Injuries are tough. I'll admit (with slight embarrassment) that I've been that friend who says, “someday you'll reflect on this and be glad it happened". But there's no doubt that when you're in the middle of an injury-lay-off, it sucks.
As a former elite marathoner, I was used to dancing along the line of doing enough to push my fitness to its potential, yet not too much to end up injured. Of course, like many runners, I often did end up injured. They were mostly smaller injuries, but they were still enough to send me into a spiralling panic about whether I would ever run healthily again. In reality, all they needed were a few days to calm down and I was back running.
I was pretty fortunate, until...
My first serious injury...
Ironically, running just over half the volume of what I used to do as an elite marathoner was enough to bring my training to a halt in a way I'd never known. Maybe it's to do with age; my 35-year-old body isn't the same as my early 20s body. Maybe it's because running as a parent means skipping extra hours of sleep to squeeze morning runs in, precious sleep that I can no longer afford to lose. Maybe it was believing that I could get away with being less consistent with my weekly mileage, because it was less volume than it used to be. Or maybe I was overdue a wake-up call. I'd not been taking care of myself in the way that I should, and it caught up with me.
For the first time since 2016, I wanted to train hard. Not 90-100 miles a week, give-it-all-you-got hard, but a solid effort (with young kids and a non-pro runner career), see-what-I-could-do-this-fall kinda hard.
Things were going well; in May I ran my first ultra, and I won the women’s 50-miler, running the fourth-fastest course time ever for a female. I was absolutely loving the long runs and the training. I signed up for a 100k at the end of October, the Javelina Jundred. There would be some elite ultra runners there, so I would really get to see where I was at.
I knew I was discounting the overall stress on my body more than I probably should. It was launch time for a book I co-wrote with Zoë Rom, Becoming a Sustainable Runner. While I wholeheartedly believe in all of our concepts in the book, I knew deep down that I was veering away from our own advice. I knew if I did what we told others to do, I wouldn’t be able to (attempt to) juggle it all.
And then I started getting a pain in my heel. It was tender to the touch, but seemed to warm up throughout my runs. Soon after, I noticed a bump on the inside of my heel and I was diagnosed with Haglund's Deformity. Once I shared about it on social media, a flood of messages came my way from others who had experienced the injury. Many of them called it “the worst runner's injury ever,” others saying that they had dealt with it for decades before finally going for surgery to remove it.
I will be honest; it freaked me out. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t facing a niggle or a setback, I was facing an injury that could affect me for life.
After being a support person for my friend Brian Reynolds in his attempt to be the first double amputee to run Leadville, I backed off and put the focus on rehab and recovery. I didn't want to say goodbye to my race plans for the fall, but understood the risk I was taking when I stopped prioritising recovery.
With the guidance and support of my sports rehab doctor and strength training coach, we focused on rehab. That meant five days a week of exercises, twice weekly targeted muscle strengthening for my weak areas, and the hardest of all for a runner, bringing my runs down to a minimum.
For two months, I backed my training down to about a quarter of what I had run in my elite days, less than half of what I had been running for the last five years. I found myself running the same mileage per week that I had been running when I was 15 years old. Still running, yes, but with very little progression, and most painful of all, no plans to increase on the horizon.
I knew that ignoring the advice of my team would make the likelihood of surgery skyrocket, and that was the last thing I wanted.
5 lessons from injury rehab
This injury has taught me a lot. It has humbled me, and made me respect my body in a way I didn’t know I could. The hardest part of coming back from an injury has been returning to full training.
I've been reflecting on what I've learned from my experience of injuries during 20 years of running:
1. When something hurts, use the three-day method
This was something my club coach, Brad, taught me. Three days isn't enough to lose fitness, but it's often enough to calm small injuries down. As best you can, try to relax into it (and resist the urge to test it). Three days will pass by quickly and you can get back to running.
Trust yourself, always. Of course we go through a lot of mental angst in returning to running, and it can be hard to know which pains to run through and which to step back from and seek professional help. Your gut/heart always knows deep down what the answer is. It sounds woo woo, but it's true. If that little voice in your head is saying, I am not sure it is a good idea to keep running, give it a few more minutes, and if it is still there, listen. It is always better to take extra time to let it heal than to push it when it is not ready.
2. Work with a medical professional whenever possible
It can be hard to find a professional who understands runners. But they will be able to give a much better assessment than Dr. Google and will take into account all the factors that go into your return-to-running plan.
3. Some injuries don't do well with rest
Different injuries need different approaches. For bone injuries, rest is required until the bone is healed. For tendons, full rest isn't always a good idea. It can be confusing and hard to know what is best. Again, this is where a medical professional can help.
4. Focus on your recovery fueling
While it can be tempting to think that less training means less food, this is a critical time to keep fueling and taking in protein. During my injury rehab from achilles tendinopathy, I took a protein shake with creatine and collagen, as well as a proline supplement with vitamin C, daily. As a vegetarian, I had to incorporate meat and fish back into my diet when it became clear that I wasn't recovering as quickly as I had hoped to.
In the past, I cross-trained like my life depended on it. Determined to hold on to every bit of fitness, I pushed too hard, too often, and ended up returning to running already burned out. If you're training for a goal, cross-training is an important way to maintain fitness. But if, like me, you had to let go of your plan and are focused on getting healthy first, cross-train when it feels right. If that means a few more rest days than usual, that is okay too; you'll likely come back to running rejuvenated and ready to train hard.
Of course, with any and every injury, they are different. We're different people with different bodies that respond differently to healing and recovery. Always come back to the element of trust with your body, and remember, that time where we're less focused on running can mean that we prioritise other areas of our lives.
It gives us the opportunity to spend time with loved ones, repair relationships, enjoy getting outside in other ways, and even try new activities or hobbies. Injuries aren't ideal, but they're your body's way of telling you that you did too much, so find a way to grow out of this situation.
We were never meant to live this go, go, go lifestyle all of the time. Is now the time for a slowdown and reset? Only you know the answer.