When to Push Through and When to Take A Break

I’ve been a runner for more than half my life. For me, running has never been about the competition but always about the pure joy of simply going for a run. Regardless of whether someone runs to train for a race or just to run, most runners “run through” lots of aches, pains, and odd twinges.  It’s the norm. You’re out for a run, feel a twinge in your knee, but you run through it, assuming it’ll disappear. 80% of the time that’s been true for me. Most of the things that pop up either during or after a run may last for a day or two and are usually things I can just run through or stretch out.

And there’s also the 20% of the time that is not the case; the times when I’ve tried to run through things that ended up lingering despite me trying to ignore them. They usually result in overuse injuries and require a lengthier break from running. I’ve learned those lessons the hard way. Something that might have only required a week or two off from running ends up costing me months of rehab and an extended hiatus from running.  And yet, the default for me is still to push through before taking a break. This is not only prevalent in running but other areas of life too.  I see it in my clients and other areas of my own life.

For example, when trying to solve a challenging problem or make a decision, we often resort to pushing through and forcing something into place instead of stepping back and giving it a rest. I believe this is because we live in a culture where hustle and pushing the limits is not only common but respected and glorified. Think of any extreme sport where pushing your body beyond its limits and pain threshold is what wins the race. Or, for example, working at a high-powered law firm where pulling all-nighters and doing whatever it takes is what “wins the case.” The mindset is that there is no time to stop, pause, or take a break because if you do, you might lose.

And yet, a break is often exactly what is needed to gain not only perspective but also win the case or the race. I was training for a half-marathon a few years ago and started to develop an annoying pain in the bottom of my right heel. I pushed through it, ran through it, and ignored it because, well, I was training.  After three months of training through the pain, I finally gave in and went to see the doctor. The diagnosis? Plantar fasciitis. This is never something any runner wants to hear. What resulted was physical therapy for three months and no running for six months, and yes, you got it, I couldn’t run the half-marathon. Had I paid attention to the signs from my body to rest, I might have actually been able to take a few weeks off and then continue training and run the race. I’ll spare you the details of how it actually took me over a year to heal my overuse injury, but that is one of many examples where resting would have made more sense than pushing through.

The law firm client I referenced earlier who notoriously pushes their limits to win cases also learned that pausing and stepping back can sometimes be more fruitful than pushing limits. They pulled an all-nighter to gather enough evidence to push a motion through the court for their client’s case to be dismissed. They then discovered that if they waited just two more days before forcing a solution for their client, new evidence would have been uncovered that changed the entire legal strategy, and made for a much easier solution for their client.

How do you know when it’s time to take a break or push through?  I wish I had some great answer, but the fact is you know based on your intuition and how you feel. I always know when my body needs to rest, despite my brain telling me I can “run through it.” My body and my gut never lie. It was the same thing with my client. He said (and I quote) “I knew we should have just waited before petitioning the court with our motion to dismiss – I just felt it.” Yep, that’s the truth. Pay attention to your body and your gut, and you will know when you need to push through and when it’s time to take a break.  Despite your brain telling you to push through because that is what is necessary, remember that taking a break is also what it sometimes takes to get you where you want to go.

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