I’ve always maintained that the hardest aspect of running isn’t the long, hot miles or the hard, tough races. Nope, the toughest part of running…is not running. And yet, one of the cruel realities of running—especially for beginners—is getting injured and losing valuable training time. Unfortunately, nearly every runner, at one time or another, faces unwelcome down time due to a running injury of some kind.
Being injured and unable to run, flat out sucks rocks. There’s no way getting around it. So don’t look to me for all sorts of get happy, touchy feely ways that being hurt is really a blessing in disguise and gives me the chance to get in touch with my inner self. (I hate my inner self, whatever that is.) The next time someone tells me a week before a big race that my sore, tender calf is a blessing in disguise, I’ll slam dunk their blessing in the lake.
Unfortunately, I understand all too well about being injured. Look up calf injuries in any sports-medicine textbook and you’ll see my picture. Some sports-medicine specialists even label injuries to the soleus—The Wish—since that troublesome muscle has helped several doctors buy that new lake house. (BTW: You’re welcome.)
I am certainly not alone. We all know what it’s like to be injured. And we all know that the easiest thing to do when you’re injured is to mope around and moan to friends and family about the unfairness of it all. Which, of course, does nobody any good at all.
Recovery is the goal and being mentally able to cope with this down time is key to getting back on the roads quickly again (and also so everyone doesn’t avoid you because you’re such a bummer to be around).
You have a clear choice: Wallow in self-pity, lose your aerobic base, get fat and make yourself and everyone around you miserable—or get busy.
1. No whining allowed. Yeah, I know being hurt bites. You can’t run. You want to poke out your eyes. But get a grip. It’s a running injury. This isn’t pancreatic cancer. You will get better. Please don’t compare your little layoff with folks who might have serious health issues. You’ll get better; some of your friends may not. So just shut up about your sore hamstring. Nobody wants to hear it. You may miss your favorite race, but at least there will be more races in your future. Some people don’t have a future.
2. Patience is key. You can’t hurry love and you can’t rush a running injury. They take time. Every runner on the planet has been hurt and just about every runner has recovered and was able to run again. There’s a cure for just about every injury—usually time—and if you allow the body sufficient time to heal itself, it will.
3. There are no magic pills. If only there were. Just pop this and you’ll be good to go the next day. Or see this faith healer with the miraculous touch and you’ll be fine. Or even better: Try this ancient Chinese salve which might stink but works every time. Yeah, and I can sell you Lady Bird Lake for a couple of breakfast tacos. While I’m at it, simply switching to a different shoe (or brand) is rarely a cure. Instead of looking for that short cut, get the proper treatment, rest, rehab and internalize the fact that your injury is only a temporary setback. Give it time. It may not seem like it, but you will run again. Promise.
4. Stick with your routine. Runners are such creatures of habit that we all get used to getting our running fix at a certain time of the day. When you can’t run due to injury, our world feels completely out of kilter. If you can’t run, at least try to exercise at the same time of the day you would normally run. I have to start every day with a run. But if I’m dinged up and can’t run, rather than lay around and bitch, I’ll go for a walk for just about the same length of time I would ordinarily run. If I can’t go for a long run on the weekends, I’ll get on my bike for a two-hour ride which at least gives me the satisfaction that I’ve accomplished something. My routine is almost as important to me as the run itself because it simply feels better to do something—anything!—rather than nothing. Don’t get me wrong, walking or cycling isn’t as satisfying as my daily run, but in terms of keeping me sane when hurt it may even be more important.
5. Sweat. Let’s face it, we’re addicts. We’re hopelessly addicted to running. We’re physically and mentally dependent on sucking in huge quantities of oxygen, working hard and sweating. Nothing feels better. That’s what we do. Without it, we can become lost and slip into that dark, gloomy feeling of worthlessness. There are plenty of ways to work up a healthy sweat, aside from running. Ellipticals, stationary bikes, rowing machines—anything works OK as long as it doesn’t aggravate the existing injury. For leg injuries, I’ve found ellipticals work well. I can get some aerobic work in (even simulate hill workouts) and after 45 minutes, I’m drenched with a small pond of satisfying sweat underneath the machine.
6. Pump it up. When I’m running on all cylinders, going to the gym to throw some weight around is tough to squeeze in. (Who has time?) But when I’m hurt, I lift like a maniac. I scurry between machines and free weights like a man on a mission and can even get a nice buzz going if I work at it hard enough. Once again, you have to be careful not to aggravate the existing injury but if you do things right, you can build up your weaknesses and muscular imbalances (that may have caused the injury in the first place) and when you come back to running, come back stronger and fitter.
7. Remain connected. There is no doubt that one of the worst aspects for me of being injured is not being able to run with my friends. With some of them, just about the only time we hang, is when we long run together. So when I’m on the disabled list, I make a special effort to still feel like I’m part of the group. Maybe I’ll join the post-long run brunch or meet to blow the froth off a brew or two. Even though it pains me to do so, I’ll go to races to watch and cheer for my buddies– just like they do for me when they’re hurt.
8. Take one step every day to heal your injury. Obviously, every running injury is different and responds differently to rest and treatment. But I attempt to stress doing at least one thing every day to get better. Whether that is icing, seeing my chiropractor or another sports-medicine doc or getting a massage or acupuncture, I make certain to get the treatment I need. Whatever it takes to get better, I am committed to doing it.
9. Eat and hydrate well. When I’m training for a marathon, I eat anything that gets in front of my face without worrying about adding pounds. But if I’m not running at all, I can put on five pounds overnight. Even though I normally eat pretty well and tend to stay hydrated, I become even a little bit more pedantic about what I put into my system when I’m injured. If I can exercise some control over how much and what I eat, it will mean fewer pounds that I have to take off when I start running again. What I won’t do when injured is diet. Too depressing.
10. Don’t set deadlines. We all make deals with the devil such as, “I’ll be OK next week” or my favorite: “I’m hurt right now, but I’ll be fine for the race.” Nothing is more self-defeating than setting an arbitrary deadline for when you can start running again and then as the deadline approaches, come to the realization that you’re still hurt. The only worse thing to do is start running again before your injury has fully healed. There is not a more certain way to worsen your existing injury. Give an injury all the time it needs. Just because the last time you had a sore hamstring and you were running within a week, doesn’t mean this hammie strain will respond the same way. Each injury is different and heals on its own timetable which only rarely corresponds to our own.
And one last thing: When you’re finally healthy again to run, wait. Give it an extra few days (or a week) to make sure you’re actually fully healed and good to go. Then, when you start back up, start slowly. Don’t even think about racing until all systems are go.