Have a Healthy New Year

Forgetting perhaps that I also run, my brother sent me a link to one of those clickbait Active.com articles the other day entitled, “15 Reasons Running is Better Than Cycling.” A listicle, even! His message said simply, “Uh oh …”

Without hesitation, I messaged back that at least cyclists don’t spend half the year injured, and he responded with, “Unless they crash.”

Touché.

Fortunately, this blog isn’t about bicycle crashes—but unfortunately, it is about spending half the year with a running injury. Second year in a row, I might add. Different injury.

I think the thing that’s most infuriating about running injuries is that they seem to creep up without a lot of warning. There’s no shotgun blast as your achilles tendon rolls up into a ball in your calf or sudden sharp pain as your ligaments pull loose from the ankle bones. No, you just wake up one morning going, “What exactly is that little ache?”

This time, however, I feel like I can sort of pinpoint when it all went down.

I was running up a mountain a couple of weeks after doing Ragnar Wasatch Back. My calves felt tight, and I hadn’t done much running after Ragnar. But, I thought, that would constitute a normal taper before a race. Oddly, I remember feeling a tingling sensation and even a little numbness in the bottoms of my feet.

I can’t say for certain, but not long after that, I started waking up with a dull ache toward the rear of my arches. It took me probably a month and a half to self-diagnose plantar fasciitis, but here I am, five months later, still waking up with a slightly less extreme version of that dull ache every morning.

Now, granted, it’s 100% my fault that I’m still dealing with it. I should’ve quit running right away. But instead, I went and did my favorite event, the Grand Teton Relay, just a month later. Then I ran up the very same mountain as part of the Hidden Peak Challenge. And then, even after taking it mostly easy, I went and ran the stupid Turkey Trot at Thanksgiving.

Finally, I’ve decided to take a little time off running. And I’m convinced that, if I play my cards right, I can actually make this time off count for something. For starters, I came across a video from famed Canuck triathlete Kirsten Sweetland about making the offseason count:

And then I came across this fascinating podcast from a running researcher who says you basically can’t improve your running stride just by thinking about it—and that if you want to improve your running economy, you either have to do that by running tons of miles or through gym work.

So yeah, needless to say, I’m spending plenty of time in my home gym, and I’m riding the mountain bike every chance I get. I keep telling myself that if I end up racing the bike next year instead of running, that that’s okay.

I just have to make sure I don’t crash. 🙂

Don’t Call it a Running Injury

I still remember the first time I got iliotibial band syndrome. I was maybe a mile into my first triathlon when I got this dull, aching, stabbing pain in the side of my knee — pure agony. But I’d just completely destroyed the bike course, so I wasn’t about to DNF midway through the run. So instead I gutted my way through two of the most awful miles of my life.

I remember telling my aunt about it and having her respond, “So why don’t you just hit the weights and rehab your knee?” I thought, “Good point — I come from a strength training background, so I can figure this out.” I hit the weights, and it seemed to go away. Of course, I went to another triathlon and had the lousy run of my illustrious endurance career. But small victories count for something, right?

Later, I realized that if I just run uphill — up a steep hill that left my glutes miserably sore the next day — it would stave off that miserable injury. At first, I didn’t really understand the mechanisms at work. I just knew that it did the job.

Turns out that it’s all about what’s called your “posterior chain” — or the muscles that run up your backside. Yes, your bum. And also your lower back, hamstrings, even gastrocs, etc. etc. When you spend all day sat down in a chair like I do, those muscles get awfully weak. Your tensor fascia latae and your psoas, meanwhile, get really short and tight.

If anyone at Running Times or Runner's World objects to me posting this, please just contact me and I'll be happy to take it down.
Still, if anyone at Running Times or Runner’s World objects to me posting this, please just contact me and I’ll be happy to take it down.
When you pick up running or cycling hoping to counteract the effects of all of that sitting, people with shorter strides often strengthen their quads without doing much about their buns. It just makes sense that your body’s going to reach for its strengths and avoid its weaknesses when you put it in a physically demanding situation. Trouble is, stronger quads don’t really fix your problem — they exacerbate it. And all of that movement in your knee and your hip tends to bring out the pain from your iliotibial band.

So what do you do if you find yourself with a nasty case of ITBS? For one, start including a regular uphill run at least once a week. And don’t just run a moderate slope — go find something steep and challenging and then do hill repeats on it. You’ll know you succeeded if the outsides of your bum are really sore the next day.

You might also try adding a couple of strength moves to your regular routine. Everyone recommends clamshells, etc., but I’m a fan of stuff that’s actually running-applicable, like these two: (I figure Running Times is out of print now, so I’m probably safe to post this.) Personally, I’ve had more success with the second one, the runner touch, than with the first. But maybe you’ll be different from me.

Wherein I attempt to share useful advice

So needless to say, being injured has been an interesting (albeit unpleasant) experience. This bizarre cycle of losing tons of fitness through excessive resting and then re-injuring myself as soon as I try to start back up again — that has gotten very old very quickly.

I’ve run into three problems:

1. Diagnosis — I really don’t have the problem figured out completely. I wasn’t sure if I just strained a muscle (I was thinking soleus) or if I straight-up tore something (like a vertical tear in the achilles or something).

2. Re-injury prevention — Because I didn’t know what I did, I’m not clear on how I can avoid re-injuring myself. That’s the thing: for the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure if it was a result of running and cycling, running and swimming, just plain running, or even just plain cycling. I’m still not 100% certain how I did it in the first place, and that makes it pretty tough to avoid doing it again.

3. Rehab — It’s really easy for you to play armchair physiotherapist and say, “Duh—stop running, moron!” But newsflash: it’s an injury in a largely tendinous region of the body. That means it’s difficult to get a lot of blood flow in there, and when it’s hard to get blood flow, it’s hard to heal. So to some degree, I need aerobic exercise to keep a higher rate of blood flow. The other question is, do I put heat on it (like I would a muscle strain) or do I ice it (like I would a tendon injury)?

Fortunately, in the middle of all of this, the world’s finest exercise science and sports nutrition minds were convening a conference in Spain. And since it’s 2015, that meant I got to follow along via Twitter. Asker Jeukendrup had to make things one step simpler when he took all of the cool info I saw in 140-character tweets and summarized it like this:

Graphic summarizing how to get over an achilles tendon injury.
Holy simple, right?

Being the self-diagnosing hypochondriac that I am, and since I couldn’t get an appointment with a running doctor until December, I decided to start treating it like a tendon injury. I’m downing gelatin and vitamin c, and I’m trying to avoid impactful exercise.

So I had a recovery regimen to commit to. Then I read Born to Run (which, I should mention, was a brutal hatchet job on Ann Trason — but that’s a different story), and I started wondering about whether the new pair of Nike Pegasus shoes I got last Christmas are playing a role. Christopher McDougall, of course, hangs out with Jon Krakauer and therefore doesn’t have a lot of credibility in my book. But he’s not the only one out there who has suggested running shoes might play a role in the high rate of injury among North American runners.

The other day, I found myself in the mountains with a group of people leaving on a little nature hike. I’d talked them into doing it on the lower elevations of the Aspen Grove-Mt Timpanogos trail. After moseying along for the first mile with the group, I got an itch, poked my way to the front and took off on a little jog up the trail. When I got to the turnaround point, I didn’t feel like turning around—so I didn’t. I kept going.

It wasn’t until I’d gotten about three miles and 1,800 feet up the trail that I decided to call it a hike. By then, I could see the summit far above, with the clouds hovering, brooding over the snow-covered dampness of the mountain. So I bounded back down, fully expecting to have worsened my injury.

To my surprise, the next day my calf felt pretty good. I’d even felt some tightness while I was headed up, but that was all gone when I woke up the next morning. The familiar soreness in my gluteal and vastus muscles was back—and that just plain felt awesome.

But it got me wondering about trails. Maybe there’s still something I can do on trails. Maybe snowshoe season will be nicer to me than I expect. We’ll see.

Torture

I had about 10 days to go before my planned road 5k, so I moseyed on over to the track near my office and resolved to do something I’d never done before: Run a mile as fast as I could on the track. I was hoping for around a 5:30, but after a handful of 1:23-ish laps, I realized that was a little too ambitious. I crumbled in the last lap and finished up with what felt like a respectable 5:51.

Then came race day. I employed my normal positive split strategy and took off way too fast in the first mile. Then I melted in the third mile and brought it home with a 20:35 — good enough for an age group win.

And sometime after that is when my troubles began …

Back in 2009, I’d experienced some calf pain when I was training for Bone n’ Back. I stopped running, had a really lousy time, but got healed. Then, in 2012, I got it again when I was training for Robie Creek (which is part of the reason I backed out). Both times I left my leg alone for a couple of weeks and it got better. The end.

This time not so much.

I kept trying to squeeze in a run … and then I did my favorite running hill climb … and then I got recruited to do Grand Teton Relay … and then Rivalry Relay … and then Widow Maker … and then Snowbird …

In the middle of all of that, I was at a very important work event one afternoon when a coworker told me he wanted to go hike Table Rock that night, and my ears perked up. Besides, I told myself, he needs someone to help him avoid getting killed — someone who knows the trail.

Why did I do it? Imagine this view … but in the dark with more snow … I'm a sucker for scenery!
Why did I do it? Imagine this view … but in the dark with more snow … I’m a sucker for scenery!

So we started out way too late, and by the time we reached the summit, the sun was setting. We hadn’t yanked out our headlamps by the time we got back to the talus field beneath the rock, and somewhere in there, I nastily sprained my ankle. Voila — built-in rest time.

I stopped running completely for two or three weeks non-stop. Oh sure, I kept riding the bike, but my legs felt great. After a few weeks, I went out for a slow jog with my wife in the early morning, and my legs felt … fine, actually. A full week later, I went and jogged a mile with the legs still feeling good. So I came home that night and jogged another.

Then I woke up in the morning, and the pain was back.

So essentially, what this all means is that I moved to the base of a bunch of glorious, trail-filled mountain peaks … and the entire time I’ve been here, I’ve been too injured to actually enjoy them.

You know that commercial where the guy shows up in what he thinks is heaven and then eats a big chocolate chip cookie before he discovers that all of the milk cartons are empty and that it’s not really heaven? Yeah, welcome to my world.

At the same time, I see people who have it way worse than me, and I think how grateful I am that I’ve been able to enjoy the mountains as much as I have. I really have had some serious adventures, and for that, I am sincerely appreciative.

So here’s what I’m theorizing:

Plyometrics have always been a staple of my road 5k training. But I’m starting to realize that plyometrics and uphill training don’t mix. One makes the achilles tendon stiffer, and the other requires the achilles and gastrocnemius to have a little pliability. Ta-da — injury. (Learn from my example here, people.) And I’m sure the additional stress of changing careers and addresses didn’t help.

Now I’m thinking I need some time completely off of running, and I need it ASAP. I’m following the nutritional protocol for tendon injuries, even though I’m not sure I have one. After a few days off, I think I’ll be able to get back into cycling and swimming. But for now, it’s nothing at all …

At least, until I get to go hiking for work later this week …