Lungs and Legs: Two Kinds of Running Pain

Many many years ago, when I was a skinny and comparatively quick high school distance runner, all of us on the track team were doing intervals—200s, I think. These were terrible for me. I was a pretty good distance runner, but I was a pitiful sprinter, and worse yet, the coach had split us into two teams of mixed sprinter and distance runners, and the intervals were a sort of relay race, one team against the other. I was obviously the weak link.

As we came around to on of the last intervals, the guy on the other team—I can’t remember his name, Jerrod, maybe, a decent but unexceptional sprinter—got the baton before me and jumped out to a significant lead. Everyone  knew what would happen. Jerrod may not have been a great sprinter, but I was genuinely bad.

But those 200 meters changed me forever. I was wiped out. Everyone was wiped out. It had been a hard workout and we were at the end of practice and people were bent over gasping between intervals. But I remember that race to this day, decades later. I started out pushing, feeling as usual like I was running through molasses. Panting hard, breathing heavy, and struck with that not-enough-air pain of running we all know. Then, for some reason, I just accepted that pain. I didn’t fight it, or even fight though it. I just accepted it. Absorbed it. Embraced it maybe. The pain was a message, not a statement of my limits, and I could listen to message but not obey it. Then I focused not on my gasping breath, but on my legs. They still had something. I might not be able to breathe, but it was only 200 meters and my legs didn’t need air.

I didn’t quite catch Jerrod, but I almost did, and the coach—everyone, in fact—asked me  what in the world had happened. What came over me? I didn’t know. I still wasn’t a sprinter, but from then on, no matter how much I was gasping for air, I could always find another gear by embracing the pain and switching my focus from my breathing to my legs. It’s my late-race strategy to this day.

Thinking about this, I’ve come to believe running hurts in at least two very different ways. First, there is the lung pain that fills your chest, telling you that you’re not getting enough air. Slow Down, it yells at you. At the same time, though, there is the leg pain that is your muscles hurting from too much—and too long—work. This is the dead leg feeling, the increasing difficulty of lifting each leg with each step.

So maybe one trick to running is to think about the pain that hurts less. Legs dying? Think about how solid and strong your breathing is. Gasping for air? Think about your strong and powerful legs. You pretty much always have more in the tank than your worst pain lets you believe.

I should clarify here: this still hurts. Switching focus to your legs is not a way of minimizing the pain you feel from overtaxing your lungs. At least not for long. It’s more a way of borrowing against that pain in the firm awareness that every moment’s respite will have to be paid back with interest when you cross the line. Sometimes before.

Today, for example, I was doing 1600 repeats, aiming for each to be around 6:15. As I was heading into the last quarter mile of my last repeat, I was wiped. It’s been two hard weeks, it’s still unreasonably hot and humid outside, and I was clearly outrunning my aerobic capacity as my lungs were getting to that burning I’m-going-to-die-soon feeling. So I turned my attention to my legs, and sure enough, there was something there. Stored glycogen? Who knows. I’m no biologist. But there was a strength there—or at least a pain that was less than that in my lungs—and I knew no matter how my lungs felt I could make those legs go a bit faster for at least another ¼ mile.  I knew it because decades ago, I almost beat Jerrod one time.

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Author: Steve

Researcher of narrative and political identity. Teacher of English at South Texas College. Would-be middle distance runner.

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