Tagged in: Injury Prevention

Julie Smiling Half Marathon

Oh, Be Joyful!

I was speaking with a runner yesterday about a recent 10k race. After a difficult week emotionally and physically, she ran her fastest 10k ever. She started the race with the intention of accessing all of her pent up emotion and frustration and unleashing it on the course. But a funny thing happened.

She left the starting line at an aggressive pace. Her first two miles were flat and fast. She knew there was a tough hill at mile 3. The excitement of the race buoyed her until she reached that hill. She carried a full head of steam into the start of the hill, but it was unsustainable. Her run soon become a power hike, which became more of a brisk walk. It was during this stretch that she expected to fall back on her reserves of pent-up frustration to carry her through. But as she started to sink physically and emotionally, she didn’t focus on anger. She didn’t focus on the professional sleights of the previous week or her emotional suffering. She started to think of the support she had received.

Her friends and family were there for her during her most trying moments. Listening, helping, caring. During the difficult days leading up to the race, she wasn’t alone. And when the going got tough on race day, her mind drifted to those people who loved and supported her. That’s when the engine started to turn. She attacked the hill, roasted the downhill, and turned in the performance she’s so proud of today. Her son was waiting for her at the finish line. They shared a wonderful embrace while she was wiping away tears of joy.

Joy is a powerful tool in the runner’s arsenal. So much is made of the runner’s high, but I wonder how many runners truly understand the role that unbridled happiness can play. Whether you’re squeezing in a 5k on your lunch hour or working through a 20-mile training run on the weekend, you can put the power of joy to work for you. Everyone seems to have different ways of accessing and harnessing positive emotions, but here are some of the methods that have worked for me.

Visualization

This is something I started putting into practice while training for my first marathon. I didn’t even realize that it was a recognized tool at first. On my longest training runs, I would inevitably go to dark places emotionally. I would feel the grind of so many miles taking a toll on my legs and I would begin to wonder if it was all worth it. “All these weekend hours that I could be spending with family and friends. Or sleeping. If I was this dedicated to starting a business, I’d probably be a massive success by now.” Whenever these thoughts would start creeping in, it seemed to trigger an automatic response buried deep in my brain. I would picture myself in the home stretch of the marathon. Crossing the line with a smile on my face and having a medal draped over my head. These images in my mind were so powerful that I would sometimes feel emotional to the point of tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. Many times a smile would flash across my face and I had no power to stop it. When you’re at mile 14 out of 20 on a rainy Sunday morning while the rest of the world is just waking up or heading to brunch and you’re grinning uncontrollably like an idiot, you’re starting to understand the power of joy.

Mantras

In the past couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with reading books about running. It isn’t enough that I spend 30% of my waking life running. I have to spend an hour every night laying in bed reading about it as well. There are many common threads that seem to run through every running book, autobiographies in particular. But the thread that’s important to this conversation is mantras. This may seem like new age silliness to many people, but I can assure you that I am not a spiritual person and I have used a mantra with great success. Sometimes a mantra is a single word or short series of words that people will repeat internally. I’ve heard other people muttering mantras to themselves during races. However you choose to use them, mantras can help bring you back into the moment and elevate your mood. Scott Jurek’s powerful mantra is a great lesson for all of us: “This is what you came for.” We have chosen endurance running as our preferred sport, or hobby, or lifestyle. When the going gets tough, we have to remember who made that decision. Timothy Olson tends to focus on the here and now. Like many runners, he doesn’t stick to just one mantra, but he uses whatever mental tricks he has at hand to power through. One he has mentioned is from Thich Nhat Hanh which says, “I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the ultimate I dwell.” That’s way more than I’ll be able to pull out of my memory banks when I’m mentally exhausted during a race or long training run, but I like the premise.

Whether you’re owning your suffering like Jurek or living in the now like Olson, you can find joy in tough circumstances. Using a mantra to free your mind of negativity is a powerful tool in the runner’s arsenal.

Meditation

There are several preconceived notions to dispel for many people when they think of meditation. Most envision some sort of religious chanting monks clanging giant gongs or hippies handing out flowers at an airport. The truth is, while some forms of meditation do focus on spiritual awakening or enlightenment, meditation can help you clear your mind. You train your mind to focus more, which means you can begin to zero in on positive thoughts more frequently and hold onto them for longer periods of time. One variation of meditation that I utilize is called body scan. Body scan is about sitting still for a period of time and focusing on every part of your body. When nothing else is clouding your mind, you can truly feel what’s happening in every part of your body. And whether you like to visualize a ball of light traveling to injured areas or you prefer to “breathe into” a tight muscle group, body scanning can be an effective recovery tool. I won’t get into this too deeply. If you want more information, you can download an app like Calm or Headspace. You may not be meditating during a run (although I’m pretty sure there are people who could), but you can train your mind to release negative thoughts. Keeping negative thoughts at bay will free you up to focus on the positive.

And Yes, Runner’s High

Alright, alright. Yes, I’ve experienced it many times. I have felt the endorphin rush, speed burst, energy spike throughout my running life. I would caution you about relying too heavily on such a thing. I experience it less and less these days. It’s also woefully unpredictable. You cannot count on it to pop up when you need it most. While you may burst into song or smile like the Joker for a quarter mile, runner’s high is neither dependable nor long-lasting. For best results, look elsewhere.

At 4am on the morning of the San Francisco Marathon last month, my wife asked me if I was still happy I signed up or this race. “I get to run through the streets of San Francisco for the next 4 hours. How could I not be happy?” Sadly, there are many people who will never know the joy of running. They either decline physical exercise in general, have other priorities, or are physically unable to run. When I think about those people, I appreciate every run that much more.

Do I suffer at times? Absolutely. Can even the shortest run feel like an eternity from time to time? Sure. But I choose to suffer joyfully. I have the ability to run, the perseverance to overcome difficulties, and the determination to finish each race with whatever strength I have left. That gives me pride, confidence, and perhaps most importantly, joy.

Treating Feet in River

On Injuries, Time Off, and Physical Therapy

This has been my worst year of running. I injured my ankle twice and have twice needed to take significant time off to recover. The first injury was a sprained ankle while hiking. The second was an overuse situation because I was hurrying to get back to marathon training, making up for lost time. How many times can I do this to myself before I start listening to my body? What am I doing wrong that is leading to these injuries? After losing seven weeks and a marathon entry fee to injury this year and learning some very difficult lessons, I think it’s time to share my experiences and knowledge regarding injury prevention and recovery from mild injuries. Before we begin, I want to make it clear that I am in no way a physician, and this information is simply my set of guidelines for my personal running life. If you have a major injury or emergency, obviously get medical help. And as I’ll discuss later in this post, a professional should always be consulted when it comes to preparation and recovery.

RICE: First things first, RICE. I’m not talking about organic brown rice for your diet (although, it is pretty great). I’m talking Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Of these components, I don’t think anything is more important than rest. If you have an overuse injury, in particular, stay off your feet. As runners, we want to get back out there as soon as possible and work through injuries, if we can. It can be hard to determine when to stay put and when to get back to it. I prefer to err on the side of caution these days. Too many times I’ve gone out quickly after an injury, just to hobble home dejected and frustrated. Ice can work wonders for many injuries. Ice serves multiple purposes by helping to reduce swelling and numbing an injury. While inflammation can be good for injuries, too much inflammation can prevent nutrients from getting to the injured area. Use an ice pack or a frozen bag of peas for up to 15 minutes on an injury. Toss the ice back in the freezer for 45 minutes before using it again to prevent frostbite. Compression is the wild card here. There are those who advocate letting an injured area swell to brace the limb from movement to aid in healing. In my experience, I prefer to use compression to reduce swelling and encourage blood to flow to and from the area easily. I use an elastic bandage or wrap. Elevation is also important. Try to elevate the injury to the level of your heart, or slightly higher. This allows more blood to flow to the area and to remove any damaged tissue that could be lingering. I tend to stack pillows on my couch and recline as comfortably as possible. Use this as a good excuse to relax and catch up on Netflix.

If you don’t notice injury improvement in a week after you begin the RICE routine, seek a healthcare professional’s advice.

Time Off: It is difficult to take time off. We don’t want to stop. Whether we fear a loss of momentum or a reduction in fitness, cutting back on exercise is not something we runners do well. Perhaps we feel like ‘slackers’ for not moving. Maybe our inner voice is screaming that we’ll never be ready for that marathon now. Whatever the reason, it’s important to come to terms with time off from running. There are still things one can do to stay fit. During my time off, I focused on various exercises I had been neglecting. Upper body and core work became a daily routine. While I wasn’t trying to gain upper body mass or do anything to risk my recovery, I found it rewarding to move every day and retain fitness and confidence. I felt it important to address ‘time off’ separately from the ‘Rest’ in the RICE routine. Sometimes we need days to recover fully, sometimes weeks, even months. The important thing is that we do recover fully. Rushing back out the door to another injury will only land us back in the RICE routine all over again.

Physical Therapy: Some of you are rolling your eyes. I used to be just like you. But after three weeks of inaction and getting tired of sitting around waiting to heal, I got proactive. I scheduled an appointment with a physical therapist who is a runner. To me, it was important that my PT understand runners and what makes us tick. From the start, physical therapy was difficult. My PT put me through a battery of tests, pokes, and prods to determine my injury, the severity, my weaknesses and strengths. In addition, I provided my injury history, current running workload and race goals for the near future. In my first couple of visits, I was assigned homework: a workout routine aimed at strengthening and stretching to relieve my injury. In following weeks, I was assigned additional routines, based on my progress. I was also cleared for slow, short runs. Time went by, I received gait analysis on a treadmill and all sorts of other strength reviews. My progress in a short time astounded me. All this time, I had errors in my stride. One of my hips was dipping. I wasn’t extending my legs fully behind me. My hamstrings were weak. I never engaged my glutes. The laundry list went on and on. Not only were these issues causing lingering pains and injuries, they were making me an inefficient runner. Eventually, we came to discover that the crossover angle of my right ankle was overly aggressive and was putting extensive pressure on the ankle. I started extending my arms further behine me, engaging my glutes and stretching my legs out fully when I ran. This allowed my hips to rotate properly and straightened out my crossover angle. Problem solved! These days, I still regularly return to my PT for evaluation and improvements. We’ve moved on to posture and core strength as ways to improve my overall power and balance.

Oh, and foam rolling. I roll after every run now, before my post-run stretching and cool-down. My recovery time, especially after long runs and even tough hikes, has been reduced exponentially.

Core Strength: This might seem like a no-brainer to veteran athletes and anyone who has ever had a coach, but I feel like most runners I know avoid anything that isn’t running. Since I started working on my core, I’ve noticed that I have more balance and confidence, particularly on trails. Things like bridges, planks, mountain climbers and squats can strengthen muscles from the chest to the knees. While core strength can help prevent injuries in the long run by improving strength, flexibility, and form, a quick internet search can dig up a core routine that works safely to accommodate those who have already sustained an injury. For me, I was able to work around my ankle and still maintain fitness and gain strength without compromising my ankle recovery.

Know Your Limits: Overworking ourselves with mileage, hill repeats, interval sprints or any other aggressive activity is the easiest way to find ourselves injured. I was running five days per week before my injury. I have since recognized that four days is plenty for me. I cross-train twice per week and take a full rest day as well. Cross-training is imperative as it allows us to strengthen additional muscle sets. Whether you enjoy rock climbing, kayaking, cycling, swimming, or weight training, get out there and break up your routine a little bit. If you can run seven days a week with no problem, great. Good for you. Humans like me need recovery time and the sooner we realize it, the better our running lives will be. We all like to dream of bigger and better things. We all want to maintain our fitness into old age. If we don’t take the time to recover and enjoy other activities, we may as well say goodbye to running as we get older. Figure out what works for you and don’t lie to yourself. If your body is screaming after your fourth day of 10k hill repeats in a row, it’s time to rest. And don’t forget to follow the 10% rule when you’re building mileage. If you did 10 miles this week, do 11 miles next week, and so on. Building up mileage too quickly is a rookie mistake that leads to miserable injuries and setbacks.

This is a short list of what works for me and what doesn’t. So many other things factor in: foot strike, shoes, stride, illness, weather, and much, much more. I’ll try to address some of those items in future posts. But for now, I encourage all of you to find your limits. Test them, but understand the consequences if you push too far. Get healthy, stay healthy. Here’s to hitting all of our remaining race goals for 2015.