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Dealing with Aches and Pains – Are You a Ferrari or a Pick-up Truck?

If you train for a sport you’re sure at some point to encounter aches and pains in muscles and joints that can be a little uncomfortable.  What do they mean?  Are they serious?  Can you train through them or are you likely to cause serious damage?  

As athletes, we all deal with these aches and pains differently.  Some athletes are very sensitive to them and will cut back on their training at the first sign of discomfort.  Others have a relatively high threshold for dealing with this kind of discomfort and have no problem training through it.  The question is, what is the correct approach?

Are you a Ferrari or a pick-up truck?

I raced C2 (double canoe) at the world championships in 1991, 1993 and 1994 as well as the 1992 Olympics.  I had a very good partner but we were completely different athletes.  In most cases, those differences had little effect on our race performance and for the four years we raced together we were often among the top four in the world.  

When I reflect back on those four years, however, I wonder if we could have been even better if we were more similar as athletes.  My partner was a very good sprinter with an excellent feel for the water.  He was really good in the front of a C2.  He was, however, one of those finely tuned athletes that, when he was on, was very, very good, but when he was off – sore, achy or just not feeling it – saw a huge drop in his performance.  I liken him to a Ferrari.  Capable of extremely high performance but very finely tuned and somewhat delicate, often too sore, achy or tired to do the training properly.  In contrast, I was a pick-up truck.  Far more consistent, dependable and reliable in training and racing and capable of handling higher training loads, occasionally to my own detriment.  There were certainly times I trained when, for one reason or another, I should have taken time off.  I wasn’t always the best at listening to my body.  This may have negatively impacted the quality of some of the C2 training and racing we did. 

In my experience coaching, I have dealt with both types of athletes.  Most athletes lean in one direction or the other.  So, which is better?  Let’s look at the pros and cons of both.

Ferraris

Pros:  

  • Less likely to develop serious injury or suffer from over-training syndrome
  • Less likely to have technique impacted by aches, pains or fatigue, therefore less likely to paddle poorly in training and imprint inferior movement patterns on their central nervous system
  • If given a chance to listen to their body and not forced to train when not ready, are almost always ready to race well when it matters

Cons:

  • Generally lower threshold for work in training; inability to train through aches and pains leads to missed workouts and less consistent training
  • Lack of consistency in training limits their performance ceiling
  • Unlikely to be able to race well if they don’t feel “perfect” on race day

Pick-up trucks

Pros:  

  • Generally high threshold for work in training; ability to train through aches and pains allows for more consistent and harder training and thus higher performance ceiling
  • Ability to train through aches and pains means that, should they feel off, sore or achy on race day, they are more likely to still be able to perform at a high level

Cons:

  • Lack of ability or unwillingness to listen to their body can lead to aches and pains developing into a more serious injury
  • More likely to experience over-training syndrome or central nervous system fatigue
  • Increased possibility that performance ceiling can be negatively impacted in a given competition by more serious aches, pains or fatigue

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to being either a Ferrari or a pick-up truck.  I think it’s clear that the best type of athlete you can be is a hybrid of both, able to maximize the pros of each while minimizing the cons.  So, what can you do in your approach to dealing with the inevitable aches and pains associated with training to ensure than you’re that hybrid?

Know your body

This first step in navigating the inevitable aches and pains associated with training is to really get to know your body.  Try to assess how you feel each day and how the training you do impacts that feeling.  Understand how the rest you get between sessions impacts your recovery and, ultimately, how your body feels.  Experiment with recovery strategies like heat, ice, hydrotherapy, contrast baths, massage, rolling and stretching.  Learn what helps you recover most quickly and effectively and incorporate it into your routine.  Learn about sports nutrition and, specifically, what foods you respond to best.  Nutrition not only fuels your activity but your recovery.  If you’re going to minimize your aches and pains, you really need to have your nutrition dialed in.  Finally, get enough quality sleep.  Learn what sleep pattern best supports your training and recovery, and try to consistently get that sleep.

Unfortunately, there is no secret formula for any of the above.  We’re all different individuals.   A good place to start when getting to know your body is to employ strategies that others have recommended or successfully employed.  But, just because these strategies worked for someone else, doesn’t mean they’ll work perfectly for you.  You need to be prepared to listen carefully to what your body is telling you and determine what makes you feel the best, both in terms of your workouts and your recovery from them.  

Getting in tune with your body and how it responds to the demands of training will help you begin to understand and recognize the difference between simple achy muscles, which are a normal part of training, and something more serious.  This will help you to more accurately determine whether you should train through your achy muscles or whether you should be exercising greater caution and perhaps taking time off and/or seeking treatment.  

Recognize the difference between minor aches and more serious issues

I should start this section by emphasizing that I am not a doctor or medical professional of any kind.  Advice offered here is offered through the lens of a very experienced high-level athlete and coach.  If in doubt about anything I suggest here, I strongly suggest you consult a medical professional.

If you are a serious trainer, it is inevitable that you are going to get sore, achy, tired muscles at some point.  If don’t, you probably aren’t training hard enough.  Sore, achy muscles are normal and part of the territory.  In most cases you should be training through them.  What is important is to differentiate between the normal, sore, achy muscles you should expect and issues that are more serious.  These are the types of pains that should raise alarm bells.  

Generally speaking, the sore, tired and achy muscles that are part of everyday training aren’t debilitating.  The pain tends to be low, perhaps a 1 to 3 on a scale of 10.  It’s not sharp, stabbing pain, but rather more like a dull ache.  Your muscles tend to feel tired as opposed to injured.  This pain tends to disappear with warm up and increased movement, as more blood flows to the muscles. While fatigue can impact your energy levels and therefore your overall workout, sore, achy muscles associated with normal training shouldn’t.  Once you’re warmed up, you’re good to go.  

How you cool down after a workout can limit how achy your muscles feel before the next workout.  Getting enough low-level aerobic work done in your cool down can help flush waste products from your muscles and speed the delivery of nutrients to them, increasing the rate of recovery.  Stretching when you get off the water, before your muscles have a chance to cool down, can not only reduce muscle stiffness, but assist greatly with maintaining a full range of motion across all of your joints.   Superior post-workout nutrition helps to ensure that muscle repair between workouts is optimal, reducing the chance of encountering sore muscles for the next workout.   

On the other hand, pain that is sharper and more acute can represent more than just the tired, sore muscles resulting from a hard day of training.  Typically, you’d rate this pain much higher on a scale of 0 to 10.  Sharper pain in joints, or more specifically where muscle attaches to bone near a joint, that lessens once warmed up is often indicative of tendon inflammation.  You’ll want to be careful with this as it can lead to a chronic tendonitis.  Sharper, acute pain that does not go away with warm up can represent a host of possibilities, all of which require caution and are significantly more serious than the normal aches you should expect to feel from training.  If pain is acute and limits your ability to paddle properly, it’s time to get off the water.  

Be proactive in seeking professional help

If you’re encountering pain that is sharp and impacts your ability to paddle properly, it is imperative that you seek the opinion of a professional as soon as possible.  You’ll want to ascertain whether or not the pain is associated with something serious and don’t want to do anything that is going to make the situation worse.   If the pain is acute but disappears once you’re warmed up, I’d also suggest consulting a professional as soon as possible.  In this case it’s likely a tendon issue.  While you can manage chronic tendonitis without it limiting your performance (I have for more than 25 years), you’d rather not end up with this condition if you can help it.  Dealing as quickly as possible with pain in a joint that appears rather suddenly can prevent it from progressing to something that is chronic.

For many, it is tempting to try to struggle through the pain rather than rushing to a professional.  Whether it is just that they like being independent, or a desire to save money and time, they try to deal with the issue on their own first, before resorting to a consultation with a professional.  I’m here to tell you that consulting a professional sooner rather than later can save you time and money in the long term.  As well, it can minimize the period of time that your injury affects your paddling and impacts your training.   

What type of professional should you consult?  

In my experience, most family GPs aren’t going to be overly helpful to you if your pain is joint or muscle related.  Most don’t understand sport and are likely to just suggest rest (often expressed as “stop doing the activity that is causing you pain”) and perhaps drugs like painkillers or anti-inflammatories.  On the other hand, if your pain is internal and constant whether, you are active or at rest, it could be a sign of a serious medical condition.  You’d probably be best off seeing your family doctor, going to the walk-in clinic, or even to emergency.  Issues like kidney stones and appendicitis, for example, are medical emergencies.  This kind of pain needs to be addressed by a doctor immediately.  Fortunately, these conditions are rare, especially for generally healthy people, so let’s restrict our focus to the musculoskeletal pain most often encountered by athletes.  

Ideally, if you’re going to see a doctor, you want to see a sports medicine practitioner.  He or she will have likely seen your symptoms before and have experience treating the issue.  They are more likely to understand your need to train and are less likely to tell you to simply rest.  They’ll try to find a way to address your injury while still allowing you to train at some level. Furthermore, they’ll be able to refer you to a quality physio or athletic therapist, or chiropractor, that specializes in treating your condition. 

Your insurance coverage may require that you have a doctor’s referral before seeing any other practitioners, so you may end up having to go to a doctor first.  Furthermore, some physiotherapists will only see you with a doctor’s referral.  However, if you’re confident that your issue is musculoskeletal and aren’t required by your insurer to see a doctor first, you can consult a physio or athletic therapist directly.  Explain your issue and your sport.  Take some video of you paddling with you so that you can show it to the therapist and help him or her better understand your sport movement.  Often, all they need is a look at how you are moving when you paddle to know how your injury developed and what exercises you should do to reduce the symptoms and address the issue causing them.  

A good physio or athletic therapist is going to try to find a way to treat not only the symptoms, but more importantly, their underlying cause without asking you to take extended time off training.  They’ll be able to use a variety of modalities to treat your injury and prescribe a series of exercises addressing both strength and mobility, that will help prevent the injury’s recurrence and possibly even improve your strength and range of motion on the water.  The point is, the sooner you consult an expert, the sooner you’ll be back to 100% and, if you adhere to their advice, the less likely you’ll be to suffer a recurrence.   

Be diligent in your rehab work

If you’ve seen a professional and they’ve given you work to do, whether it be stretching or mobility/strengthening work, make sure you follow the instructions closely and actually do the work.  There are no shortcuts to full recovery, just like there are no shortcuts to training.  

You might want to paddle a little cautiously at first, especially if your injury has required you to take time off.  This can be discouraging; however, it is much better to take a little time getting back to full training effort than it is to rush the process, reinjure yourself or develop a new injury and have to take even more time off training or spend more time rehabbing.  

*

Fortunately, paddling is a pretty gentle sport on our bodies.  It’s non-contact and low impact. Where we can get into injury trouble is with repetitive strain issues and overuse injuries.  And, if we’re older, don’t stretch or cool down properly, and paddle high volume, we’re more likely to develop imbalances that can lead to injuries. Most are entirely avoidable if we use common sense and listen to our bodies.  

Additionally, the risk of injury can be reduced by following a well-planned and properly periodized training program.  In particular, a well-planned program should provide regular periods of lighter training load, and these go a long way towards reducing the risk of injury.  

Learning the difference between the harmless aches and pains that are part of normal training and those associated with injuries is hugely important.  Harmless aches and pains shouldn’t keep us from training, however they shouldn’t be ignored.  Cool down properly, then roll, stretch and, if you’ve been given work to do by a professional be sure to do the work.  You want to make sure these aches and pains don’t get worse and turn into something more serious.  On the other hand, if you’ve got something more going on than just sore, achy muscles, don’t waste any time consulting someone about it.  This common-sense approach should keep you on the water and minimize the amount of time that you’ll have to miss due to injury.

Here’s wishing you a great summer on the water. 

Happy paddling!

Further Reading: Dealing with a serious injury that takes you off the water

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