Experiencing “Phantom Pain” During Marathon Training

Have you ever found yourself obsessing over little aches and pains as you get closer to race day? It’s not uncommon.

Here is a question from a reader wanting me to explain phantom pain in more detail. Happy to help!

I remember one time you talked about phantom pain. Can you explain it again? I’m almost positive I’ve been suffering from it. Thanks Brittany

Phantom Pain During Marathon Training

I’m sorry to hear that you’re dealing with this.  The term phantom pain is generally used to refer to pain coming from a part of the body that is no longer there (like in the case of an amputation).  But it is occasionally used in running circles because it’s common for runners to have niggles, discomfort, pain, or issues pop up during training or in the tapering period before a race. 

This is typically pain, aches, muscle cramping, stiffness, or discomfort that you haven’t experienced before (or haven’t dealt with for a long time) that suddenly appears without cause and starts to cause a lot of worry.  

There are a few explanations for this type of experience which are partly psychological and part physical.  A runner can be feeling a lot of pressure (either internal or external) in the pre-race period which leads them to hyper focus on every aspect of how they’re feeling. 

Typically the runner is also running fewer miles during the taper and this can lead to more time on your hands to worry.  This anxiety can cause tension which can lead to physical manifestations of that tension in your muscles.  This tension may lead to reduced circulation and reduced oxygenation to areas of the body which can cause the sensation of pain. The pain is real but it can be a result of psychological reasons. 

Another reason for feeling strange sensations is that your body is actually doing some repair work during the taper.  It’s using this time of reduced mileage and reduced intensity to catch up. Your immune system may also be a bit compromised from hard training and this necessitates the body slowing down a bit so that it can bounce back stronger. This immune system activity may result in increased fluid retention leaving you feeling heavy, slow, or like you’re gaining weight.

Typically the best thing you can do if you think you’re dealing with any discomfort where you can’t pinpoint a cause is to acknowledge what’s going on. Trying to deny that you’re feeling stress or anxiety over this issue will only make it worse in that it will probably take over your thoughts.  Then recommit to taking it easy during the tapering period trusting that your body will work it out. 

It may even be helpful to tell yourself that this pain is just the body’s way of healing itself.  Focusing on positive mantras that your body is strong and healthy would also be helpful.  Make sure you’re supporting the body by getting plenty of rest, hydration, and healthy food.  You may also want to schedule a massage to help work out any tension (just make sure that you don’t get one closer than a week before the race unless this is something you’ve done before). I’ve found that daily meditation is an amazing way to decrease anxiety and put things into perspective.

If you are dealing with a true injury or start of an injury be sure to seek help early so that you can have the best chance of healing and having a great race experience. Remember that it’s better to go into a race undertrained and healthy than over-trained and fighting injury or illness.

Meb Keflezighi even talks about this in his new book when he was preparing for marathon #6 at the 2005 NYC Marathon. He dealt with a quad injury during the world championships in the 10k and had to DNF the race after 4k. He writes,

People talk about going the extra mile, about how doing so is a sign of how dedicated you are. I thought, “No, go one less mile. Prevent a big setback from pushing too hard.” . . . Go one less mile doesn’t mean slacking off. It means knowing your limits, pushing up to the edge of them, and then having the discipline to pull back a bit…By listening to my body rather than ignoring it, I was able to progress nicely one I resumed running…My quad was completely recovered by race day . . . I always say it’s better to be undertrained than overtrained . . . I was ecstatic as I finished third in 2:09:56, just three seconds slower than my personal best, despite being so undertrained.

For a good laugh read this post:
My Calf Muscles are Ripping Apart – And Other Strange Fixations

2 Responses to Experiencing “Phantom Pain” During Marathon Training

  1. Lars-Christian @ Run161 February 23, 2019 at 4:27 pm #

    Taper crazies are real, and they can drive you over the edge! I really like that quote from Meb’s book, and it is something I try to live by. Better to be undertrained at the starting line, than overtrained on the couch.

    It’s a difficult balancing act, though, and the same goes for phantom pains too. What do we push through in training, and what do we have to make accommodations for in our training plans?

    • Angie Spencer February 26, 2019 at 9:38 am #

      Right on! It can definitely be a tough call to know when to push through an issue in training and when to take a step back. If you think that you may be dealing with an overuse issue or muscle imbalance it’s best to address it early and get help. If you’re dealing with a persistent ache, limp, sharp pain, discomfort that continues for more than 3 days it’s best to take an extra rest day and see if that will clear up the issue. If the problem returns during the next run or hurts when you’re not running try taking two rest days from running in a row and then do another short test run. If the pain continues it’s a sign that you need to be more aggressive about intervention (self-treatment, doctor’s appointment, physio/PT, chiropractor, etc). There’s no one-size fits all way to deal with this issue but I’d say that most runners error on the side of not treating the issue soon enough.

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