HOW TO COPE WITH A RUNNING INJURY
Two years. Actually, closer to two and a half years. That’s how long I’ve been perpetually ‘recovering’ from my most recent running-related injury. During this time, as I’ve attempted to rehab and get back into running, I’ve experienced setbacks and triumphs. I’ve worn a walking boot, had x-rays and MRI’s, gone through two physical therapists, stopped running completely for months at a time, decided that running isn’t for me, decided that I can’t live without running, and continued to hold on tight as the emotional roller coaster whipped me around like a…well, like something that gets whipped around a lot. The injury-in-question came about partially due to genetics, and partially due to biomechanical issues. It manifested during a period of high mileage and hill training in preparation for my first (and only, thus far) marathon. I completed my marathon, but ever since, my injury has been hanging on like a stubborn cowboy riding a psychotic bull. And not just for eight seconds. And with no rodeo clown in sight. I think I’ve successfully hog-tied this simile…
I’m currently caught in a cycle of trying to gradually increase my training distance and frequency, while my body protests whenever it thinks I might be pushing just a tad too much. I'm also caught in a cycle of recording ridiculous TV shows on my DVR that I know I'll never watch. But that's a story for another publication. Or a therapist.
If you’ve run for any significant length of time, you can probably relate to my story. We runners get injured. It comes with the territory. Running is good for our health, fitness and well-being, but it can also be hard on the body, unless you're one of those genetic freaks that never gets a calf twinge or an achy knee. If that’s your story, I am in awe of you…and I despise you. I’m kidding. Come back!
For the sake of argument, let’s assume we’re all currently injured (which would make me feel better, actually, since I could probably jog my way to an age group victory on any given weekend. But then…you probably could, too. There goes that theory). How, then, do we navigate the rough waters that lay ahead? Allow me to propose a few Do’s and Don’ts.
DO: EXPECT TO GO THROUGH THE ‘STAGES OF GRIEF’
If running has been a major part of your life (an ‘addiction’, in some cases), and you’re suddenly unable to do it due to a serious injury, you might actually have to work your way through the so-called Five Stages of Grief…at least to some extent. I did. Initially, I thought I could push my way through the discomfort (fig. 1). “I’ve had aches like this before,” I reasoned, “so I'm sure this will go away if I just keep running.” Once it became apparent that I’d have to quit running, I became frustrated (the ‘anger’ stage). Soon after, there came a period when I tried to bargain with my body; running lower mileage, fewer days per week. When even that approach proved unsuccessful, I entered a state of mild depression. Not clinical, but a definite sadness due to the fact that I couldn’t continue doing something that was such an important part of my life. The final stage—acceptance—is something I’m still working on, as I continue to test and discover what my body will allow me to do.
DON’T: LET YOUR DIET GET OUT OF CONTROL
Going from several hours of running per week to virtually zero will have a big effect on your caloric needs. Your caloric wants, however, may not be in compliance (fig. 2). While your body was once a fuel-burning furnace, stoked by piles of pasta, pancakes and ice cream, the heat has been turned down out of necessity…or, more accurately, a lack of necessity. Unless your goal is to bulk up (yes, I’ve done it a few times), then more care must be taken in selecting both the quantity and quality of food that’s eaten while you’re sidelined.
Doing other activities, if cleared to do so by your sports doctor or PT, will not only help you to stay fit while you’re recovering from injury, but it can also help to fill the mental and emotional void that running used to fill. If you’re new to cross-training, you may find a new sport or exercise that you enjoy. Just make sure you choose an exercise that actually resembles an athletic activity, with some physical benefits (fig. 3). Good choices include aqua running, lap swimming, cycling, rowing, elliptical training, weight lifting and walking. Again, make sure your choice doesn’t affect your injury or delay your recovery.
DON’T: NEGLECT P.R.I.C.E. AND STRETCHING
Injuries are good reminders to be more fastidious about maintaining our bodies, especially as we get older. For most injuries, consider using the P.R.I.C.E. approach to treatment. According to sportsmedicine.about.com, “one of the most popular acronyms to remember if you get a sports injury is PRICE, which stands for Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. Using these immediate first aid measures is believed to relieve pain, limit swelling and protect the injured soft tissue.” Stretching, flexibility and strengthening (again, if cleared by your physician) can also play a vital role in both rehabilitation and further injury prevention. Being consistent with these programs is vital. It’s easy—for me, anyway—to be gung-ho about icing, foam-rolling and stretching for a while. It’s also easy to get lazy and forgetful after that initial zealousness fades. Be diligent and you will notice the benefits.
DO: ENJOY FAMILY TIME
When I was in the full throes of my injury and unable to run, I made a conscious decision to pull away, if just a little, from the running community. Not because I didn’t want to see or communicate with my fellow runners, but because it made me more frustrated that I couldn’t join them on runs and/or compare notes online. Moping around and feeling sorry for yourself is both counterproductive and aggravating to others around you. Consider filling that void with more family time. Just remember to refrain from whining about how “I could be out doing my long run right now.” Chances are, your non-running friends and family have missed you. However…
DON’T: GET CARRIED AWAY
Remember, being competitive during a half marathon is one thing. Beating your wife and kids, at all costs, in a game of Monopoly (fig. 4) is another.
DO: CONSIDER A NEW HOBBY
Why not explore some non-athletic interests while you’re on the mend. Grab your camera and learn how to become a better photographer (fig. 5). Read some biographies or fiction. Do some gardening. Learn to cook. Those of us who are in love with running can become a bit myopic while we’re immersed in our marathon training programs. Expanding our horizons with a new hobby or two will not only make us more well-rounded people, it’s also a great way to take our minds off the fact that we’re currently unable to put miles on our running shoes.
DON’T: HAVE FEAR AND SELF-DOUBT
When you’re finally able to gradually start running again, don’t let fear keep you from moving forward. Being gun-shy is understandable when coming off an injury. If a walk-run program is appropriate, stick with it until you’re ready to slowly decrease the walking and increase the running. Don’t let the feeling of being out of shape discourage you. If you have been keeping fit with cross-training, the running-specific fitness will likely return sooner than expected. But, by the same token…
DON’T: OVERDO IT
We runners often share an “all-or-nothing” personality. Patience isn’t always a character trait we possess in abundance. I, for one, am guilty of this familiar pattern: a slow, measured return to running…gradually reintroducing my body to the associated stresses…monitoring how the injured area(s) respond. A couple of easy weeks go by. After one or two good-feeling runs, I wonder how just one itty-bitty tempo run would feel. Pretty good! One leads to another, which leads to a premature long run, and here comes the pain once again. Rinse and repeat.
Err on the side of caution. Despite it being a cliché, listening to your body is crucial, especially in the early stages of your comeback. Think of running as a lifetime pursuit. There will be speedwork, long runs and races in the future. Don’t rush the process.
DO: APPRECIATE WHAT YOU CAN DO
What if the aforementioned speedwork, long runs and races aren’t in your future? If your injury permanently affects your ability to run as you once did, learning to be thankful for what you’re able to do is vital to your peace of mind. If you can only run a couple of miles two or three times a week, embrace them. Enjoy the outdoors and forget the stopwatch. Personally, there has been more than one occasion in my running ‘career’ when I thought I’d never run again. I had to walk away from running altogether, sometimes for a year or two at a time. Even though I’ve been injury-prone—even after returning—I’ve come to realize just how amazing our bodies really are. Do what you can do now. Who knows what the future will bring?
DON’T: COMPARE NOW TO THEN
The anal-retentive, record-keeping nature of some of us runners isn’t always a helpful attribute. I’ve got spreadsheets and logbooks filled with every imaginable running record, going back to 1983. Tracking your training is good. Living in the past…not so much.
One thing I really like about 5-year age divisions in most road races is that I not only get to compete with other runners who are close to my age, but I get to set new PR’s every five years! As much as I’d love to run as fast as I did in high school (attempting to do so has sidelined me before), it’s healthier for my mental well-being to set aside the race times of the past and look forward to what I’m able to accomplish now and in the future, no matter how much slower it may be.
So, if you’re a runner who rarely or never gets injured, count your blessings and please, in the name of all of us who ARE injury-prone, don’t take it for granted!
And now, since I’m able…at least today…I’m going for a run. Afterwards, as I'm icing and stretching, I’m going to start deleting those ridiculous shows on my DVR.
Hang on…Barbara Eden Biography. Hmm…
Colin Hayes is a freelance writer and illustrator. He lives in Everett, WA with his wife, two daughters, and a crazy—yet uninjured—Labrador retriever. His running blog can be found at www.resurrectedrunner.com.