5 Times When It’s Actually Smart To Call It Quits
When it comes to races, there’s not much more disappointing than the dreaded DNF next to your name. After all the time and energy you’ve spent training for a race, the decision to drop out early because you’re not feeling great can be an agonising one.
Unfortunately, there’s not always a clear-cut answer to whether or not you need to call it quits. After all, some discomfort is expected when you’re logging long distances. But how can you tell if you’re actually putting yourself at risk by plugging along?
“That’s the million-dollar question – people have to know their bodies and know what is discomfort from the race itself versus what’s a potential injury [or condition],” says exercise physiologist and running coach Jason Karp, Ph.D., author of The Inner Runner.
There are a few markers you can use to guide you, though. Here are five signs that you should considering dropping out – or at least making it to an aid station, where factors like your blood pressure and body temperature can help guide your decision.
1. You feel a sharp or stabbing pain, or hear a pop.
If you’re cruising along and feel a sudden, intense sharp or stabbing pain or hear a pop, that’s not great news – it’s probably a sign of acute trauma, says Karp. Whether it’s a sprained knee or a rolled ankle, if it continues to hurt as you run, you can end up doing more damage.
And while it’s pretty rare that someone would go into a race without knowing about an existing stress fracture, or a hairline crack in a bone, those symptoms shouldn’t be ignored if they pop up along the race route.
“It’s almost unmistakable because it’s a sharp pain located in one specific spot, whether it’s one of the smaller bones of the lower leg or the femur, and it would hurt upon landing because that’s when you’re bearing weight,” says Karp. Run though a stress fracture and you risk breaking a bone, leading to serious recovery time (and possibly surgery).
A good rule of thumb: If the pain is too intense for you to continue with your normal running gait, it’s probably not something you can (or should) finish the race on.
Still, not all pain is a clear sign you should pull out. For instance, many of the “itis” pains like tendonitis or plantar fasciitis are unlikely to lead to any long-term damage by running on them – as long as it’s pain you are familiar with, and that a doctor has already diagnosed as not being something more serious, like a stress fracture, says Karp.
Other examples of non-serious pains are IT band syndrome (where you feel pain on the outside of the knee) and shin splints, says John Hill, professor of sports medicine, orthopedics, and family medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
2. You feel confused or disorientated.
If you start feeling confused or disoriented in a race, that can be a major sign of a life-threatening condition called hyponatremia, which occurs when your sodium levels are too low. “When people drink too much fluid, they dilute the electrolytes in their bloodstream, primarily the sodium,” says Hill. You also might experience nausea and vomiting when this happens.
While this can be prevented by drinking water only when you’re thirsty and keeping your sodium levels up with things like salt tablets, once you’ve hit the point of true hyponatremia, that has to be slowly reversed by medical professionals via IV fluids. So yep, that means your race is done.
Confusion and disorientation can also be a sign of heat stroke, which would also warrant a DNF. This can be determined by having your core body temp checked out.
3. You stop sweating, or you can’t stop shivering.
Sure, when running conditions are bad, everyone’s in the same boat. But that doesn’t mean you should always tough it out.
If you’re dealing with hot and humid weather, stopping sweating is a major sign of heat stroke. “Sweating is the way that humans cool themselves,” explains Karp. Along with signs like lightheadedness, nausea, headache, and disorientation and confusion, stopping sweating is a flag that your thermogenic system isn’t working properly.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re running in freezing cold rain or wind and you can’t stop shivering, that can be a sign of hypothermia.
RELATED: Hypothermia: Know The Signs That Can Kill You
If you suspect you might have hypothermia, though, don’t just stop and rest. If you do, you’ll continue to cool your core temperature, which can be fatal, says Hill. Keep running until you can get to some aid, where you can warm up and dry off safely.
4. You’re having an asthma attack and you can’t breathe.
While this might seem obvious, Hill says it’s not always clear to runners that this is a reason to drop out – and a very serious one, too.
“If it’s pretty dusty or hot and someone isn’t controlling their asthma well or they have mild exercise-induced asthma or a bronchospasm, you can start feeling really short of breath,” says Hill. If you don’t treat that (whether that means taking a break or using your own asthma control medications), you can end up in a full-blown asthma attack.
“An asthma attack doesn’t just break in a couple minutes – it’s probably going to be about an hour of treatment,” says Hill.
5. You’re just plain miserable from non-serious aches and pains, and your race isn’t worth it.
Sometimes, you don’t have to be facing severe medical consequences to justify a DNF – if weather conditions are brutal or you’re in too much discomfort to continue (even if it’s familiar pain to you), dropping out might be your best bet.
In this case, think about the importance of the race to you, and its place in your overall race schedule or goals. “From a coaching perspective, it is useful for the athlete or coach to classify the race schedule using a scale comprised of A, B, and C races,” says running coach Gary Berard.
While an “A” race might be something you’ve trained especially hard for (or travelled for), a “C” race might be something you could consider a good workout, or practice for another race. (A “B” race would be somewhere in between.)
Giving your race a status can help you weigh the pros and cons, and ultimately arrive at a decision.