Quitting, Pulling the Plug, Modifying: Learning to Listen to Your Body

As a triathlon coach and seasoned athlete, I’ve always pushed the boundaries of my endurance. Yet, there comes a time when you must confront a tough decision: stopping a workout before it’s completed. Recently, I found myself in this situation during one of my all-time favorite rides—a 120-miler through East County, encompassing the challenging terrains of Mt. Laguna and Engineers Road. This ride, which I partake in at least once a year at the renowned Smiles for Miles Winter Camp hosted by Hillary Biscay, is a testament to endurance and resilience.

Reflecting on my journey, let’s rewind to 2023, arguably my most challenging season. In May, a persistent GI bug took up residence in my gut, leading to a miserable two months. This illness cascaded into multiple stress reactions in my foot, halting all running activities for the next ten weeks. My training shifted to a painful mix of biking and swimming. As my foot started to heal, an unfortunate encounter with a pinecone during a bike ride resulted in a fractured trochanter—a major setback that paused my biking and newly resumed running for six weeks. Back to swimming I went.

By November, I began rebuilding my routine, focusing on consistent swimming, biking, running, and strength training. The journey back was more humbling than ever, but I stayed the course. In early December, just as I was regaining some normalcy, my back gave out, a consequence of an overzealous run and an unfortunate collision with a dog. The following three weeks were incredibly tough; I was on the brink of quitting the sport altogether.

However, I persevered and gradually began rebuilding my strength and stamina. Fast forward to today: I’ve had eight successful, pain-free runs, slowly but surely increasing my time on foot. The Winter Camp was going well, with no issues during Thursday’s coastal spin or the challenging Palomar + Cole Grade ride on Friday, despite some back pain post-ride. Saturday’s hike/run and a 100×100 pool session went smoothly too.

Then came the “Queenstage Ride” today. Initially, I felt good, but about 90 minutes in, my back started to twinge. The old me would have downed more ibuprofen and powered through, but I’ve learned that sometimes, the bravest thing to do is to pull back. I wanted to run tomorrow, so I made the tough call to turn around, cutting my ride to 4 hours instead of 8. It was a decision I struggled to feel good about, yet it was the smart thing to do.

Over my 10+ years of coaching, I’ve seen athletes of all kinds—from those who regularly give up to those who push through at all costs (like I used to). The key, I’ve learned, is to find a balance. It’s about understanding yourself as an athlete and a person, and making decisions that lead to being the best you can be. Today, I chose to listen to my body, and though it’s a challenge to accept, it’s a step towards being a smarter, more resilient athlete and coach

For the athlete to effectively navigate the delicate balance between pushing their limits and listening to their body, athletes must engage in introspective questioning and consider specific factors. Here are some guiding questions and areas to ponder:

  • Physical Sensations: Are you experiencing normal discomfort for your training, or is it a sign of potential injury or overtraining? Learning to differentiate between the two is vital.
  • Recent Health History: Have you recently recovered from an illness or injury? If so, are you giving your body enough time to recuperate fully?
  • Long-Term Goals vs. Immediate Gratification: Will pushing through today’s workout contribute to your long-term goals, or might it set you back due to potential injury or burnout?
  • Mental State: Are you feeling mentally exhausted or unusually demotivated? Mental fatigue can be as impactful as physical fatigue.
  • Consistency Over Intensity: Are you consistently hitting your key workouts or frequently pushing too hard and needing extra recovery days?
  • Feedback from Your Body: What is your heart rate telling you? Are your recovery metrics (like heart rate variability) within normal ranges?
  • External Factors: Consider external stressors such as work, family, or personal issues. Are these affecting your ability to train effectively and recover?
  • Enjoyment: Are you still finding joy in your training? Losing the joy can indicate that you’re pushing too hard or not balancing training with other aspects of life.

By regularly engaging with these questions and assessing these areas, athletes can better navigate the fine line between pushing themselves to achieve their best and respecting their bodies’ limits. This self-awareness leads to more informed, healthier decisions supporting long-term success and well-being in sporting endeavors.

Julie Dunkle

CO-FOUNDER, COACH, CHIEF MARKETING MAESTRO / Julie is the badass; the ultimate leader. Her self-belief is contagious. You’ll want to rally behind her, and you’ll feel her rally behind you.