I’m in a group of Dads on Facebook. The group’s focus is on “healthy and fit” Dads, and we talk about exercise, staying fit, eating better, etc.
I’ve taken to writing answers to questions folks pose in the group – not in the group itself, but here on the blog.
Let me share a question that came up the other day.
One of the dads injured a muscle in his shoulder at work, and couldn’t work out the way he wanted to for a while. He didn’t want to lose the fitness he had while he was getting better.
What should I do to stay fit while I’m healing an injury?
I’ll take a stab at answering it.
The first time I had a running injury was pretty early – within 8 months of starting to run.
I was new to running, and it was thrilling.
For me, running was a desperate, “hail mary” attempt to quit smoking one more time, and it was working. The energy from a morning run was enough, on most every day, to obliterate cravings for cigarettes.
I was running 35 miles a week – as a ‘new-to-running’ 44 year-old man.
I had simply replaced one drug for another, trading cigarettes for running. And I’d do it again today the exact same way.
Except for a couple slips that were hard to get out of, I don’t smoke. I owe my success quitting smoking almost entirely to those first few months of running. That was worth it.
I wasn’t experienced enough as a runner to be able to distinguish the normal “aches and pains” that come from running. I didn’t know how to tell if my injuries felt like “plantar fasciitis,” runner’s knee, some other overuse injury.
My body warned me it was going to break if I didn’t cool it down, and I didn’t listen. So, true to its word, my body gave out.
Within a minute of starting out for a run one morning, I felt a twinge in my knee, and I was down. My leg couldn’t support my weight, so I hobbled my way back home and buried my knee in ice.
I didn’t run again for 6 weeks.
Which was really bumming me out, because I had just started into a training plan to get ready for my first marathon – the NYC Marathon.
I sought out a physical therapist who focused less on medication and zapping me with some electronic device, and more on repairing the flawed kinetics that led to the injury in the first place.
Twice a week, I went in to his office and learned the exercise/stretching/strengthening routine. And while I learned something new there every day, I did nothing else to stay active or fit.
When I started back to running after that injury, I had lost a lot of fitness and all my endurance. And ended up running the NYC marathon in 5:42, far from where I know I can be.
Shortly after the NYC Marathon, I came across a great book called “Anatomy for Runners.”
This book should be in EVERY runner’s library.
The author talks about using a period of injury to to improve and enhance fitness, not to just maintain it. He shows ways to strengthen the parts of our bodies that most impact our ability to run injury free. The book lays out tools – and a mindset – for training through, and maybe even in spite of, the injury.
80 percent of runners spend some part of the year injured. The culprits are often the most common running injuries, including shin splints, stress fractures, patellofemoral pain syndrome, injuries to the plantar fascia and the achilles tendon, and more.
We often forego medical advice, instead focusing on things like whether we are wearing the right running shoes or not.
The book, “Anatomy for Runners,” suggests that the best way to remain injury free over the long term, is to take a structured approach to understanding how your body works during running, and focuses on injury prevention by targeting specific muscle groups in the body for stretching and strength training.
This methodical approach resonated with me, and I started working on the stretching regime in the book.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was 3 years before I had another running injury. The book remains the best tool I’ve come across for effective injury prevention for runners, or, frankly, any athlete.
But I did get hurt again.
This time, my injury presented as a burning pain in my heel and in the arch of my foot. The official diagnosis was tendonitis in the posterior tibialis.
I’m still not sure what caused this particular running injury – my PT said that this type of tendonitis is often the result of a discrete trauma, but it also results from overuse.
I remember feeling the pain for the first time during a marathon in December 2018, so perhaps something happened on that run.
As part of my therapy, I couldn’t run for a few weeks. The goal of the therapy was to reduce the inflammation in my heel while strengthening my hips and restoring flexibility to my calf muscles.
(It’s always a weak hip with me – the source of any struggle I face in running always comes back to my hips!)
Learning from my first experience, I promised myself I’d stay active and fit this time.
The therapist said I could bike and swim, since those exercises don’t make your foot bear any weight.
So I did.
I biked 2 or 3 evenings a week and at least one weekend day. On 2 days a week, I left work early and went to the gym to swim (and spend 10 minutes in the steam room, aka, heaven).
Four weeks into therapy on the hips and calves, I tested things on a couple really short runs – 1 or 2 miles.
I ran those miles at a unexpectedly fast tempo, and was able to just let my body feel the thrill of running without worry or effort.
I’ve become a firm believer of the approach and philosophy outlined in “Anatomy for Runners,” and I encourage you to pick up a copy and see if it resonates with you, too.
Even though I lost 6 weeks of running, my body doesn’t feel like I missed a beat.