Finding the good in a running injury
Finding the good in a running injury
I do want to preface this by saying I am fully aware of what a privilege it is to run and the fact that this running injury, pain, and physical therapy expenses were largely self-inflicted. Believe me, I have questioned the prior year’s running decisions more times than I can count. Reading recounts of other’s running injuries has helped me a lot over the past few months, so I wanted to share my own thoughts in hopes it may help someone too.
Grab a cup of coffee or tea, or maybe even a smoothie. This post is a longer one! If you want to skip the play-by-play of my injury, scroll to the bottom of the post for the good that has come from this injury.
I have mentioned on the blog a few times before about a running injury. A tight piriformis muscle has plagued me since I started training for my first half marathon in 2015. Before that, when I was still living in Toronto I would try to run sporadically but would often stop because of hip and glute related pain.
I made it through 2 marathons in 2016, before finally being forced to stop running in December. Looking back I clearly should have stopped running and taken a longer recovery after my first marathon in May. But as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
In the final weeks of Portland Marathon training this past fall, I started seeing an acupuncturist to try and relieve my tight, spasming, and seized up piriformis muscle. The week before the Portland Marathon, the muscle really flared up. I took the entire week off from running and was terrified I wouldn’t be able to make it through the marathon.
The night before Portland, I was in my hotel room talking to my parents on the phone, holding back tears and scared about what may happen the next morning. Fortunately, my piriformis barely bothered me during the marathon. The race was more painful for other reasons (one being a longer course than anticipated and the other being under-fuelling). I managed an 8 minute PB, while still missing that elusive sub-4 hour marathon.
After Portland, I took a month off of running and started seeing a chiropractor, who specializes in running injuries. I figured the problem was fine, and by November I was back into running longer distances.
Fast forward a few more weeks, after returning from a fantastic week in the Cayman Islands (and many hours on a plane) I woke up one morning in December basically unable to walk. My piriformis muscle has seized up so badly and it was incredibly painful. I spent the next several weeks seeing the chiropractor and returned home to Toronto for Christmas for a welcome change of scenery.
A newbie runner mistake! I was already anticipating everything people were going to say to me: you shouldn’t have run your first marathon so early into your running “career”, you shouldn’t have run two marathons in a year, you shouldn’t go to the gym so much, you should have seen a specialist sooner (OK maybe that one is accurate), etc. The negative thoughts were flying in my head to say the least.
By the end of December, all I could manage were long walks. Everything else hurt too much. Even then, I couldn’t walk without a limp. Getting in and out of bed, or in and out of a car was painful. Going up and down the stairs was difficult.
I’ll spare you the rest of the details from December to March, because it was much of the same. I saw the chiropractor a lot, slowly progressed and improved, and started spinning to save my sanity. I was also able to return to the gym, with increasingly fewer modifications, which I was very grateful for. This injury has given me so much more empathy for other injured runners and athletes. I can’t imagine not being able to work out at all while injured and I know this could have been much worse.
At the end of March, I booked an appointment with Nutritionist Jana Finkbiner. She asked me about my health and fitness goals and I expressed my goal of returning to running and endurance sports injury-free. Jana was surprised I was still not back to running (given the type of injury I had) and suggested I see a physiotherapist. Something I had yet to do. A few days later, I met with Dr. Drew Teskey. I am so grateful for Jana’s suggestion and Drew’s help. He quickly evaluated my problem and said while the piriformis was certainly seized up, it was taking on too heavy a load because of other weak glute muscles.
Being a fan of strength training and a regular gym goer, I stupidly assumed I was immune to the common runner’s problem of weak glutes. While Drew said I was very strong, these muscles were not. And so began twice-weekly physiotherapy sessions of strengthening exercises, dry-needling (painful but very effective), and a run-walk program. Finally, I am back to running, albeit shorter distances but no walk breaks. And for that, I am so thankful.
Of course the physical pain was uncomfortable, but it was really nothing compared to how upset, sad and anxious an injury made me feel for several months.
I hated feeling like I had made such big mistakes in my training. That I wasn’t able to do something that I truly love. That I was stuck inside on a spin bike, when I’d much rather be outside on the trails or the seawall. That I stopped seeing a lot of friends, because I couldn’t run. That I was just sitting around waiting for things to get better, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do than wait it out. Man, it sucked.
As I started being able to walk more normally, I headed up to the mountains on the weekends for snowshoeing and hiking. This combined with spinning kept me sane and seriously boosted my mood. It was a great way to get in some cardio. More importantly, it made me feel like I had actually accomplished something that day and that I wasn’t totally physically incapable.
Now that I’m almost in the clear (let’s sure hope so at least), I have been able to find so much gratitude in what happened. If you’re currently injured and want to smack me in the face after reading this, I don’t blame you. I was pretty bitter about being injured the first few months!
Training for a marathon is tough, training for two marathons in a year (your first full year of running) even more so. Looking back, I was clearly over-training, under-fuelling, and not sleeping enough. I was tired and irritable and lacked the energy to get through my day. It was affecting my productivity at work and my social life. By the time I got home from work, I didn’t want to do much. Being forced to stop doing everything is one sure way to realize the importance of rest and how wonderful, boring, necessary, and painful it is.
I fully understand how all-consuming a running goal is, like training for a race or trying to crush a time goal. I was also quickly reminded of all the other wonderful things there are to do than just run. While none of these activities give me the same feeling that running gives me, I did rediscover my love for cooking, tried to read more, took more photographs, caught up with friends, stayed up late, stopped waking up everyday at 5 am, and embraced slower weekends.
Training for a marathon was such a massive and terrifying challenge, and something I undertook when I was honestly a little bored at work. Up until grad school, accomplishments were always sort of “lined up” for me. Do well in undergrad, get some scholarships, get a research grant, graduate with honours, do a Masters, write my thesis, survive my thesis defense. Once school is over and you land a job, in many ways it is up to you to create your own challenges.
While running instilled in me a new sense of self-confidence and renewed “can do” attitude, it was also a great distraction from my boredom at work. So without running to turn to this past winter, I sought to find new challenges at work. I spoke with my boss and expressed my boredom. I’ve taken on a new webinar project this year and am doing more freelance writing. A friend and I have also started a new business! We will be offering communications consulting services primarily to small businesses. The business is registered, the bank account is open, and we plan to have our website up and running soon. I can only imagine the new challenges running your own business will bring and I am so excited about it.
I have always been an anxious person, just ask my parents. Cleaning up my diet, exercising regularly, and spending time outdoors all significantly reduce it. Up until now, I didn’t realize how much I rely on running in particular to make me a calmer and happier person. Forced to find other solutions, over the past few months I have met with a nutritionist to address my anxieties around food and fuelling. I am trying to meditate on a regular basis. I’ve found new ways to better manage my time and to do list. I am making fewer plans and trying to care less about the little things. And in general, shifting my mindset to one of gratitude and positivity, focusing my energy on the good and the things I want to see grow, has been hugely beneficial.
This blog post will also be a great reminder for my self, any time I start to feel a niggle, unusual tightness, or don’t want to do my physiotherapy exercises. While some injuries are unavoidable, others are avoidable and I really would rather not go through this again any time soon. I can’t wait to sign up for a race and start training again!