Is it an Injury or Just a Niggle?

As an athlete, you have likely experienced that moment during exercise where things get a little uncomfortable. Breathing becomes labored, steps sound like slaps against the pavement, joints get stiff and that last curl feels like you’re lifting your car. For some, this can happen within the first mile of a run or first rep in the gym. For others, discomfort might not set in until mile 20 of their run.

We all know it’s coming, exercise is going to hurt at some point, and that’s usually okay. The tough part is telling the difference between a fatigued-induced niggle and an injury. As runners, and gym goers and people who live an active life, most of us are all too familiar with niggles, AKA annoying aches or pains. I continually evaluate what hurts before, after and during exercise to determine if it’s safe to train or if I should exercise my right to RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) instead.

Obviously, pain is a complicated thing. It can stop us in our tracks or validate a good workout. It can vary greatly from severe and sharp to dull and aching. What’s odd is that we tend to interpret pain in black and white when our the true state of health our health exists on varying shades of grey. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that something is damaged at the onset of a niggle, but this often isn’t the case.

So how to know when to suck it up and run through it or shut it down and see a medical professional? Here are a few tips.

The Basics

There are a few general rules you can apply to pain. Some are obvious: If you have a nasty limp, don’t hopp on the treadmill. Having said that, you learn to recognize your own body’s signs of pain. You know your body better than anyone and can tell that you can run through sore legs even if they’re causing a little waddle in your stride; you might just have to take it easy. You’ll learn to recognize this feeling of lactic acid build-up by experience and because the symptoms tend to come on gradually.

In some cases, if you feel pain a little twinge at the gym or on the run, stopping to stretch, changing the pace or surface you’re running on or just switching to the other side of the road might do the trick.

Fatigue and soreness are natural responses to any exercise program that places a strain on your body. In his book, Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running: How to Fix Injuries, Stay Active, and Run Pain-Free, Lewis G. Maharam says soreness usually appears 24-48 hours after exercise and should not last more than 48 hours after first signs. Pain, on the other hand, will be prolonged and usually isolated to one specific muscle or joint.

Lewis also points out that fatigue is also a frequent result of training that can cause the onset of niggles. If you are too fatigued to participate in your daily activities and it is affecting your quality of life, it’s time to reevaluate your workout regimen. Otherwise, fatigue is usually fine to run through as long as you are aware of it.

Mild Pain During or After Activity

Aches or pains that seem to be mild, and dissipate as the workout continues are something to monitor closely, but not always a red flag of an injury. Pay close attention to these minor pains and implement additional warm-up or stretching activities to help lessen their recurrence. If the pain persists in the coming days or weeks, lingers after the run, or gets worse throughout the workout, shut it down. Otherwise, it’s fine to continue your training plan as long as you pay close attention to the pain and most importantly, are honest with yourself about how it is feeling.

Mild Pain That Increases With Activity

If pain continues to get worse throughout the activity, avoid that activity until you can do it pain-free. If possible, see a physical therapist immediately. They can often help evaluate the cause of the pain and work to alleviate it before it gets worse. Moreover, PTs will let you know what activities to avoid, if you can cross train and how to care for the injury to speed up recovery time. Recently, I dealt with a little Achilles annoyance that, without the proper care, quickly elevated to more than just a niggle. Instead of running through it, I took a few days off and saw talented Boulder-based trainer Joe Cavarretta, who helped diagnose my pain. I was able to cross train through the pain and was running again within a week.

Persistent and Extreme Pain

If you have severe, acute, persistent pain in a muscle or joint, then you’re probably injured. Lewis says pain can happen instantly or over time due when pain is ignored and becomes worse. Significant swelling, severe pain, giving way or locking of a joint are all signs of injury that are important to get checked out.