The words “you’re always injured,” escaped from her mouth as I qualified the reason I’d be slowing the pace of the group on that evening’s run. Am I? Don’t I injure myself every time I run or do any kind of strength work? Does a prolonged injury constitute always being injured?
Defining running injury
Injury is a word often used by most runners I know to describe anything from IT band syndrome to a stress fracture, torn ligament or worse – all requiring very different treatment protocols. In order to get stronger, there is a cycle of stress and recovery that happens. To build muscle, you literally create structural damage that temporarily weakens them, requiring rest to repair and build muscle. Running stresses the body similarly, and everyone has imbalances that can lead to injury. Progress toes the line between growth and injury.
Depending on how closely you follow my instagram, you may know that I’ve been managing a minor, but prolonged bout of Achilles tendinitis since April 22. When it first happened, I described it as a pain in my ankle, I was so unaware. As I started to look into it, I was so sure that I’d be on the shorter end of the spectrum for ‘typical’ healing time. The joke was on me, though, as I did turn out to be the anomaly I thought I’d be, just on the other end of the spectrum. It took me 6 months to get anywhere close to a base level of running. Now, 8 months later, I’ve worked my way up to my minimum preferred weekly mileage that includes the types of terrain that I love, but I still have a lot of fitness to build back up in endurance, technical and vertical – so basically everything.
Often, my enthusiasm gets me in trouble, in running and otherwise. I have no doubt that the way I trained last year, ironically with a coach, was among the contributing factors for injury. That’s not to say it could have been predicted, just that looking back on the confluence of factors, I can identify the lesson and take it with me in future training. My mileage hovered around 40-45 miles per week, but was distributed over more days, flatter, and incorporated speed work or hill work into nearly every run. One of the drawbacks to working remotely with a coach who is also at capacity, is that it leaves less space for the kind of personal interaction that could allow them to get a better sense for your style and potentially mitigate risk of injury. My coach didn’t know that my style is to obsessively monitor improvement metrics, and that I have a hard time tempering a 2 min interval relative to a 30 second interval, and basically try to sprint all of my hill repeats.
When you take this rapid increased load of hill and speed work and couple it with a 90% reduction in varied terrain in order to get the miles in on work days, it might not be all that surprising that a long run on the muddy, icy, hilly, rutty and rocky terrain of the Mesa Trail was the deciding factor. Last winter was a stark contrast to the varied terrain and constant vert of the year prior. That previous year I was averaging one Boulder Skyline Traverse a month and intuitively trained for my first 50 miler. Granted, I had a bit more work-life balance and felt less stressed, which I think that made a difference as well. So when I hit the Mesa Trail for a ten miler in the Springter of 2019, the mud and ice and weebles and wobbles strained those little fibers in my tendon in a way that they hadn’t been accustomed to for several months and that was the beginning of a really difficult 8 month anything-but-linear journey of surrender and rebuilding fitness.
It’s hard to gauge my level of fitness right now. Everything feels hard and I feel fatigued all the time. Yes, I’m back to 30-40 mile weeks for the last seven weeks and after 6 months of down time, I suppose the body isn’t quite used to it even if my mind is. I have reverted back in the place where it’s hard to enjoy runs when what’s easy for others has my legs and/or lungs blowing up. It’s hard to run with other people who have different goals or are at a different place in their training. When I feel I’ve fallen behind, it tends to lead to a lot of silent judgement of myself, in turn, making for bad company. I have hit several milestones in the last couple of months that have restored hope, but I’m still challenged and the core of it is mental. I’m not sure where I fit in right now, but I know that I don’t fit in the same way I used to. Others move onward and upward while I struggle to regain base fitness. I do know that there is no end game, no final destination and as long as I’m alive, there are more great things to come. I hang my hat on that.