What It Really Means to “Listen to Your Body” (and why it matters)
When we start working together, many of my clients ask me if they should keep running while going through my program to heal their foot pain or a lower limb injury.
The first thing I typically explain is that if the pain is causing a gait change, compensation, stress in other parts of the body, or mental anguish, it’s best to give it a rest.
The next question I typically get is, “For how long”?
And my usual response is, “Listen to your body.”
I realize this might sound like a pat answer…maybe even vague or dismissive. Still, I say it with confidence knowing I am teaching my clients the skills they need to be able to listen to their bodies – to know when it’s giving them the green light to go ahead and run, the yellow light to proceed with caution or the red light which is a hard “Nope, not yet.”
Listening to our bodies is the polar opposite of what most of us were taught from childhood. As kids, we were forced to sit in chairs at desks for hours and ignore our body’s signals to move. We were taught to eat at specific times and ignore our body’s hunger signals. As adults, we have to get up with an alarm to get ready for work. We have deadlines and responsibilities and can’t just lie down and take a nap in the middle of the day if we need rest.
For most of our lives, we have perfected the art of ignoring our body’s signals, including pain and discomfort.
As runners, this often means ignoring the little “niggles” that are trying to get our attention and telling us that something is wrong before it turns into a “thing”. Too often, we ignore the initial warning signs, and before we know it, we are dealing with full-blown achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, or, even worse, a stress fracture.
But is it simply because we’re stubborn or willful or in denial? Is it because runners are a “tough breed” and have “just suck it up” personalities?
I don’t think that’s the case.
So many runners get injured because they have lost the ability to sense their bodies from within. They have lost the ability to hear their bodies' signals because they were never really taught to listen.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the ability to listen, hear and respond to our body is something we can improve. It’s called interoception.
Interoception is the perception of sensations inside the body – including physical sensations and emotions.
When we ask ourselves, “How do I feel?, " our interoceptive ability allows us to answer.
Interoceptive skills are an essential and often overlooked component of any injury prevention and recovery program.
One of the simplest ways to increase our interoceptive ability is to check in with ourselves throughout the day regularly. We can pause and ask ourselves “How do I feel?” “What do I need?” It might sound silly and even feel weird to do this, but it’s only because it’s not something we have been taught to do.
Another way to increase our interoceptive ability is to engage in activities and practices that utilize our interoceptive skills. An interoceptive activity focuses on creating and noticing a change in some aspect of one’s internal self, like one’s muscles, breathing or pulse.
Somatic neuromuscular education is one of the primary things I teach my clients. It involves doing simple movements that work at the level of one’s brain and nervous system to reset the resting level of tension in the muscles. This type of training is one of the best ways to improve one’s interoceptive ability.
Your brain learns through contrast. For this reason, before every neuromuscular release, we do a “check-in” – scanning our body from head to toe and noticing how it feels…What feels tight? How does one side feel compared to the other? The movements are then done very slowly and mindfully, with eyes closed so we can sense how it feels to contract the muscles and how it feels to release them. Through this process, we are regaining voluntary control of our muscles. This learning process is the key to unlocking our bodies and finding freedom of movement. After each movement or set of movements, we check in again to compare the “before” and “after”. In doing this process regularly, we are not only releasing muscle tension and increasing our mobility, but we are also improving our interoceptive ability.
Imagine the time, energy, money, and mental anguish it could save you if you could nip those little “niggles” in the bud before they turn into an issue or injury that puts you out of commission.
This is what it means to take responsibility for our health. There is so much we can do to avoid pain and injury, so that we don't have to overly rely on others to fix our bodies for us.
Learning to listen, hear and respond to our body’s needs and signals is life-changing and one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.