One year ago, I ran the San Francisco Half Marathon. It was my last run for almost 9 months.
The week after my run, I seriously injured my foot in Peru-a product of excessively tight quads and hip flexors due to lack of stretching and stability exercises. I’ve been in physical therapy for 9 months recovering. I’ve had to undo damage all across my body by releasing knotted, gristled muscle with foam rolling and stretching every day. I’m finally starting to make some progress, and my foot has steadily improved. Throughout this whole process, I’ve had a singular goal: run the 2017 half marathon. Because it was the last run I did before my injury, it has been an important goal for me while tracking progress and improvement in this long recovery.
I started running regularly about a month and a half ago. Normally, I would strongly discourage anyone from training for a race in less than three months, but I completed a 600-mile bike ride in June, and was already in solid cardio shape when I started running.
Here are a few things I learned while training with an injury. Hopefully these tips can help you make wise choices if you’re confronted with an injury that stands between you and your fitness goals:
1. Understand your Injury
There are different types of injuries, each with a different recovery method:
- An acute injury is one that happens in a moment, and is usually easily identifiable as a serious injury (i.e. sprains, broken bones, and muscle tears). Recovery typically involves not moving the affected area for a long period of time while the muscles and bones heal. Movement is then slowly reintroduced through stretching and mobility exercises to build up muscle strength and flexibility.
- A sub-acute injury is one that builds up over time. Examples are wear and tear injuries and sprains that progressively get worse. These types of injuries may not result in breaks, fractures or tears, but can be every bit as painful or serious. Recovery will typically involve longer term solutions such as stretching, balance exercises, and foam rolling to mitigate or undo damage done over time.
- Chronic injuries can be very serious, such as shoulder bursitis, tendonitis, or rotator cuff injuries, and can be triggered by relatively small tweaks that can land you in the hospital. Take care of a chronic injury with constant medical attention, and by following your doctor’s orders to. the. Letter.
My injury was a sub-acute injury that built up over time, so the recovery process was equally time-consuming. If I don’t keep myself stretched out and flexible, the pain starts again. If you injure yourself, talk with a medical professional about the type of injury, and what your recovery process looks like. Be sure to discuss any activity goals you have to see if they’re feasible, and how the doctor or physical therapist can help you get there.
2. Be at peace with where you’re at
It doesn’t do any good to bemoan your injury. It’s fine to experience frustration and anger with an injury – for a little while. I spent my first couple immobile weeks cursing under my breath at runners and joggers who were blissfully unaware of how lucky they were to be moving. Ultimately, that just made me an angrier person for a while and did nothing to help my recovery. In the end, my injury was a blessing because it led to me learning so much about the body and starting a course to become a certified physical trainer. Injuries have a way of teaching life lessons. Let your injury spur a different type of exercise – a mental, spiritual and emotional workout.
I used to roll my eyes when physical therapists recommended stretches as recovery for whatever ailment I faced. But now that I’m studying the body, I’m amazed at how many injuries stem from poor flexibility and mobility. Poor flexibility results in bad form, bad posture, limited range of motion, strains, sprains, falls, and tears. Tight muscles are no joke. Stretch every day! Do yoga! Foam roll! It’s so important.
4. Start Slow and Short
When you’re ready to try an activity during your recovery, it’s tempting to fall back into your old mindset and be ambitious. DON’T! Start very very slowly, and work your way up in 5%-10% increments. My first run in 9 months was around the block, barely breaking out of a walk. Yet, I was the happiest person in the world that day because I was running again! The next week, I tried two blocks. Then half a mile. Finally, I made it a whole mile. In the course of 6 weeks, I worked myself up to a 9-mile run. If I had started with a few miles, it’s very likely that I would have injured myself again. Don’t be a hero – start slow and short.
5. Pay Attention to Pain
When you start moving after an injury, pain is inevitable. The type of pain determines your response to it. Is it dull or sharp? Does it come and go? Does it stay in the same spot, or move around? Maybe it stops if you stop moving? Perhaps it shows up in other activities? Is it there the next day, or does it fade quickly? Does it get better or worse with movement or time? Depending on the answers to these questions, you could push through it, stop immediately, take it easier, or stop for more stretching and evaluation. Typically, for sharp pains that get worse with activity, I stop immediately. For dull pain that comes and goes, moves around, or gets better with time, I’ll typically push through and evaluate. Sometimes, stopping to stretch for a few minutes alleviates the soreness and allows me to continue. Use judgement, wisdom, and caution when listening to your body. It will usually tell you what it wants.
6. Adjust Your Goals
If your goal is quickly approaching, and your injury isn’t getting better fast enough, be prepared to make a new goal. This does not mean failure! Back in April, my recovery reached a plateau. My foot was better, but I still couldn’t run without significantly increased pain. My physical therapist started hinting that I might not be ready for the half marathon. I still kept that dream alive, but channeled my energy into stretching and mobility exercises so that I could accelerate my foot’s recovery. By changing my goal to focus on my immediate need, I realized my long-term goal as well. I got lucky, and that is not always the case. If your goal just isn’t going to happen, reassess and come up with a more attainable goal in partnership with your doctor or physical therapist.
7. Eat Well
Your nutritional intake affects your recovery time. Certain foods can cause inflammation and prolong your recovery, while others provide essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals that your body needs. After an injury, your body needs as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible (vegetables, fruits, proteins, whole grains, nuts, and legumes), and as little processed food as possible (stay away from white flour, sugars, alcohol and processed meats). You may also want to increase your lean protein consumption to get essential nutrients like zinc, collagen, vitamin A and iron. Consider taking a collagen supplement to help with tissue and muscle repair.
An injury can have a devastating effect on the body, but it can also cause a negative emotional spiral leading to discouragement, guilt, and helplessness. For those of us who derive a lot of satisfaction and worth from our fitness, an injury can feel like the loss of a way of life. As you focus on your physical recovery, it’s also critical to think about your mental and emotional health. Some techniques I used when I was feeling down included:
- giving myself permission to rest, being grateful for all that my body has done and allows me to do
- remembering that I’m much more than my passion for fitness – my value as a human doesn’t come from running
- meditation to bring me into peace and awareness of the present moment-this helps me brush away all the pressure I put on myself
It was a long recovery with lots of ups and downs, but with focus, patience and careful rehabilitation, I was able to finish the 2017 San Francisco Half Marathon, and even beat my time from last year! These are some tips that helped me recover from my injury. Tell me about an injury you faced and what helped you recover!