when to listen to your body and when to ignore it

how to walk the fine line between hard work and self-care.

Nancy Chen
6 min readAug 13, 2018
Photo by the SmoothieBox Team

“Love your body. Don’t push it too hard. Listen to your body. Take care of it.”

“Work hard. Push past the pain. Find your mental breaking point. Your mind is stronger than your body.”

These two points of view are quite contradictory. At what point do you decide that your body is just being a baby and you need to work harder in your workout class?

Or for athletes, should you even listen to what your body says? How will you ever become great if you back off at the first sensation of pain?

I’ve found that wonderful space where you push past your pain threshold and you enter a zone of no pain and great mental clarity. That’s how you become better, but how do you do that safely?

And how do we know when it’s too much? When the pain is something that isn’t just weakness leaving the body, but rather a sign of something that’s wrong?

There are so many questions.

Body cues are something that most people find difficult to interpret in the first place. Add in the war between working hard, pushing yourself, and preventing injury, and you’ll find that it’s hard to have one without the other.

My advice?

Follow the 4 rules below and you’ll find yourself confidently walking that fine line between honoring your body and challenging it.

1. Use correct form.

Photo by Bizzy Coffee Team

This is the key to preventing injury. When you exercise a lot, especially if it’s the same exercise, you’re working the same muscles over and over again. If you use incorrect form, this causes even more wear and tear on your muscles (and bones, depending on what exercise you do), which leads to injury over time.

By slowing down and focusing on correct form (and drilling that into yourself), you can minimize your risk of injury.

2. Take recovery seriously.

Photo by Venture Travelist on Instagram

Taking another cue from swimming here. We used to prioritize recovery over everything.

I would nap at every single chance I got, eat snacks as soon as I got out of the water, and stretch extensively. It was necessary because we’d have less than 12 hours between each of our sessions in the pool, and during peak season, had less than 3 days between each of our swim meets.

After I stopped competing, I took recovery much less seriously. After all, I was no longer an athlete, so why did it matter?


Here’s the secret: take recovery as seriously as an elite athlete would.

Oftentimes, recovery is built into an athlete’s schedule. They have coaches to tell them what stretches to do and for how long. When to rest. To yell at them if they haven’t cooled down after practice.

But for the rest of us? When life get so busy, recovery can be pushed to the side. My tip? Develop a post-workout recovery routine.

Mine looks something like this:

  1. Stretch. Ideally spend at least 5 minutes on this. I make sure to stretch my legs and to open up my hips since they tend to be tight, so I do the splits, hamstring stretches, and half-pigeon.
  2. Foam Roll. I got really into this when my IT band started giving me problems. Foam rolling helps break down the lactic acid in your muscles so they feel less sore.
  3. Hydrate. Drink water. If you’ve had a long and very sweaty workout (workouts over an hour, workouts where you sweat more than usual, long runs, long swims etc.), get some electrolytes into your body. I used to mix Gatorade with water when I swam, but now there are a ton more natural forms of electrolytes, like watermelon water, coconut water, maple water, and natural electrolyte mixes.
  4. Eat. I personally like to work out before a meal because post-workout snacks are annoying. I’m never satisfied. I’d rather just sit down and eat. But either way, make sure to nourish your body. Check out this article for the best post-workout snacks (specifically for boxing, but they work for every workout) or this article for the best quick and easy post-workout meals.
  5. Sleep. Pretty self-explanatory. This is when your body repairs itself. Obviously if you workout in the morning, you can’t just go back to bed, but try to get a nap in during the day or make sure to get your body’s optimal hours of sleep (this is different for everyone, but my body loves the “standard” 8 hours).

One thing to take note of is your heart rate. If your heart rate is consistently elevated or is taking a longer time than usual to return to a normal rate after your workout, you might be having trouble recovering. In this case, prioritize rest.

3. Don’t hold back.

Photo by the SmoothieBox Team

Short, intense bursts of exercise followed by periods of rest (AKA “HITT” workouts) are proven to be effective in increasing endurance and cardiovascular health.

You can use this formula in almost any scenario. In cardio, in boxing, even in yoga sculpt. Rest is often built-in, but you need to know when to push yourself.

Work on pushing yourself as hard as you can, but also give yourself rest to make your workouts effective.

If you’re purposely doing an endurance, steady-state workout, focus on that.

For example, in swimming, longer sets usually come at a slower pace but less rest at the wall. Sprint sets come with an “all-out” pace and large amounts of rest.

4. Be aware of your body’s cues.

Your body has a total energy expenditure limit. That’s why elite athletes spend so much time sleeping, napping, and resting. That’s why during swim, we would push ourselves harder than we ever have, then take 1–2 weeks to taper AKA be horizontal for as much as possible before a major competition.

That’s why, if you feel completely wiped out after your workout, if you can’t concentrate on your work, if you can’t even bring yourself to do small tasks like walk to the grocery store, you might have hit that limit. Not only are these symptoms of overtraining, but they’re also signs that you need to scale something back in your life.

That’s why if you have a particularly long day at work, you feel more drained during your workout than if you’d spent the day in bed.

Because mental stress is draining too.

It’s always a balance with your body. The more energy you spend on an intense workout, the less energy you have to expend on other life things.

It’s your choice where to expend that energy.



Nancy Chen

author, fitness instructor & email marketer. I get weirdly enthusiastic about productivity ideas & human psychology. www.nancylinchen.com