When Not to ‘Listen to Your Body’

It’s important to listen to your body. In general, you should know what you’re feeling, and you should be able to relate those feelings to past experiences: This is what it feels like when I’m lifting more than usual and about to set a personal record; that is what it feels like when my old shoulder injury starts acting up.

But feelings aren’t facts, as psychologists sometimes say. Our bodies generate lots of emotions, aches and pains, feelings of fatigue and anxiety and “oh shit this is new.” When should you listen to what your body is telling you, and when should you ignore it?

I was compelled to consider this question after reading a recent article in Outside that discussed some recent (and some not-so-recent) research on how elite athletes relate to their emotions and physical sensations. It turns out the best athletes are often better at ignoring these feelings than the rest of us.

Which makes some sense, right? If you’re a professional and you know you’re capable of a certain time in the marathon, you’re not going to slow down just because your legs are tired. You trust your training. You know your paces. You follow your plan.

The rest of us may not have calibrated our senses quite so well. Especially as beginners, we don’t always know what we’re capable of. So here are some times you can ignore what your body is telling you—and when to start paying attention again.

When something hurts, but you’re basically okay

If you don’t know why you’re in pain, it’s worth getting checked out. But often we have a minor injury or some soreness that we’ve already been assured is no big deal. Then we catastrophize anyway.

Catastrophizing is just what it sounds like. Our body says “ouch” and our brain wildly extrapolates it into “what if I never feel better again?” or “I guess running isn’t for me.” We start paying more attention to the pain, which can actually make us more sensitive to it. This can happen as we recover from a serious injury, but it can also happen in the context of extremely minor things, like a bit of muscle soreness from yesterday’s workout.

Get medical advice if needed to find out what you actually need to do or avoid to stay on the path toward healing. But don’t be surprised if your physical therapist says that you need to start using the injured body part, and start trusting that your body is able to withstand some minor aches and pains during the healing process.

When something is uncomfortable because you’re not used to it

We pay extra attention when things are new to us. But something can be new and scary without being a real threat. Over time, sensations that were a “whoa, stop” signal on the first day become things that we later react to with an “oh, that? I didn’t even notice.”

In the gym, this might mean feeling the scratch of the barbell’s knurling against your hands, or the feeling of a heavy bar on your back. Maybe you go for your first run and you can’t stop thinking about how hot and sweaty and thirsty you feel. Use your brain to conduct a brief reality check: Am I in danger of heat stroke, or am I just not used to what it feels like to be five minutes into a treadmill run? If it’s the latter, trust your brain over your body.

When that little voice says “I can’t.”

Someday, you will surprise yourself with a squat PR, or a record mile time, or you’ll get through a workout you never thought you’d be able to finish. Seconds or minutes before that big victory, you’ll probably have a moment where your body wants you to stop, and you’ll say no.

Toward the end of last year, I challenged myself with a series of 20-rep squat sets. So many times, I would reach rep 15 or 10 or even 5, and every fiber of my being would be telling me that’s it, we’re done, put the bar back on the rack. No more reps available.

But I asked myself, do I need to stop, or do I just want to stop? I came up with a rule: I will not re-rack the bar while I’m standing. I either finish the set or go down for another squat, fail mid-rep, and leave the bar on the safeties. And you know what? I finished every. Damn. Rep.

It’s worth doing big, ambitious things. But in the moment, you have to take it one rep at a time, one minute at a time. When you’re five reps in, you can’t ask yourself whether you have 15 more in you. You just say “Can I do one more?” Or to put it into motivational coach-speak, turn every “What if I can’t?” into “What if I can?”

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