Lessons Learned from My Running Injury
This year my worst fear as a runner was realized: I succumbed to a running injury that has taken me out from the sport for an undetermined amount of time.
How did I get here? By literally running away from biggest fear—taking time off from running due to a running injury.
But while I’ve been off running for the longest time ever in my adult life (3 months and counting), I’m thankful for my running injury.
You read that right. I’m thankful for it because I’ve been learning valuable lessons that’ll carry forward into my running career making me a happier and healthier runner.
This time has allowed me to hit reset.
It started with a little trip.
Let me back up: One fateful day in August of 2019 I was doing my easy mid-week long run with my friend Gina. We had a mile to go, running on a road that was recently chewed up to be repaved. I was passionately telling her why I doubted my ability to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon. She was kindly telling me why I was wrong. And then, I kicked a rock in the uneven pavement and lunged forward, just catching myself before my forehead smacked the asphalt. I felt a tweak in my right hamstring. Gina urged me to walk a bit. We did for about a hundred yards, then I told her I was okay and ran home. I took about a ten-minute Epsom salt bath, thinking that would calm my leg down and stave off a running injury.
At the time, I was running 90+ mile weeks, entering the heart of my training, trying a single-ditch attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon with a sub-2:45 time, requiring a huge PR. I had just gotten competitive in my running,and jumped from running about 50 miles a week to about a hundred miles a week to give this gamble all I got.
In the days following, my leg felt a little tight in the muscle belly. I just rolled it out and wished it away. About a week and a half later, I had a down week and that’s when it really started to hurt. I remember asking my coach if it was common for aches and pains to materialize during down weeks. He gave me a confused look and dismissed this theory. Some of my mother runner friends suggested I get it needled, so that’s what I did.
I started getting my running injury needled once or twice a week with massage. It did not improve. So, my doctor started STEM and ultrasound therapy. I continued to train. Hard. And told my coach that it was bothering me. We decided I’d run my tune-up half marathon and gauge what we do afterward.
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Going from bad to worse.
My half-marathon was 5 weeks out from my marathon—my only chance to qualify for the 2020 trials. I continued my treatments and added in cryotherapy and compression sessions, deluding myself that if I could just get the inflammation down, I’d feel better.
The half-marathon was in Nashville on the last weekend of September. The temperatures were going to rise to the mid-80s throughout the race. It was a semi-hilly course with little shade. I knew in these conditions this wasn’t going to be a PR but it would be a good test to see how my leg hung in.
I toed the line with not the frame of mind. You could see it on my face. I was worried. The gun went off and I stayed behind the lead runner who continued to get further away. Around mile 6, the pain in my leg intensified and it soon felt completely dead. Like it wouldn’t move and I was dragging it behind me. It was also around this time that I took a wrong turn. I backtracked and asked the volunteers and police where to go. They weren’t sure. I stood there for about 4 minutes irritated, hot, and in pain. When I finally got directions back to the course, my head was swirling with negative thoughts and it took ever bone in my body not to quit. I jogged the rest of the course, running slower than my easy pace. I still managed to place in the top 3 but with my slowest time ever—a 1:31 after the hardest training block in my lifetime.
Still ignoring my body, I limped and cried my 2-mile cool-down. The pain down my leg continued to radiate and no position seemed to assuage it. I emailed my doctor to see if I could get in that week. He fit me in and we did a diagnostic ultrasound which revealed a partial tear in the high hamstring where the tendon and muscle meet.
Related: How to run without getting hurt
Dreams on the line.
Were my Olympic Trials dreams shot? Was all the hard work and all my family’s sacrifices for not?
My doctor said I needed to take a week off and do therapy. Then we would see how it goes. I took 6 days off, missing my longest run of my training block—24 miles with a pick-up at marathon pace (6:15). I eased back into running with lighter mileage and a few sessions on the alter-G (zero gravity treadmill). My leg still hurt. It still felt dead. But I could run through it. So it must be okay, right?
Countless workouts before the half-marathon and after ended in tears. Tears because of the pain. And tears because the pain and dead feeling made me not hit my times, further cementing the belief in me not being good enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials—the belief that I would never be as good as I wanted to be. And, this kind of fed into the way I felt about a lot of things I was doing…Not. Good. Enough. It turned into a vicious cycle.
It got to a point where my husband didn’t ask me how my runs went because he knew it was going to be followed by a negative comment about myself and about how I felt.
I spent so much of our time and money on trying to rehab my running injury while continuing to run. I’d ask the kids’ grandmas to watch the kids during treatment. I spent what little of my free time there. My kids often had to wait patiently while I was tethered to a table and electricity pulsed through my leg or a doctor stuck needles in it. We even had a designated area for my son to take his naps while at the clinic.
Tears at the marathon finish.
Finally, it was the week of the Indianapolis Monumental marathon (November 9th). My husband, with eyes on a 3:05, and I headed up there hopeful. I remember doing our 4-mile shake-out and thinking “after a week of tapering, why does my leg still hurt and feel powerless?…Just don’t think about it.”
I started the race running my splits almost perfectly. I didn’t go out too fast and stayed on pace for the first 12 miles. It felt comfortable. Every time my mind turned to my running injury, I turned it off. “Just run” I told myself, trying to turn my body into a machine that just needed to perform. I crossed the half at 1:22 and that’s when things went south. The pain started to become unbearable and the strain on my compensating muscles started to take its toll. My other hamstring started to hurt and my right quad was strained. It was hard to just keeping moving forward. Once again I found myself “mailing it in” at a race, running my easy pace just to finish.
I completed the race in a 2:56. A PR. But it felt like a failure. I cried as the volunteers put the foil blanket on me. Alone, I hobbled to an empty corridor leading to a parking garage so I could cry without anyone seeing. It was cold. The hotel seemed so far away. I didn’t even know if I could get up.
But I did. I got to my warm hotel room and waited to hear from my husband. He finished with a 3:06, just missing his BQ by a little over a minute. He was disappointed but happy, knowing he gave it his all…
A hunger for redemption.
I took 6 days off from running and then got another diagnostic ultrasound on my running injury. I did not re-tear my hamstring, but the tendon was deteriorating. My doctor said I could continue to run if I ran slow and kept my mileage low. So, I started back. Vacillating (once again) on if I should stop running and finally let it heal. I decided to run easy, hungry for redemption. If I took time off, I wouldn’t be able to go after my next goal of winning my hometown marathon, the Knoxville marathon in March. My ego needed this.
So, I ran easy until January 1 and continued treatment—this time going to a new clinic. I also started weight training with a strength coach which may have been the stupidest thing I could have done because standard exercises like squats and lunges are like the worst thing for a high hamstring injury. But I was determined to do all I could to redeem myself: to validate all the hard work and time spent (by me and my family) on this passion, this HOBBY, of mine; to validate the time spent away from my family; and to validate leaving my paying job to pursue the venture of The Mother Runners, and helping others run happy and healthy.
The pattern continued. My leg hurt. I tried something new. I told myself that maybe it was making it feel better…then decided it wasn’t. Then, I’d try something new again.
I ran a half marathon on February 1. History repeated itself. My leg slowed me down and it was taking a toll on the rest of my body. I tried to tell myself my leg didn’t hurt. It was in my head. But after some serious bargaining, it became evident that I couldn’t keep doing this. I couldn’t keep chasing my goals with one leg. I would never be able to run fast enough.
I got another ultrasound on my running injury. It showed my tendon was further deteriorating (high hamstring tendinopathy), my muscle was starting to calcify, and scar tissue was building up. I could keep running but it would never be pain-free.
Finally, I realized I had to stop.
My doctor and I decided to take 4 to 8 weeks off from running. During this time, I continued needling, STEM and massage therapy but it wasn’t helping so I decided to see a well-known runner and physical therapist in town for his opinion. It was at complete odds with my doctor’s. He didn’t think needling and those types of therapies would help address the issue: The tendon needed to be stressed appropriately to be strengthened. With competing viewpoints, I doubled up on therapies, thinking it could get me back to the road faster.
Then the pandemic hit. Races were canceled (including the Knoxville marathon) and offices were closed. In a way, it was a blessing as it eradicated the anxiety to get back to race sooner and it kept me from spending more time and money in therapy on my running injury. I was able to work with the physical therapist remotely and do all his strength routines at home.
And, that’s where I’m at now (May, 2020) more than 3 months later. Spending about 20 minutes a day on prescribed exercises, learning from my mistakes every day, and moving forward—slowly. I still don’t know when I will be able to run again but I am holding onto hope that when I do, I will once again be the happy (and a much healthier) runner that I once was.
I’ve rounded up my top 12 lessons from this ongoing saga in hopes it can help you if you’re injured or if you get injured. These are my personal lessons but I hope you can learn from my mistakes.
Top 12 lessons from my running injury
TIME-OFF = TIME TO REEVALUATE.
When I got injured, running had taken on a life of its own, requiring a lot of my time and energy. I was burnt-out but didn’t realize it. And, instead of running making me happy, it made me feel bad about myself. I wasn’t hitting my splits (because of my leg) and that made me feel like a failure which then put me in a bad mood the rest of the day. Running is meant to spread confidence and positivity throughout our lives, not the other way around. This time off has helped me reevaluate the role running plays in my life so that it’ll be a positive force when I return.
REST ISN’T ENOUGH.
If I had a dollar every time someone told me I just need to rest, well, I would have a lot of money. But resting won’t solve the problem. You need to strengthen CAREFULLY the injured area with eccentric exercises (this is particularly true for muscles or tendon injuries) that load the tendon and allow it to build itself back up. If you don’t do this, it will continue to deteriorate, and the pain will come back as soon as you return to running.
Really tune-in to how your injury feels before, during, immediately after, and a day after you do exercises. That will tell you what is strengthening and what may be aggravating it. There is a chance you’re given exercises your injury isn’t quite ready for. If it hurts acutely (not typical muscle soreness), you’ll likely need to back off and find a modified version.
WATCH HOW YOU MOVE.
Notice what sets off the pain. I realized little things like bending over to wash my kids’ hair lit my hamstring on fire. Pay attention to when it hurts and then stop doing those things! If your injury is still a bit of a mystery, be sure to tell your doctor or physical therapist what hurts it.
NOT ALL CROSS-TRAINING IS CREATED EQUAL.
In the beginning of my time off, I hit cross-training hard—mostly the bike and elliptical. I thought it was safe to do this—after all, these activities required zero pounding. But my leg kept getting irritated. Still, I wasn’t sure why. Sometimes the pain would come on hours or even a day after my workout session. I continued to lower intensity until I finally realized the intensity it required to maintain my cardio strength was too much for my leg. So, I turned to walking which is actually the best activity you can do to ready your body to run again.
HEALING IS NOT LINEAR.
It’s rare to have each week feel better than the last. In trying to balance risk and reward of healing/strengthening, you will suffer what seem like setbacks. You’re still moving forward but may have to take a little step back in the process and learn from it.
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS.
You name it. I tried it to heal faster and keep running. But I now believe all that time and money spent on things like needling and STEM only delayed the inevitable: time-off to heal and strengthen. I’m now a huge proponent of good ol’ fashioned physical therapy.
DO NOT FEAR A REST DAY…OR WEEKS.
I’m here in this position because I feared time-off would derail my progress and my trials goals. You really don’t lose fitness that fast, guys. Studies show you don’t start to lose VO2 max until after about a week of doing nothing. You only lose 5-20 percent after 8-10 weeks. Taking a couple days or even weeks off to nurse an injury isn’t the death knell to your goals. You can maintain. You can strengthen.
DO NOT FEAR WEIGHT GAIN.
I have to be honest here, I worried about how much weight I was going to gain not running. And, yes, I have gained weight. And yes, it has messed with my head. But as my dear husband put so eloquently “whatever weight you think you’ve gained will come off once you start running again.” Fair point. Remember, even elites gain weight when they are taking a break from high-intensity training. It’s OKAY.
STAY IN THE GAME.
The first month or so of my running hiatus, I wanted to isolate myself from the running community because it hurt emotionally. Instead, I fought this urge, and stay connected to my running friends, cheered on their races, and checked in with my coach regularly. I’m so glad I did because one of the best parts about being a runner is being a part of the running community. Turns out, you don’t have to be running to be part of the community. You can still inspire others and be inspired through connection.
DO NOT COMPARE.
Comparison is a bad idea to begin with. But don’t compare your pre-running injury to post-running injury self. I did that in the simple fact of when I was given the green light to ease back into running—thinking it would be fine to quickly up the distance and pace every run. On my first road run, I picked up the pace to a 5:30 mile and set myself back by at least a month. Your body isn’t ready for what your head wants. It is going to take time.
FORGET ABOUT TIMELINES.
Which takes me to my final and most crucial lesson: be patient. Be patient in your recovery. Assume it will take longer than you think. Throw out timelines but hold onto your dreams. Running will be that much sweeter once you return to it…
I still have a lot of work to do on my hamstring and my head, but with these lessons I’m confident I’ll off to a good start.