The Subtle Dance of Running Again After Injury

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Returning from space, Earth’s atmosphere presents a dense, fluid medium, which, at orbital velocities, is not all that different from a lake’s surface. Hit the atmosphere at the precise angle and speed promises a safe landing. Hit too steeply or too fast risks making a big “splash,” which would mean a fiery end. If the impact is too shallow, you may literally skip off the atmosphere and back into the cold of space. This subtle dance between fire and ice is the science of atmospheric re-entry.

 

Sometimes a lull in training can be traced back to events (or life) in the months, or even years prior to the lull. If this lull produces an injury, re-entry becomes the trickiest maneuver by far.

During the second half of 2014, I ran the most difficult marathon race course I’ve ever seen, followed by a fall semester of climbing, paddling and swimming at school, the Outdoorsman Triathlon, a Half Marathon, the MedicForce trip to Kenya, school finals, graduation…. and the holidays.

Determined to run a spring marathon again this year, training resumed in January without hesitation…. except, I was tired – supporting my theory that injuries often come about when we are worn out. My right foot started breaking down, and despite my prevention regimen, there was pain on top of my foot (stress fracture) and plantar fasciitis.

I went into full recovery mode: 2 weeks on the bicycle, followed by a week of 60-minute walks on the track…. followed by re-entry.

ESTABLISH PREREQUISITES

When I could finish these walks without pain, “hopping” around the house became part of my morning routine. How funny, you may think, but if you can hop on the injured foot without pain, there’s a good chance you can run. The other two prerequisites for re-entry is that there be no swelling, especially first thing in the morning, and no point specific pain (pain when you press down at the site of the injury).

DISCOVER YOUR BASELINE

It’s useful to know the distance you can run when everything has fallen apart. For me, that distance is 3 miles — the distance I could run with my eyes closed. Late in a tough race, it’s the distance I know I can cover no matter what has gone wrong, and it’s usually the longest distance I can run without pain in the early days after recovering from an injury.

Baseline is the distance you can run at a slow pace without pain during or after the run. If necessary, adjust your baseline distance. If you feel pain 2 miles into a 3-mile run, re-establish your baseline at just under 2 miles.

SMART SCHEDULING

A 3-mile run is scheduled in my calendar every other day with the agreement that under no circumstance will I continue the run if I feel pain. Some may disagree, but a niggle here or there does not constitute pain in my world. The return to movement after injury can cause niggles. As long as they work out within a few minutes, I keep going.

After the run, my focus is again on residual soreness, pain or swelling.

Baseline weekly mileage begins at 12 miles a week for me (3 miles x 4 days). This mileage is maintained until there’s absolutely no soreness during or between runs (usually 2-3 weeks).

MASTER BACK-TO-BACK DAILY RUNS

The next critical point in scheduling is back-to-back runs. Survive that first week of two runs in a row, and you’re in a good place. When it’s safe to advance, one extra run is added weekly until there are at least 6 days of running, and only then will I add longer runs. Elapsed time from re-entry to this point is about 4-6 weeks, with an 8-10 week re-entry schedule being a little more conservative.

Some coaches will prescribe runs of varying distances from the beginning, however, I prefer the Jack Daniels’ base-building formula of mastering 6-7 days of back-to-back runs of the same distance before adding the stress of longer runs.

It’s a slow process for sure, but the alternative of coming in too steep or too fast results in a big splash… meaning a “fiery” end to re-entry.

With the diagnosis of my first stress fracture years ago, the doctor told me a little exercise is good for rehabilitation. Loading of tissue stimulates healing – the trick being to find the right level of exercise at each stage of injury.

Don’t exercise at all during recovery and you risk a re-entry that is too shallow, leaving yourself worse off than before and more susceptible to re-injury – literally skipping off the atmosphere and back into the cold of space.

Structure your workouts during recovery and re-entry to gain strength…. become as strong as you possibly can using a cross-training program that has no impact on the injured area, keep re-entry runs slower than usual, and change only one thing at a time. Most of all, keep a positive attitude and enjoy the dance.

 

For a broader look at returning to running after an injury, including sample schedules, read Returning to running after injury by Tom Goom, a runner, physiotherapist and founder of RunningPhysio.

Related:

We promise to give you approximately 26.2 tough and memorable miles.

The 2014 Outdoorsman Triathlon and a 3rd place finish.

“There is no bad weather, only bad gear.”

Running with the Kenyans

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