After battling a calf injury this summer and taking four solid weeks off, I eased back into running over the past ten days and accomplished a hilly 13 miles in two hours this morning. Wha-hoo! Handel’s Hallelujah chorus belted out in my head as I ran up the Strawberry Canyon firetrails by UC Berkeley and gained enough elevation to reach blue sky above the fog.
I love how something as seemingly simple as running is in fact profoundly complex, providing limitless chances to learn. The “trip” in “the runner’s trip” is as much about this journey of learning and evolving as a runner, and about coming back after tripping up, as it is about travel. That’s why I’m sharing what this layoff taught me—or in some cases, reminded me—about running-related injury recovery and prevention.
Some injuries are more stubborn than others and require total abstinence from running.
In the earlier post 5 Truths About Running Injuries, I wrote “Stop Running Only If All Else Fails.” Some injuries can be managed and run through, and I’m very wary of blanket advice to “stop running if it hurts.” “Hurt” is a subjective, hard-to-define term, and some discomfort usually accompanies the process of working through an injury.
That said, my skepticism of my physical therapist’s advice to stop running got in the way of healing. I would take a few days off and then go on a “test run” in the hope that my leg was better. Those test runs of 10 minutes or less did more harm than good, making the pain flare up and setting back the process of repairing a messed-up muscle. It started to heal only when I stopped running for several weeks and scaled back “power hiking” to an easy stroll. Then I waited to do a test run of less than five minutes until other high-impact moves, such as hopping up and down or briskly descending a stairway, felt absolutely pain free.
Nothing gets you in shape for running like running…
I exercised nearly as much time-wise while injured as I run during a typical week (around 8 to 10 hours). I dripped sweat on the stationary bike, felt my core tremble in yoga classes, pumped iron in the gym, and some days walked farther than I drove. Despite that, my fitness for running went down the tubes. On my first “real” run after the injury layoff—about 30 minutes, slightly more than 3 miles—I felt short of breath and as awkward as a new recruit in boot camp. The next day, my inner thighs and quads had the soreness of a beginning runner. After three measly miles!
…but just running, and doing nothing but running, is a recipe for injury.
I know some people who do nothing athletically but run. They extol the principle of specificity of training and cite studies showing stretching doesn’t actually help much. They must be in a lucky minority of biomechanically perfect people, or perhaps they’re setting themselves up for injury and/or missing the opportunity to improve their running through strength training.
Whatever the case, I’ve learned the hard way that to stay healthy, I have to do a lot in addition to running: take care of weak ankles and Achilles with range-of-motion and strengthening exercises (e.g. Bosu ball balancing and heel raises), fix flaws and weaknesses in form with core and lower-body exercises, and stretch and self-massage with a foam roller. I definitely have to warm up gradually. I also do upper body strengthening because it helps me run better and simply feels good.
Over the past month, I developed a new favorite strength-training and stretching routine to do a couple of times a week. It involves 100 pushups with planks and yoga thrown in. Try it—and then try telling me it doesn’t make you a better runner:
- Bend forward at the waist and walk hands out front into downward dog position, hold it, then shift weight from one heel to another to increase the Achilles and calf stretch.
- Walk hands forward and bring butt down until you’re in a plank; hold it for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Do 10 pushups (from your feet, not the girly kind).
- Walk feet forward to your hands and hang there touching toes, head to knees.
- Slowly roll up and bring hands overhead, then exhale while arms sweep down on the side and hands come in to prayer position.
- Bend at the waist and walk hands forward to downward dog. Repeat the above sequence nine times or as many as you can.
A sports massage therapist recently offered me this wise advice: Run five fewer miles per week, and use that time to do some basic core strengthening and stretching exercises for injury prevention.
Don’t jump back into running. Return to it gradually as part of physical therapy.
When I finally could run, I limited it to 5 minutes, not 5 miles. The next day, since I felt OK, I did 10 minutes and forced myself to stop before pain returned. I built up slowly like that for several days, with non-running days in between, until convinced I could run normally. That period of running minutes-long intervals was maddening because I wanted to keep going. It helped me to think of these short jogs as part of physical therapy, not really running.
Listen to your body and do your own thing.
Running buddies are a wonderful source of motivation and company. But they also contribute to injuries if you feel compelled to keep up with their pace and their mileage totals.
That’s why making dates to run with others when coming back from injury is a bad idea. It’s better to listen to your body, go your own pace, take a walking break if necessary, and be willing to cut a run short—all of which is harder to do when running with someone else.
Every injury has a silver lining.
By not running, I had time and reason to take a few yoga classes and to spend a bit more time in the gym. I learned more about the sport and about my body. I stopped taking running and wellness for granted.
But the real upside is the boost of motivation from the injury. I’m eager to regain—and enjoy—the fitness level I had three months ago. I’m looking forward to racing again, but also feel like I’m appreciating and savoring the process of training more than focusing on the end result of a race time.
Call for comments: What running injury “truth” did you recently learn or re-learn? Did you find a silver lining to your injury?