Updated: Feb 16, 2022
Have you started noticing pain or soreness during or after your runs?
It's normal and okay to feel soreness, discomfort, and occasionally a mild amount of pain with running.
At some point, most runners will experience soreness, tightness, or pain that's a frustrating complication to their running plan.
But the problem is that most runners don't have a solid system to navigate what to do when this happens.
Should you keep running through the soreness?
Take a day or two off? Slow your pace?
When do you get to the point where you need more guidance?
What about when you're training for a race or a competition and you can't afford to completely stop your training but you also don't want to make the pain worse?
You need a solid decision-making framework to help you understand what type of soreness you're experiencing and how to adjust your running plan so that it gets better and not worse.
Making the wrong decisions about running when you experience pain can make all the difference in your body's ability to recover or develop a more long-term issue.
We've worked with hundreds of Memphis runners, and one of the most valuable things we teach them is this framework for how to make smart decisions about their training plan when they experience pain.
The Red, Yellow, Green Light Decision-Making System
How do I know what the different levels feel like?
First, let’s think about the pain you experience during your run.
Green zone type of pain is a 0-2/10 pain. It's one where you think to yourself, “I'm aware that my right knee feels different than my left knee”.
Yellow zone type of pain is 3-5/10. It's the pain where you think to yourself, “my right knee is in noticeable discomfort in comparison to my left knee”.
Red zone type of pain is 6 or greater/10. It's the pain that is sharp, shooting, burning. It may take your breath away. It may even alter your mechanics or the way you usually complete your run.
Next, let’s think about the pain consistency throughout your runs.
Was the pain a 1/10 at the start and then stayed a 1 throughout the run? Great! This is again in the green zone!
Did the pain start at a 1/10 but climbed to 3/10? That’s okay, you're still in the yellow zone.
Was the pain initially a 1/10 but then ballooned up to 6-7/10 during the run. That's now a red zone type of pain. You need to change something. Try slowing your pace or walking for a few minutes and see if it comes back down and stays down.
Finally, monitor your pain and soreness following your runs.
Do you have no pain or soreness after your run? Great, you're in the green zone, have fun!
Do you have pain or soreness for less than 24 hours after the run? You're okay! You're in the yellow zone... stay where you are for a week or two to allow your body to strengthen and adapt until you can do this same run in the green zone.
Do you have pain or soreness that last longer than 24 hours? You're in the red zone and have done a little bit too much. We need to reassess and adjust your current level of running.
Another thing to consider is the level of pain you experience after a run.
Many runners experience pain that goes away as they run, but this can be confusing.
Even if you feel great during most of your run, if you experience a Level 6-10 pain within 24 hours of running, that's still a red light.
It's common for runners to be sore when they start running, feel great for the rest of their run, but then have pain later in the day after they've been sitting for awhile and get up to move. Or the next morning they wake up and have a lot of pain walking (example: plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendon pain) or going down the stairs (example: patella tendon pain).
Anytime you hit a 6-10 level pain after running, that's a red light.
Now you might be left with the question "When is it okay to start running longer, faster, or more frequently?"
The key is being honest with yourself on which zone your current pain is in.
If you're in the green zone, now is when you are able to change a variable in your training. Feel free to gradually increase your frequency, duration, and intensity.
If you're in the yellow zone, it's okay to stay at the level where you are, but it's not the time to change anything until your body adapts. The key is to not push beyond yellow light levels of pain and to let your body adapt to that level of running before pushing further. Work on building strength and tolerance to this level of running and then retesting higher levels variables when you get back to the green light zone.
If you're in the red zone, you need to dial back one of your training variables. The goal is for you to get back into the yellow or green zone.
If you don't take a step back when you first feel red lights, your body may become so irritated and sensitized that you risk having to pull back from running for a longer period of time.
Monitoring your levels of pain during and after exercise is very important to preventing injuries and efficiently progressing with your sport.
While there is some nuance to how this translates in different bodies and types of exercise, this system is a reliable framework to begin making smart decisions about how to train around pain.
If you've been experiencing red zone or yellow zone pain for a while and adjusting your activity level doesn't seem to be making a real long-term change, this is when you need to seek guidance from a specialist.
We can diagnose what's wrong and provide a strategic treatment plan that will walk you step by step through recovery and back into training for performance.
Sometimes it's just confusing to gauge what level of pain you're experiencing and how to make adjustments. Our experts can help you understand why you're experiencing pain and guide you through a custom running treatment plan.