Lately, I have been noticing that far too many athletes are on the injured reserve list, and or on the verge of injury or burnout. Some of them close friends, some clients, others just athletes I know through running and obstacle course racing.
So, before I get all high and mighty about what you’ve been doing wrong and why you’re in the situation that you’re in, let me first say that, I have been there, more than my fair share.
Blame it on youth, luck, or divine intervention but, there was a time in my teens and early 20’s when I could train hard and race hard, with not so much as a sore muscle. This was long before I knew anything about proper care and maintenance of the body. In those days, I put in plenty of miles, while fueling my body with Ramen noodles and gallons of beer. I partied all night and anytime I could string together 3-4 hours of sleep, was a good night of rest and recovery.
Then, I got out of the Navy at 22 years old, took a job that had me traveling and working tons of hours. In the blink of an eye, 7 years went by and I put on nearly 80 pounds. Over that time, it’s obvious that my mileage and fitness eventually became non-existent. At my worst, I was sitting at 218 pounds, drinking daily, and puffing on the cancer sticks. I had went from gifted and talented runner to a useless blob.
This trend would continue until around 2010, when we moved to Virginia Beach and I started a new job with no travel, linked up with an old Navy buddy who got me back into training, and joined a local running club.
Those first few months were HARD!! My heart and my ego wanted to keep up with the top runners in the group but, my body wasn’t what it use to be and it wasn’t able to. The first couple of months hurt, and hurt a lot! But, if I’ve ever been one thing, it’s stubborn. I kept showing up for the group runs, I put in miles on my own, I started biking 26 miles round trip to work everyday. It wasn’t long before I was coming back around to my old self.
I had joined the group in June 2010, and by November of that same year, I was toeing the line of my first marathon. While many veterans in the group told me to just run to finish, my pride and ego wouldn’t allow that. In typical fashion, I was going after a goal and, was going to either get it ,or, go down in a brilliant flame. Not many people who haven’t ran in several years decide to go for a Boston Qualifier in their first marathon but, that’s exactly what I did. Despite “hitting the wall” in glorious fashion, I stumbled in with a Boston Qualifier and 38 seconds to spare!! BUT, I paid for it!
Riding that high from having a great first marathon, I did what nearly every runner does, I got right back to it. I started upping my mileage and pushing the intensity. I was hungry!! I went from running around 50 miles a week, up to around 80ish, over the course of 2-3 months. Sure, I had a few warning signs of sore or tight muscles but, I was otherwise invincible…..right up until I wasn’t! On the warm-up of our weekly Thursday night tempo run, I was leading the pack at a casual 8 minute mile pace. We were just about to finish up the warm-up and get down to business when, BAM!! I felt like somebody had shot me in the leg. My achilles felt like it had been ripped in half. I sat on the curb and waited for a fellow runner to go back for his car and come pick me up. I couldn’t even walk. I was devastated.
Though i might be stubborn, I’m not entirely stupid. While I couldn’t run, I was determined to keep my fitness. So, I started doing A LOT of aqua jogging and rollerblading. Since I couldn’t run 20 feet without pain, I went all in with other means of fitness. For three months I continued to rehab the achilles, all the while still maintaining my fitness. Then, as if by a miracle, one day I woke up and had no pain and was able to run again!!!
This time though, I had learned my lesson and took it slow and easy, right? WRONG!! I ditched the roller blades, gradually cut out my pool sessions and within no time, I was back running strong again! I was breaking new PR’s left and right! Over the course of the next several months, I ran 3 marathons, a 200 mile relay, 60+ miles a week, racing some distance or other almost every weekend. Sometimes two races a weekend!
Our weekly group workouts were getting bigger and faster! New guys were joining the group and our workouts were becoming practically races. I loved leading the pack and thrived on the push from the group. One particular doozie of workout I designed one night for our weekly track session was 6×1 mile, with the first 1200 at MRP, with the last 400 at or near mile race pace. On the second to last one, I felt a slight twinge in the achilles but, nothing major. On the last rep, I really put the screws to it, running my last 400 in 58 seconds!! I was on cloud nine!!
The next morning, I went to get out of bed and couldn’t bare weight on my left leg!! The achilles had become so inflamed and tight, i couldn’t walk! WTF????
This setback was particularly a heart breaker. Here I was, just a few weeks out from running the Shamrock marathon with Team Hoyt, the race in which Tim Brown and I were to qualify for Boston together so that we could run along side Dick and Rick Hoyt.
From January to March, I got Graston treatment, electro stimulus treatments, went through a myriad of PT strengthening and rehab exercises. While it slowly got better, I was limited to only 5 miles a week of running but, I again used rollerblading, biking and a ton of aqua jogging to stay in shape. As the marathon date drew closer, the achilles was feeling much better but, I hadn’t done anything of a long run to really test it, unless you count a 28 mile rollerblading session.
So with achilles taped for caution, Tim and I toed the line of Shamrock, needing a sub 3:10 in order to get us to Boston. With the achilles holding up, we came in at 3:09:29!
It was THAT particular injury that completely changed my way of thinking and training. After Boston that year, I started relentlessly pursuing ways to properly recover and rejuvenate from hard racing and training cycles.
Aside from getting regular massage and Active Release Technique sessions, I started doing self massage and maintenance daily. I began incorporating regular strength and mobility sessions and, I focused on finding the root cause of my achilles problem (which turned out to be excessive toe off and overly tight/knotted calf muscles, as well as weak and unstable hips).
Something else I started to do, was to become less and less obsessive. On days that I felt a tweak or pain, I either took the day off from running and or found another means of training that wouldn’t exacerbate the problem. I also started giving myself more recovery time between hard training efforts or races. To quench my racing thirst, I started running more with Team Hoyt, or pacing my wife or friends. Instead of always having to push the pace, I started becoming me comfortable with sitting back and having fun with others.
As one of the head members of the running group, I started incorporating more strength and all around conditioning into our group workouts. Many of us started doing other things beyond just running. We got into OCR and switched up our overall training methods.
Knock on wood, I have had no significant injury or set back since that last achilles issue.
While I personally know how easy it is to be consumed by the training and racing bug, I hope that my examples can help you in knowing when to back off and recover. In every major sport in the world, athletes have a season that they train and compete at a high level, then they back off, rejuvenate, and let the body repair itself before coming back again for the following season.
Sadly, as amateur and recreational athletes, most of us never do that. In running and ocr, we are always chasing that next PR or that next racing high. We continue going and going for months, or even years, without ever allowing the body to catch back up and rejuvenate.
Despite what we believe, the body is a finely tuned machine, just like any other. In order for it to operate at it’s optimal levels, it must be fueled correctly, maintained regularly and, after a certain duration, rebuilt. Just as you get regular maintenance on your car after certain milestones, the same holds true for your body. You only have one, so treat it the best you can.
Don’t let pride and ego override health and well being. Fit isn’t necessarily healthy and, the efforts it takes to be extremely fit, usually take the body outside of homeostasis.
It’s completely fine to take long breaks between races, or to change up your training so that you improve on one physiological component, while the others are allowed to recover and repair themselves. Nobody says that you have to completely take off, in fact, that’s only recommended when you’ve completely trashed your body to the point that complete down time is the only way to allow it to rejuvenate itself.
The biggest hurdle to overcome in your training and racing endeavors is, the 6 inches between your ears. You have to be smart enough to know when to push, and when to back off and come back to center. All the PRs and finish lines in the world aren’t worth doing long term damage to your body. You can save yourself lots of wear and tear by being smart.
In closing, remember, if it’s no longer fun, if it’s becoming more of a burden than a pleasure, then it’s no longer worth it. If it’s forced, it’s wrong.
Take care of your bodies and let your brain do the reasoning, not the pride or ego.