Cross-Training Diaries: Injured During my Favorite Month of the Year
Something that I've prided myself on is the fact that I'm not an injury-prone athlete. I've had 2 bone injuries since 1999 (tibial stress fracture in 2003 and femoral stress fracture in 2008) and outside of college, where our specific training was not conducive to staying injury-free, I've been relatively uninjured. Until the past 18 months.
Coming off the marathon I was feeling hungrier than I have in years in terms of progress. I took 2 weeks off, returned to running slowly, had zero signs of that lingering glute-ham pain that had plagued me for nearly a year, and then during an easy 4-mile run it all flooded back. I was angry/devastated/frustrated/livid/mad/sad/etc. Dave and I were about to head out for a day of hiking and all I could think about was this pain. I went home and foam rolled everything we had identified in PT as being part of the problem: my adductor, my TFL, my hamstring, my glute med, my QL. I stood up and did leg swings to see if my rolling had helped, because side-to-side leg swings were one thing that hurt the most all through this glute/ham saga and that I could reliably use as a gauge. No change. I started thinking more about my anatomy and WTF could be causing this pain. I slowed down the swing, analyzed exactly the onset, and had a lightbulb moment.
The one freaking place we hadn't addressed in PT was my IT band. I spent 10 minutes rolling my IT band, felt a major adjustment somewhere in my hip, and have been pain-free in my glute/ham since. I also now have a new PT.
The good/bad news is that when you run with chronic pain for a long time, especially when the pain is caused by tightness somewhere (for me, probably adhesion between my hamstring and IT band), you will inevitably change your form a little bit. Throughout the glute/ham pain I noticed that my right leg wasn't fully neutral with each footstrike and I was working in the weight room (my living room) to remedy this imbalance. As soon as I released my IT band, my gait returned to neutral. This is great....except that I hadn't run with a fully neutral footstrike in nearly 18 months. Within a week I was dealing with some referred pain in my heel near the Achilles insertion point. My gastroc, soleus, post-tib, plantar, and a few other smaller muscles that I can't remember the name of are all out of whack from the change in my footstrike. PT has involved LOTS of needling, cupping, laser therapy, and scraping.
always working on those imbalances
After a few weeks of trying to run through the pain (which was highly unpredictable - some days I would be pain-free, others I would be in pain during my run but have no pain after, and sometimes I would have a great run only to hobble for the rest of the day) my PT and I decided some time off was necessary.
So I started biking.
I have always had a love/hate relationship with my bike. Actually, the only reason I have a bike in the first place was because I quit running in 2011. After college, completely jaded with running and injuries, my parents gave me a road bike as a graduation present because I was convinced that living in Bloomington, IN would turn me into a professional cyclist. It turned out it wasn't love at first sight for me and cycling, so I primarily became a bike commuter with a really nice bike.
I normally don't even like cross-training. Actually, I'm usually vehemently opposed to it (general thought process of an all-or-nothing person such as myself: if I'm injured isn't it best to just rest the injury and do nothing??) but I felt like I was just getting to the point of starting to see some real fitness improvements and I wasn't ready to let that go.
So I went all-in and biked 120 miles in that first week, as one does.
maybe don't go from 0 -> 120. It's cool, my body adjusted.
The thing is, I didn't hate biking this time around. My quads weren't constantly on fire. I wasn't struggling to balance. I think part of that is because my body IS more balanced than it has been in a long time. The other part is that I, uh, got some really terrible advice from my husband about 10 years ago.
He has always been into cycling. He is also 100% quads where I am 100% hamstrings. When he was giving me pointers on how to cycle, he told me I should ALWAYS be in the biggest gear, and that I would be working way too hard if I was in a smaller gear and to only use that for hills. So, I listened to him. When cycling hurt my quads (and my soul) I assumed it ME, not the TERRIBLE advice he gave me. This time around I was literally like, lol I'm going to do the opposite of what Dave told me and I don't care if it's wrong. Then suddenly I started loving being on my bike. Don't worry, I went for a ride with him the other day and made sure to yell at him for everything he's done to make me mad in the past 11 years and that item was on the list.
A few months back when I was thinking about my summer training, I couldn't wait for the unbearably hot and humid track work, and the grinding tempos. July training is what I live for. I love to start my runs around 11 AM and suffer for a couple of hours. I am sad that I don't get to do that this summer.
I am also sad that I signed up for 4 races in June/July and I had 1 sub-par finish and had to pull out of the other 3. I won't lie to you and say that didn't sting.
But I'm also not going to dwell on it. I've been running long enough to know there will always be another race, that people get hurt sometimes no matter how many things they do right, and that ultimately there's not a whole lot I can control when it comes to circumstances, only how I respond to them.
Cross-training has, surprisingly, taught me a lot these past few weeks, and I'm incredibly grateful. I may even go so far as to say this was what I needed. Here are some things that spending my favorite part of summer XT'ing has taught me:
I'm stronger than I think
Tackling something you think you're bad at and then finding out you don't suck is an incredible thrill. It has been great to take the focus off of being injured and onto something else. A few weeks ago, I had a crazy idea to bike from Northwest Indiana to downtown Chicago, despite the fact I was terrified of riding in traffic and had never biked over 35 miles (the total distance of this ride was 56 miles). I set an arbitrary A goal of 4 hours and we did it in 3:45:00. It was a huge mental and physical win for me, and a great reminder that I am athletic and mentally tough.
standing on the corner of Randolph & Michigan
I need to make some changes in my running
When you've been running forever you tend to grow complacent. One area for me is hydration. I frequently will do a 20 mile run with no water. On the contrary, I'm so anxious about biking and bonking that at any given time I have 2 water bottles on my bike. and I'm good about drinking them. and hydration feels good. and I need to drink more water/electrolytes when I run. But, that's not all. Since biking is not my comfort zone, I approach preparation with more reverence, especially making sure I have everything I need: emergency gel, enough electrolytes, enough water, a planned route, etc. It wouldn't hurt to transfer some of that intention over to my running.
I'm already coming back stronger
I'm back running, but still supplementing with cycling. My PT was very real with me that I needed to come back slowly. I will be around 30 running miles this week with around 100 biking miles. I was worried the biking wouldn't help me maintain my running fitness, but it really has. I have noticed that I am faster than I feel (what has felt like 8 min pace is actually 7 min pace), which I'm sure partly has to do with the fact I am using the entire right side of my body equally with my left for the first time in nearly 2 years. I also think cycling - since I am locked into a neutral movement - is helping strengthen some of those muscles that may have been underworked before when my gait was off. Running has felt more normal for me lately than it has in a couple of years and that's a REALLY nice feeling.
I need to respect running but not too much
My athletes and I often talk about making running part of your life but not your entire life. I have enjoyed cycling because I feel like I don't take it too seriously, and while I thought I wasn't taking running overly seriously.....in comparison I realize I was wrong. Being able to jump into a new-to-me sport and feel good about my workouts [I'm so lucky in that I have two training partners who are incredible cyclists and they both kick my butt] has shown me that I need to loosen my grip a little bit on the running and feel confident in that. I am an incredibly tough athlete, mentally and physically, and it just took a little bit of injury to remind myself that.
I'm going to try new things
Assuming I continue to be pain-free and am able to keep building my running mileage, I'm going to try a duathlon next month!
I'm hungrier than ever
During the darkest points of the pandemic, I wasn't sure what my running future looked like. Running Carmel and seeing that I could run a very respectable marathon off relatively no training on a tough day was a good reminder that I have a lot of unfinished business in this sport. Early June I was building off of the fitness I gained from Carmel and seeing improvements in my fitness week-to-week, even starting to see glimmers of 2016 me before shit (I mean mold) hit the fan. This little hiccup with my heel has done nothing but make me hungrier and reaffirm that I am on the right path. I cannot wait to race again. I've got some goals that still need to be accomplished, and I love getting on my bike every day knowing that I'm controlling everything I can to get one step closer to achieving them.