We are gluttons for punishment aren’t we! Pushing ourselves to extreme levels in the pursuit of personal glory and praise from our peers. We will drive our bodies to extreme limits, endure pain and suffering and happily run ourselves into a state of soreness and hobbling that will last for days to come, all in the name of pushing ourselves to quicker, better and faster times.
If you are a serious runner then I’m guessing you are prepared to punish yourself to get an improvement in your times! Yes, we runners are a hard-headed lot, driving ourselves to extreme levels in the pursuit of status, praise from our peers and personal satisfaction. We sometimes endure extreme pain and will happily run ourselves into a state of soreness that will have us hobbling around for days to come, all in the name of being quicker, better and running faster times!
It was a few weeks back, I watched with astonishment the British Athlete Paula Radcliff competing in the womens marathon at the Beijing Olympics. I am am a big fan of Paula and hold nothing but admiration for her gutsy running and stellar achievements, but as I watched, I was frankly baffled. Clearly here was an athlete who should not even have been running. Her lack of decent preparation and build-up, due to a hip injury had clearly caught up with her. Sadly she dropped off the pace somewhere around the 30km mark and struggled through the rest of the event. She was even forced to stop completely at one stage to stretch her cramping muscles, but doggedly refused to pull out of the race, going on to finish 23rd – an admirable result under the circumstances.
Should she have conceded to logic that finishing the race was really not the smart thing to do? That is the question. I personally think she should not have been on the start line, however this is a hard call when the Olympics are at stake! Few athletes would consider pulling out of an Olympic race either, regardless of how badly they are suffering.
Yes, to the more competitive among us, the thought of pulling out, is unbearable and something that just doesn’t register in our subconscious thought. It’s like a badge of honor to proudly claim that you have never pulled out of a race before.
But this begs the question. Should we be so hard headed about this?
Is there every a time when you should pull out and a reliable rule of thumb for doing so?
Almost every doctor, or fitness instructor I have talked to will advise you to immediately pull out of a race at the first sign of trouble… period.
They will claim your health and safety is the most important thing, then proceed to reel off a “shopping list” of the risks at not stopping.
I claim that for a runner, the situation is more complex than this.
Is there ever a time to pull out of a race?
The answer I would give is…. it depends
I must confess, I think the same way. I will not pull out of a race and am indeed quietly proud of the fact that I have not pulled out of a single race throughout my entire running career…
That is, until this one time.
It was an 800m track race, not an event I particularly favor. I’m naturally better suited to marathon-like distances, but at the time I was looking for a boost in my speed and the 800m seemed like a good choice. Unfortunately (probably due to my lack of general speed work in training), I suffered a slight muscle tear in my hamstring at around the 300m mark. Nothing major fortunately, but at that moment, I immediately knew it was not smart to continue the race. There were no second thoughts, no desire to continue my unbroken streak of finishing each race I entered in, no bravado, I simply pulled off to the side and that was that.
How did I make the decision? Me, who had not pulled out of a race once in 20 years of competing.
Firstly, while I did have to have some time off to recover from the tear, I recovered quickly and was back into training in about a week or two. If I had attempted to finish the race I believe I would have made my injury much more severe. I might have even put my entire season at risk if I had been unlucky!
Secondly, the race was low-key and not even my preferred distance. Basically it meant nothing to me. I was treating it as a training run anyway to improve my speed. There was no glory, nothing to be gained.
When weighing up these factors, I did not hesitate in stepping over the inside rail and conceding my first DNF. It was a clear-cut decision, but as I sit here writing I am taking time off training due to a slight tear in my calf, I am contemplate how things were not so clear cut in my last race.
We are fast approaching the end of our local cross country season. Which, by the way I love, since I am much more suited to endurance races and tough terrain than to fast flat speed events on road or track.
Rewind to the day before this weeks race and I have a decision to make.
Due to a hard race the weekend before, I had pulled up with a very sore left calf. At the time, it seemed like just soreness, but unlike regular soreness it has persisted which suggests a slight muscle tear. We are doing 1k repetitions on Thursday, but my calf feels sore, so I stop after only the first rep intent not to risk further damage.
While I “never” pull out of races, I have always considered it sensible to drop out of a training session at the first sign of trouble. There is no glory in winning at training.
Friday I go for a gentle 6k jog. My calf is feeling much better, but still not quite 100%. I know I shouldn’t race the next day, but here’s the thing…
There are only two races left in winter season, this one is my personal favorite course. The course suits my style of running and I’ve been dying to run it all season.
What is worse, I am running good and starting to hit my best form. I’m feeling good and just know I’m going to run good in this weeks race.
With only two races left, my running club and a rival running club are very close on points. If I perform well I might just give our club the edge to triumph over our rivals.
So I weigh up the pros and cons of competing.
My injury is probably good enough to survive the run, but the course is a rough and brutal one.
If I don’t compete, my injury will probably clear up and recover quickly
If I do compete, I’ll need to take next week off. I may even miss next week’s race. But I don’t think competing will lead to any long term damage, just more time on the side-line.
My form is good and I know I will not lose much fitness by not training for one week
There is no serious or long term risk to my health in competing, just muscle soreness
If I miss the race my club might lose out on being the winter champions
Come the morning of the race, my calf has recovered even more, but is still not quite better. I am confident I am able to complete the course even though I known I shouldn’t run.
I decide to run. I am feeling a slight pain for most of the course and definitely not as confident on some of the rougher places along the course, but it works out well and I finish 2nd! Our club manages to win this round!
On the post-race cool-down run I know my calf is damaged, I am virtually limping the whole way. I now have three days of recovery to look forward to, possibly the entire week.
Was it worth it? I think in this case it was. I might have to miss next week’s race because I took this risk, but I’m prepared for that. There’s also a chance I’ll recover by then, so we’ll see. I know this injury is not serious and shouldn’t last too long. The result in the race proved to be a positive one, so I’d say the reward out-weighed the risk.
The point is, pulling out (or deciding whether to race at all) is a complex decision that each individual athlete must make for themselves. The advice to simply pull out of a race at the first sign of trouble might be good for the typical fun runner, especially those who are beginners, but in my opinion, whether to pull out or stick it out is not always a clear-cut choice.
There is no hard-and-fast rule, you have to make a judgment call based on how you perceive your individual circumstances at the time. It means being aware of your body and it’s limits – body awareness and situation awareness being important skills that all serious runners should learn.
But is there a good rule of thumb?
I’d say pull out immediately if you are badly injured and you feel like you are in pain on every stride.
If you can slow down and still maintain your regular form without pain, then you are probably safe to finish. If something is amiss before the race and you are contemplating whether or not to compete or not, weigh up the pros and cons carefully before the race.
If racing is likely to result in a severe injury that could last for months, then don’t compete.
Clearly it would not be smart to do what I did 90% of the time. If it was a race that I didn’t care about and the points not close then it would have been a simple choice not to compete in this particular race. Even with the points so close, if my injury had been more severe, I would never have considered competing.
I concede, I probably got a lucky on this one! On other occasions I have not been so fortunate, but I was prepared to take that risk.
If there is any piece of advice I would give to runners, it would be this…
Know yourself and your body and run consciously.