Running Injuries: Dealing with the Setback

Running injuries are nothing foreign to anyone who has ever laced up a pair of shoes and hit the pavement or trails for a mile or twenty.  Whether you’ve experienced them or not, they’re always looming in the back of your mind – a fear and a reality of being a runner.  From plantar fasciitis to shin splints, tight hip flexors to compressed lower back discs, rolled ankles to any number of knee problems, a running injury can strike you at any moment.  Though they affect different parts of your body, they all have the same effect: they set back your training, and in the worst case scenario, cause you to stop running all together for a period of time.  It can be heart breaking, frustrating, angering, relieving and humbling all at the same time.  But it is how you decide to deal with an injury that sets you apart from the rest of the pack.

Being an experienced injured athlete and runner, I know this reality all too well.

Post knee surgery in November 2002

In 2002, I found myself bedridden with a torn ACL.  I let the injury rule my life.  I stopped participating in sports, and did the obligatory physical therapy, but that was it.  I figured I’d never be able to run or do sports ever again.   And with that state of mind and attitude, that was my truth. Three years later, I found myself back in surgery for an injury to the same knee, a surgery my doctor attributed to atrophied muscles in my legs.  It was at this time that I decided to not let the injury sideline me for the rest of my life.

I started cross training (cycling, elliptical, etc.) and strength training (strengthening the muscles in the legs that stabilize the knee), and soon enough I was running (albeit cautiously and slowly) in 2007.  The best part was there was no pain in my knee.  As I moved forward and transitioned into the slightly faster and longer distance runner I am today, I was always very cautious about increasing speed and distance and keeping up my strength training, certain I’d find myself bedridden again due to my knee or some other serious injury.  Lo-and-behold, with adequate strength training and off days from running, I went five years injury free.

It wasn’t until this past fall while training for California International Marathon, that the injury monster struck again.  I found myself faced back in the same position I was in a decade earlier, only this time it wasn’t my knee, I had torn my plantar fascia tendon (aka I tore the arch in my foot) on a training run when my foot collapsed under me in a freak accident.  I couldn’t walk and my running world started crumbling before my eyes.

Gimp status in October 2012

There was to be no running for at least 6-8 weeks out from the initial injury.  I was crushed.  CIM was less than 3 months away, and there was no way I would be able to train.  After a few days of a self-pity party, and being certain that I was going to be a lump on a log for 8 weeks, I thought back to my original knee injury, and decided to treat this injury differently and take control of my situation.  I sought help and opinions to figure out what I could do and started looking for areas where I could improve my running without actually running. In fact, I found ways to keep myself moving for an hour-two a day for all eight weeks, all without every lacing up my running shoes.

4am solo spin sessions helped keep me sane

Sure, it wasn’t all easy – there were days I would stare jealously at the men and women on the treadmill (yes, at times I wanted to run so badly that I would’ve run for HOURS on a treadmill), but I also knew that if I didn’t let my arch fully heal, it would probably haunt me for the rest of my running days.  In fact, on any day I was feeling particularly bad about my situation, I made sure to get out and do something to prevent the pity-party from returning and spiraling out of control.  Because, even though I couldn’t run at least I could still hit the gym, and I knew I was making myself stronger.  In fact as a result of my 8 weeks of non-running I’m closer than I have been in 20 years to being able to do a pull up, and my arch tissue is actually healthier than it was pre-injury.  Talk about coming back from an injury stronger.

In general, I believe that these are the two main ways you can let an injury affect your life.  You can either let the injury (1) derail your entire athletic being and give you an excuse to sit in front of the TV for X amount of time while you heal, or (2) you can use it as motivation to work on your weaknesses to make you a stronger all-around athlete.  There’s a clear winner in these options (its (2) if you haven’t figured it out by now), and the physical and mental benefits that come from persevering through injury, are something you can’t pick up anywhere else.

In my next post, “Running Injuries: Recovery via Cross Training,” I’ll talk about the different cross training techniques I have used while recovering from injuries (and to prevent injuries) to come back stronger runner, just as we approach the beginning of long training cycles for the Wipro San Francisco Marathon.

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