It's time for me to admit this: I am not a smart runner

#injury  #training 

Like, just look at my knees!

I come from a family of calamities. There’s always some injury or illness or something going on with my mother, father, and brother. Shattered pelvis, MRSA, severed fingertip, heart attack, broken toe…the list goes on and on. It’s actually a big joke in our family, but it does make my heart start to pound every time I see one of my parents’ phone numbers pop up on my phone. Somehow, I’ve always managed to be the exception to all of this and stay rather healthy and uninjured. This is especially interesting as I’m the one who spends the most time taking part in risky activities like snowboarding and, for years before I started running, mountain biking. This all led me to having this sort of feeling of being indestructible.

However, it’s time for me to admit something to myself and accept this…I am not indestructible. In fact, I’m actually extremely injury prone as a runner. And this is both entirely my fault for being an unwise runner and completely avoidable.

I’ve been a runner for six and a half years now and a serious one for the last four and a half of them. Of that time, I’ve spent three and a half years battling one injury after the next. Each time, I continued to run in pain instead of focusing on recovery immediately.

At first, it was ankle tendinitis in my left ankle. Then, the tendinitis showed up in my right ankle too. For months, I just ran with the pain because I had a half marathon goal I was trying to hit. A cortisone injection, physical therapy, and some time off from running all did nothing. Eventually, I got frustrated and just started running again. I’d run through a bit of pain and then dunk my foot in a bucket of ice water. This was my routine for almost a year (not including the four months of doing nothing about it and two months of not running at all) until I figured out how to control the tendinitis. Changing my shoes and rotating a few different pairs while also doing some regular calf strengthening exercises helped the pain go away. But it’s still something I need to stay on top of.

Only a few months after the ankle tendinitis came the hip tendinitis. This developed while I was training for the 2012 Chicago Marathon and neglecting my strength and flexibility work. I’m still working on this injury. It’s come and gone a bit depending on my training schedule, but long breaks from running (while upping the strength work) have proven to be not only unhelpful, but oddly made the pain worse. I’m sure being on testosterone-blockers don’t help either, as that makes it harder to strengthen them. Recently, I’ve found I can just barely keep this all in check by continuing to run and never slacking on the strength work. Very minimal pain shows up from time to time, but I’ve been able to control it, for the most part, recently. It’s just something I need to make sure I’m 100% on top of. Still, this injury was a problem for a year and a half and caused me to miss two months of training at the beginning of last year, right before I started hormone replacement therapy for my transition–exactly when I needed to be consistently running.

Now, I’ve got a new problem. My knees have started bothering me. My knees have always been weird (going back to age 14 or so), but they’ve never bothered me because of running. Standing for more than a half hour straight or walking all day makes them hurt like hell and always has, but running always felt good. The pain I have now isn’t the same as those other pains though. This pain feels the same as the tendinitis does. It’s on front and inside side of my kneecap, right along the edge of it. Almost definitely, this has the same cause as my hip tendinitis, it’s just another symptom of the same problem. Weak hips, quads, and glutes. I’ve been on top of doing lots of hip work for the last few months, but it seems it wasn’t enough.

I’m fairly certain I’ve put together all the pieces of the puzzle for how I got to where I am though:

  • I jumped into an intense and high-mileage training plan without the base to support it. The training plan I selected for this cycle was the obvious next step after the plan I did for my last two marathons. I should be able to handle the mileage. However, between Richmond and the start of training, I did not rebuild my base enough after recovering. I was fully aware that I was pushing it. I knew this training plan was going to push me close to my limit and I wasn’t where I should have been to start it. I knew my base needed a few more weeks, but the calendar didn’t allow it. I made the decision to go for it under the assumption that as long as I kept up with the strength work and didn’t push myself hard in the first few weeks, I could make it work.
  • I neglected strength work for too long. I’ve always been bad with keeping up my strength and flexibility work and cross training. This time around, I’ve worked hard to be better about keeping up with it all, but the damage was already done. I’ve been playing catch-up at the same time as pushing my body with heavy mileage. Bad combination here.
  • I was too stubborn in how I dealt with the weather this winter. This winter has been absolutely brutal weather-wise. It’s been relentless with snow, ice, and slush. The cold isn’t a problem, but the ground conditions are. It’s been soul-crushing, but the fact that I’ve yet to let the weather stop me from running and keeping the streak alive was the one thing that kept my training alive through it all. I was beyond stubborn in not allowing this streak to end. Instead, I should have dealt with using the gym while trans like I should have…or bought a treadmill. Either of these options could have helped me avoid the weather.

This weather has forced me to run on top of ice, snow, and slush. It’s been difficult and it’s caused me to have to work a lot harder with each step. Without having any real trail running experience, uneven, slippery, and not-completely-solid ground isn’t something my body is used to. I should have respected this.

The ground conditions have also forced me to spend a lot of time running in the street which I rarely do. I’m used to flat and even sidewalks with no camber, unlike the roads I’ve been forced to run on. The camber in the road has a very noticeable effect on stride and form. It places added stress all the way down the leg. This wasn’t even something I thought about until a few days ago.

  • I didn’t handle the knee pain immediately. I ran through a bit of pain, nothing too bad, for a week and a half before I really admitted I had a problem. And even then, I only marginally adjusted. It wasn’t until last week that I heavily reduced my mileage, but it was too late by then. My “okay, this pain is telling me I should stop now” threshold is too high. I need to lower it by about half. I am stubborn and don’t stop running when I should and I try to convince myself it’s nothing to worry about for too long.

Each of these things on their own are added stressors that can add to your chances of injury. However, each is something that can either be avoided or handled. Unfortunately, I made mistakes with all of them. If I only had to deal with any two or three of them, I probably would have been okay, but all of them, together, not handled or avoided did me in.

I am not a smart runner. I constantly think I can get away with things like these. Every time I develop an injury, I make a small change for the next time, but I don’t do enough. I don’t learn the whole lesson. I continue to be stubborn.

Part of my problem is I’m embarrassed by how often I’m dealing with injury. I try to pretend like the injury isn’t a reality. I hate being one of those runners who’s always hurt. A big goal for this year and this training cycle was to stay healthy and break the cycle of training through injury, needing to take a break from running after my race, and then re-injuring myself again early in my next cycle. I’m already failing at this.

I need to stop talking about being smarter and actually start being smarter.

For this current injury, I reduced my mileage heavily last week and I’m reducing a bit this week. I’ve tried KT Tape, but it did nothing (as I expected) and now I’m using a knee compression sleeve. I’m keeping with the extra strength work and I got a deep tissue massage yesterday. I don’t know that this will be salvageable, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my New Jersey Marathon goal just yet. If I’m not seeing any progress by the end of the week, I will likely take a week completely off and adjust my goals accordingly. I may need to drop to the half marathon and then look for a May or June marathon to give myself more time.