This week, I had two athletes ask me seemingly similar questions.
Athlete #1: I hurt my back bowling and am in pain when I try to workout. Should I continue to CrossFit?
Athlete #2: What are your thoughts on working out when you are really sore?
Taking these questions together, it’s semantics. You can workout sore, but not in pain. However, navigating that line can be difficult. Especially for those of us just starting our fitness journey, or adjusting to not being in our invincible 20s anymore.
I wish I had a clear cut answer for you. Unfortunateley, more often than not, if you come to me with these questions, I’ll throw some questions back at you that might just leave you asking more questions. I am not a doctor, nor do I have medical expertise. I can only use the expertise I do have, and my own personal experience, and give you my opinion.
Personally, I have had many tweaks and a lot of soreness that I’ve chosen to work through. I’ve only had 1 major injury in my life. A herniated disk. It was an overuse injury I incurred over time. Because I didn’t know the difference between pain and soreness, I inflamed it so much, I couldn’t put an empty barbell on my back without intense pain. I had to back off the barbell for an entire month. I continued to CrossFit using all body weight movements (hello, Barbara, Cindy, Annie…). When I came back to the barbell, I had to do so slowly, and I still have to manage flair ups.
When I was in the initial stages of managing the injury, I was spending Saturday mornings lifting at Sayre Park, my Weightliting club. It was the one day I could spend 2+ hours just Olympic lifting. So I was always excited to go. However, one day, I felt a little lethargic. I started working on my clean & jerks, and my body felt sore and tired.
At that point I had to make a decision. Push through or listen to my body and take it easy.
I looked to an earlier experience to make my decision. A few months prior, I came to Sayre after doing some running in the morning. I knew I was fatigued and figured I would just do some light form work. Then my coach tells me he wants me to try for a PR in my clean and jerk that day if I feel up to it. I didn’t say anything about running because I knew he would be mad at me, so I just decided I would do my best. Well, I got my PR and it felt great!
With that experience in mind, I loaded up the bar to start my clean and jerk sets. I planned on stopping at 85%, which would be a solid workout, but not pushing it. I got to 85%, and my cleans were sloppy. I wasn’t bailing them, but I was catching them awkwardly, I was moving slow – I was just off. On my last one, I power cleaned it, accidentally, stood there with it on my shoulders, and thought to myself “I don’t want to jerk this”. I stubbornly decided to toughen up, then jerked it. And hurt my back.
I landed with a hard back foot which compressed my spine a little. Nothing that would last more than a day or two, but I was still mad at myself.
I have been tired, sore, and felt little aches and pains during WODs – and have often overcome them and not only felt better as a result, but made some improvements I wouldn’t have made had I not pushed myself through discomfort.
Taking all that in, I look back on that moment I decided to perform the jerk and wonder whether I should have just listened to my body, not toughened up through it physically, but toughened up mentally and put the bar down after cleaning it.
Then again, if I would have listened to my body a few months earlier when I PR’d, I wouldn’t have gotten the PR. If I didn’t train every time my back started feeling sore, or my muscles were tight, or I was just generally tired, I would train about 1-2 days a week.
One silly jerk, or stubbornly following a program, isn’t worth a forced month off due to re-injury, but meeting my goals is also worth some level of risk. Which takes priority?
The answer is – I don’t know.
You can start by listening to your body. Again, as you can see from my experience, this can also be a gray area. Your body is not the clearest communicator. It might take some trial and error to figure out the signals. There are times when you need to tell your body to get tough, and pick up the weight. Weight training, among other things, prevents injury. Getting stronger involves breaking down muscle tissue, and then allowing it to repair. So it is a balance of pushing yourself through discomfort, and allowing time for recovery. If you don’t push yourself through discomfort, you are not getting stronger. So you can’t interpret every ache and pain you feel as your body telling you stop in the middle of a WOD or to take a rest day. That said, you can’t ignore your body and work through pain so often you end up with injuries.
Another step is looking at your personal patterns. When do you feel pain most often? During a workout? After? How long does it last? During some movements, time domains, days, etc. more than others?
Don’t limit your questions to the negative either. You can ask yourself these same questions when you PR a WOD, race, lift, or even just feel really good coming to the gym. Take inventory of your body daily, and not just when you are feeling sore or lethargic.
Still confused? I wish I had a clear cut answer. It’s more of an art than a science. For myself, I’ll get tough more than rest because it’s worked for me in the past. I accept that I might have little aches and pains more often than not, and I’ve learned from trial and error how to manage my back. All of that mental and physical exertion is worth it for that 1 day I get a PR.