Posted by: Joe English | February 14, 2007

Training: the ‘regular’ aches and pains of running

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

It occurred to me the other day that running hurts.

What I mean by that is that sometimes, after a run, our bodies get stiff, sore and maybe even painful.

A number of my runners have been almost in a panic about these aches and pains and I, like any coach, have rushed in with my assortment of pain relieving goodies: ice, Advil, stretching, new shoes. I jump right into injury prevention and treatment mode – like a doctor with a patient on the table, I’m looking to heal whatever is hurting them. But hold on a sec. . . sometimes running just hurts.

Let me give you an example.

This past Saturday and Sunday I did two long runs. I’m training for an ultra-trail marathon in two weeks, so I’ve been logging some healthy miles. I did 17 miles on Saturday and 16 miles on Sunday. I felt OK on Saturday night, but Sunday evening I was literally lying on the floor watching the Grammy awards. I was lying on the floor because I was exhausted and it seemed to require less energy to lay on the floor watching the TV rather than sitting on the couch. But when I needed to get up, and as I rolled myself upward back onto my feet, I found myself slightly hunched forward and walking like a very, very, old man. My hip flexors (the muscles in the front of the hip) were just totally tightened up.

Now I’ve run more than 20 miles in a day probably a couple of hundred times in my life. I’ve been running distance consistently for years. Yet, I was cramped and tight and hurting.

But here’s the thing. I wasn’t injured. Nothing was wrong with me- other than that I had run many miles over those last two days.

So let’s think about our training for a minute. What we consider a long run really depends on your level of experience. For a beginning runner, 2 miles might be a long run. For an advanced runner, two 15 milers might be taxing. Either way, when we run a long way, our muscles go through a process of fatigue, recovery and rebuilding. The fatigue sets in fairly quickly and is probably what drops us prone onto the couch for the afternoon after our runs. The soreness that sets in over the next 24 hours has to do with the muscles repairing the damage that’s been done during the run. And then the general fatigue over the next couple of days has to do with the body responding to that run and getting ready for new, even longer, runs in the future. This response is what allows us to go progressively further: as we push ourselves over longer distances, the body responds by building more muscular strength and increasing our aerobic capacity. That’s how we make progress over time.

Think of it this way. If you dropped down and did 100 push-ups right now, your arms would likely be sore. If you did 150 push-ups next week, they’d probably get sore again, but I bet they would be as sore as if you did 150 push-ups right now. After doing the first 100, you’re body made some changes that made you better able to do push-ups in the future. The reason that you’re sore again the next time is because you did 50 more than the first time.

What we’re doing when we get progressively longer with our workouts is adding miles rather than push-ups. What we also have to do is to add those miles slowly over time and with enough recovery in between that we allow the body to respond. It we do too much or build too quickly, we will go from just being in a little pain to actually injuring ourselves.

There is a fine line between the normal hurt of a long run and a real injury.

Injuries result from doing too much more in those long runs than previous runs. Injuries result from pushing too hard on those sore and painful muscles. Injuries happen when we do too much, too fast, without giving the body a chance to recover.

So here are a couple of things to consider when you’re aching, fatigued or sore after those long runs:
1) It’s normal to feel some effects of your long runs. There will most likely be some soreness, stiffness and tightness after you run long – regardless of your level of fitness.
2) Watch out for pain that is getting progressively worse in any particular area of the body. If things are getting worse, then you need to find the source of the problem and correct. And you likely need to take some time off to let the body deal with the problem.
3) Keep an eye on how long it takes for pain, soreness or stiffness to subside. As you get more experienced, it will take less and less time to recover from your workouts. But if it takes longer for you to recover, add the appropriate amount of rest days after those long runs to make sure that you’re recovered properly. (My schedules typically give runners about 36 hours recovery (from Saturday Morning until Monday night) but you may need 48 hours after yours.
4) Pain during a run is more concerning to me that pain after a run. Pain during a run might indicate swelling (as with tendentious), trauma (as with a stress fracture or rolled ankle) or a gear problem (as with a shoe fit issue). Pay careful attention to pain that develops while you’re running. Stop and stretch if needed or correct whatever is causing the problem. If you’ve done something traumatic during a run, stop running.

Sure running is fun and is something we love to do – but it comes with a price. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day (when this was published), hopefully the expression “it hurts so good” applies to running as much as it does to love.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. Coach, as a 47year old who has been running for over 35 years and has done over 100 races including 16 marathons, I can tell you that your comments about the fact that it just hurts sometimes are right on target. My 14 year old son started training back in August for his first half-marathon (he has now run 2) and he would come in and tell me this hurts, that hurts, this is sore, this is… etc. Everything he told me were typical aches and pains of pushing his body to new limits, and usually I would look at him with a smile and say, “And your point is?” He has now learned that this is a part of the process, and I’ve told him that he will also learn when pain might be an injury as he gains more experience. Thanks for a great post.

  2. I just ran a 2 mile run. And I don’t usually run, so as expected my legs have been killing for the past 2 days. Stiff and painful, but for me it’s a sign of progress and sucess. In my mind the muscle aching shows that I’ve sucessfully pushed myself and my muscles. Now afterwards I’m stronger because of it.

    I usually lift, but I am trying now to run at least once a week. I agree with everything you’ve said Coach Joe. Pain is normal and for me it’s good in the way that your muscles are repairing. When I feel pain after I’ve lifted, especially in an area like arms I feel accomplished. That’s just my take.

  3. Yip. I’m with Phil.S. Was pointed to this post after commenting (aka gurning/moaning) on my aches, I take them as an indicator that I’ve pushed myself enough. If I didn’t experience them, I’d push myself harder the next time. Every ache I feel, I picture the muscle tearing & repairing getting stronger each time. It’s a good ache. Same with gym work. The knack for me is to acknowledge and recognise the difference between ache & causing damage I think. So far I’ve made the right calls and stopped short of excessive *touches wood*

    Sometimes I just like a wee moan though….

    Suffering from ‘Old Woman’ syndrome because I’ve been a backslider over the winter and I was a novice to start with.

    Looking forward to the dolphins again

    Embracing the ache in the meantime 🙂

  4. Thanks Joe this article cheered me up to do better. Now I know it wasn’t a sickness it was because my body is lazy and i haven’t been doing enough outside time. Yesterday I went outside yesterday and played basket ball for an hour and I was doing a lot of rebounding which it is a a lot of running ,jumping, slapping and side to side motion and after that my legs were hurting like crazy!! i just need to get used to doing that kind of exercise everyday. I used to play basketball everyday but after summer I stopped playing.

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