"The best way to beat pain is to not run through it," says Calvin "Geno" Mayes, D.P.T., a physical therapist and owner of Iron Physical Therapy in Caldwell, New Jersey. "The hardest thing for runners to do is the simplest thing: listen to your body. It gives you warning signs, but you have to pay attention."
An indication that something is up: pain in a joint like the knee, hip, or ankle; a particularly sore spot on one lower leg; and altering your stride to accommodate a tight or weak muscle. (In fact, here's how to tell when you need to take a break from your workout schedule or take a rest day.)
If you decide you need to take a break, start with RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) on the sore area. "If that doesn't work within 24 hours, ibuprofen or a similar pain reliever might help," Mayes says. Feel free to cross-train—swim, aqua-jog, bike—as long as it doesn't compound the pain. When a couple days off combined with DIY therapy brings little change, it's time to check in with a physical therapist. "If you notice a tightness that doesn't get some relief through targeted stretching, don't wait a month to treat it," adds Gillanders. "You will only cause further issues."
Ibuprofen or similar OTC meds can help relieve inflammation, but, says Gillanders, "that's a handful of days in the healing process. It typically doesn't help with chronic problems." And be aware that heating or cooling muscle creams are really pain-maskers, not pain-relievers. "If it feels good and helps you through a race, it's fine," says Mayes. "But realize that it's a temporary bandage. You need to figure out what's causing the pain." No matter what you're using, remember to practice the 10 Golden Rules of Injury Prevention regularly, to avoid any interruptions in your training.