“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

Ah, yes, this statement and similar motivational(ish) quotes are go-to stock phrases of drill Sargent, tough guys, and, unfortunately, coaches and workout buddies everywhere.

I get it: When it comes to working out, pushing ourselves is a tried and true way to make progress toward fitness goals. But what about when we push too hard in the face of pain, putting ourselves in danger of injury? Hello, rehab! It’s about this time when the physical therapist asks us things like, “Did you feel this coming on?” “When did the problem start?” Their parting advice is often, you guessed it: “Next time, listen to your body.”

It’s all just a jumble of mixed messages. First, do we ignore the pain or push past it? And second, what the heck does “listen to your body” mean anyway? If we actually listened to our bodies, would we ever willingly participate in activities that make us tired, sweaty, and sore in the first place? OK let’s not get carried away.

One thing we know for sure: Exercise is good. Well, the right amount of exercise at the right intensity is good. The challenge is figuring out when enough is enough and when it’s just too much. The good news is that our bodies already know the answer. We just need to train our brains to recognize the signs for when to put the pedal to the metal and when to pump the brakes—and actually do it.

I Saw the Sign (But Did It Open Up My Eyes?): It’s understandable to think that exercise- or sports-related injuries are just plain bad luck. But freak accidents notwithstanding, there’s a good chance that before that ACL tore or that hammie popped, your body tried to warn you that injury was a-comin’ for you.

It might come as a surprise, but our bodies are incredibly smart. If we take the time to listen to them,”some very serious injuries or conditions could often be avoided,” says Dr. Doug Andrews, PT, director of sports medicine for Optim Healthcare. “When we experience pain, our body is definitely telling us that something is not right. It is up to each person to figure out what the signal means,” Dr. Andrews says.

Think of pain like the “check engine” light in a car. Turning a blind eye to this blinking light will inevitably result in a breakdown, granted the body’s warning signs can be more subtle than a car’s. (If only our knees came with a “Check ACL” light.) But when it comes to preventing small problems from turning into lasting injuries, there are symptoms and signals that act as the first line of defense . Sure, soreness and fatigue accompany many exercise routines, but being able to identify more serious aches and pains is more important than many endorphin-seeking, active folks might think.

Tune In to Common Warning Signs: It’s easier to hear the alarms our bodies are sounding when we know what to listen for. Get familiar with the warning signs of three common conditions that could be compromising performance in the gym or in everyday life.

1. Overtraining
Caused by too many intense workouts and not enough time recovering from them, overtraining feels, well, terrible. If you’ve ever experienced some combo of prolonged periods of fatigue, soreness that won’t go away, insomnia, a cold you can’t seem to kick, and heart rate fluctuations, chances are you’ve been overtrained.

What to listen for: While there’s not a single diagnostic test that determines overtraining, it does make its presence known pretty clearly. If you suspect you’re overtrained, it’s time to take a break from your workouts to focus on recovery. Take some rest days ASAP and focus on getting quality sleep and eating nutritious whole foods.

2. Injury
Just because some of our favorite pro sports moments involve an elite athlete heroically pushing through the pain of a brutal injury doesn’t mean we should follow suit. In fact, even minor sports-related injuries generally require intervention. So how do we know when to take a knee?

Most instances of soreness are caused by restriction of thefascia, or the connective tissue that interconnects our muscles and joints, which leads to aches, pains, and limited range of motion. Use a foam roller to break up the fascia then follow up with stretching.
After resting and stretching the ailing body part, it’s time to do some strengthening. But this time it’s not about PR-ing a lift. Focus on strengthening “the muscles that are weak… not the ones that are already strong.” This might be a good time to seek out a personal trainer or a coach, to assist in the recovery process.

3. Disordered Sleep

While some of us wear our late-night-early-morning routines like badges of honor, lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can wreak havoc on the body, productivityfitness routines, and overall sense of well-being  . And poor sleep isn’t an isolated event. Sleepiness compounds to create energy crashes during the day, increases stress hormones, and promotes poor eating habits. As the energy roller coaster dips, we often turn to caffeine, sugar, and energy drinks to combat fatigue. These quick fixes further complicate the energy crisis. It’s only a matter of time until illnessdepression, or chronic fatigue set in, but it’s not until the daily energy crash turns into an all out well-being train wreck that we begin to take notice.

Once you feel a bit more well-rested, turn your attention to fuel that provides lasting energy: Nutritious foods (protein instead of sugar, for example), plenty of water, and snacks when you need them. Put some limits around your coffeeconsumption, like having it only early in the day and perhaps in limited amounts.
The Takeaway

Considering how busy most of us are with school, work, relationships, family, working out, and the countless tiny things we make time for each day, it’s not surprising that we sometimes lose perspective on how we’re physically getting through it all. Sometimes the opportunity to rest, eat healthfully, or ditch the energy drink in favor of going to sleep a little earlier slips right past us. But resolving to pay extra close attention to our bodies’ “check engine” lights could be the difference between taking a few days off to tend to an ache or a cold and losing weeks or months to an injury or sickness you just can’t kick.

With love from the Trench kitchen,