Returning From an Injury

By: Brad Deel

This winter made things difficult for outdoor running.  Not a problem.  I work at the University of Charleston and we have a nice fitness center.  After my November marathon, I was ready to work on developing my speed so I started Phase II of a Daniels 5K-15K plan.  Due to the weather, nearly all of it was done on a treadmill.  For most of those speed sessions I was wearing 3.5 ounce New Balance MRC 5,000's.  I have trained like that numerous times in the past and did not see any reason to treat this time differently.  Only I had not trained like this in the past.  In the past, my speedwork was done primarily on the track and a track has some cushioning.  The treadmill does not.

On March 16, I ran 16 miles with a friend.  By the end of that run, my left foot hurt a bit.  The next day, I ran seven miles and it hurt a lot.  Now, 90% of all running injuries are cured by taking a week off so I took a week off.  Of course, if 90% of running injuries are cured by taking a week off, 10% are not.  When I tried running again, the pain was intense and it got worse as I ran.  I knew enough to stop at that point.  A visit to the orthopedist confirmed what I suspected - a stress fracture.  (If you have a strong stomach and want to find out what can happen if you run through a stress fracture, just google "Ohio cross country runner stress fracture."  Watch what happens about 1:40 into the seven minute video).  I spent a month in an orthopedic boot and then another couple of weeks transitioning out of the boot before I could run again.

Let me say this.  Cross training is probably good for you in terms of overall health but it emphatically is not running.  I cross trained fairly aggressively.  Still, my first run back lasted only three miles.  I was wheezing within a few hundred yards, I managed to kick my ankles numerous times, and my legs felt like jello within a mile.  It was awful.  It has now been just over a month since I started running again and I am beginning to have some runs that bring on that wonderful feeling I used to have when running.  I have also done a couple of harder workouts and they didn't leave me completely gassed so I know my fitness is coming around nicely.

I post this because one of the things we know about running is that nearly every runner will eventually get hurt.  Really, if you stick with it long enough, the question is not whether you get hurt but what you do once it happens.  At least in my experience in online running communities, the pattern is too frequently as follows:

  • New runner starts running and it is tough
  • Runner sticks it out and starts to enjoy running
  • Runner gets overly enthusiastic, increases too soon, and gets hurt
  • Runner gets discouraged from being hurt OR
  • Runner tries to come back too soon from injury and gets hurt again
  • Person gets discouraged and quits running

I think that when (note that I did not say "if") we get hurt, it is important to do a couple of things.  First, it is critical to follow medical advice.  Two people may have the same injury but my 51 year old body is not going to heal as fast as someone with a 25 year old body.  Second, it is important to develop a conservative comeback plan while still injured.  Then, you have time to think rationally about regaining your fitness and you can discuss your plan with your doctor or therapist.  Finally, you have to follow the plan.  It is far too easy to push too soon once you start feeling good but the reality is that it takes about twice as long as you were out to get back to the level of fitness you had when you were hurt.  In my case, being out for six weeks meant developing a 12 week plan to get me back to where I was.

I understand that some will argue that the best thing is to not get injured in the first place.  While that is a nice sentiment, the best runners in the world have access to the best coaches in the world and the best medical facilities in the world and the best training in the world and they still get hurt on a fairly regular basis.  If they have yet to figure out how to avoid injuries, it is unlikely that recreational runners are going to suddenly find that magic formula.  If you have it though, I would suggest writing a book.  You will make a lot of money if you are right.

My last thought is this.  When you are hurt, try not to be discouraged.  It was easy (or at least it was easy for me) to bemoan my fortune and feel sorry for myself rather than looking at the positive aspects of how much healthier I am from my running and how a bit of time off will let my body heal all those little aches and pains.  One of the things we learn as runners is persistence and that means overcoming obstacles in our paths.  Focus on the positive, develop a plan, and then get back on the road.

See ya out there. 

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