Monday, 8 December 2014

Lessons From Returning From Injury

When injured, it's easy to lose motivation and suffer from some degree of depression or at least feel sorry for yourself. I generally try to accept things I can't change and look for positives, so the 2.5 months I missed due to my right foot's stress fracture weren't all that bad and I've had a month of getting back into running which has got my juices flowing.

Once I realized I was injured, I focused 100% on doing everything I could to fix it, including fun stuff like spending over a week on crutches and committing to not running until it was completely ready. It took a while to accept the stress fracture at first, but at least it was during my off-season so I wasn't planning on running in the early stages anyway.

I got back to running after a week of walking to test the foot after ditching the crutches. Like any injured athlete I tried to learn everything I could about the injury, likely recovery times etc and none of it sounded as optimistic as I hoped. Again, this is the all-too-familiar route back from injury for athletes of all types, but I hoped that I could use my experience as a personal trainer, coach and common sense to get some kind of edge.

Luckily the fracture seems to have been at the less serious end of the spectrum and the lack of running in off-season helped stop it getting worse from running when I shouldn't. In addition I worked on my lower body and core fitness even before I could walk again, using cycling and weights. Then I used a simple philosophy as soon as I could put weight on the foot again - start off easy with plenty of walking (including with a weight vest after a week or so), backing off at the first hint of anything negative around the stress fracture.

My training plan was as flexible as possible once I tried running again. I didn't even write it down, just going out the door each time to start walking then slow jogging before deciding on how far to go and how hard to push, mainly based on how it felt. Occasionally I pushed a little too much then took the next day off completely, except for a small amount of biking and weights.

Things progressed well and I had five weeks of gradual improvements, including some fast running that surprised me. I also had to take some risks after about three weeks since I have Rocky Raccoon 100 at the end of January and only want to race it it I feel fit and fast. To gauge that I felt I needed to be capable of a marathon at the start of December, eight weeks prior to the 100. So I had that at the back of my mind for the weeks leading up to the California International Marathon, which was yesterday on Dec 7th.

Even on the morning of the marathon I had big doubts and I was completely willing to stop if my foot deteriorated. I had a soreness near my right tibia, so my first thought was that the past month of running might have caused a new stress fracture in a different area. I imagined running 100ft down the road then turning back and trying to get a lift to the finish, going back to square one again with a new injury. However, this time I was willing to back right off and accept the injury immediately, despite not being happy at the prospect. Again, flexibility was the key and denying an injury doesn't make it go away.

Luck was on my side again (I don't count on it, but I'll take it when I can) and at the end of the first mile neither my foot or shin felt anything other than normal. It even looked like I might be able to run a fast marathon. Oh, and I should probably add in one extra detail - I decided to wear my old Spiderman costume to take some of the pressure of running fast and remind me that the main priority was finishing with no injury. No attempts at Guinness World Records this time, but I've found it a very effective way to spice up a marathon and make it more relaxing. Not the best pacing or highest level of fitness at this one so I slowed down a fair bit, but a finish without injury woes is a big win. My Strava data from the race.

CIM. Photo credit: Sacramento Bee

So what did I learn from all this, now my foot felt fine through a marathon and the injury problems are virtually over?

1. Mainly it reinforced the fact that there's no one-size-fits-all path back from injury, something I already knew, but this put it in clearer context. Everyone heals differently based on fitness, age, severity of an injury and a whole host of other factors.

2. It's also vital to discover the cause of the injury to avoid incurring it again. In my case that's less of a problem since it occurred over two days of running at Mt Whitney and Death Valley on sharp rocks with roads shoes and I felt it happen, not like a standard stress fracture occurring over time from overuse.

The path back to fitness needs close guidance from experts, including medical professionals for anything remotely serious. But one of the most important things is the ability of a runner to hold themselves back and not rush into doing too much. Starting runs with a walk, then an easy paced jog is a good way to include this flexibility and often it's possible to do more rather than less when approached this way. It's not an easy process and we all tend to try to do too much to regain our previous level of fitness faster than the body can cope with...but the body is a resilient entity.

For example, Mike Wardian was injured for a long period, losing almost an entire season yet he's now back to racing so much and so fast it would break a mere mortal. He ran (hard) at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler near San Francisco on Saturday then wrapped up the weekend with a 2:33 marathon at CIM. The human body is inspiring, especially in the hands of guys like Mike.

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