Thursday, July 21, 2011

Running, Injury, & Emotion

achilles tendon HURTSI am really happy to report that, with the exceptions of speed workouts & their after-math, my recent shin splint flare-up seems to be on its way out. It's been several weeks now since I've had anything but super minor tib med pain on longer and/or easy/moderate runs, and since shin splints has taken me out of running for weeks at a time in the past, I am incredibly thankful for that.

On the other hand, I can't seem to shake this weird-ass Achilles tendon pain for the life of me. It's new (since, say, June-ish), it can be very sudden, and at times it can be intense enough to end a run within just a few miles. What's worse is that it's not limited to running -- there are times walking up hills or stairs at work that I'll feel it and know right away that, even if I took a rest day the day before, running today is probably out of the question.

Today was one of those days. I had a little pain with it on Tuesday, but stopped well before I had to and didn't attempted to push through it. My original plan had been to try to get 5-6 miles in on Wednesday if my leg felt fine to make up for not running this Saturday (gotta love a destination wedding), and either way, go back to Lululemon Run Club on Thursday.

Trying to be realistic with myself, I developed a whole hierarchy of running goals for Thursday:

  • "A" goal: Run 3 miles to Lemon Club, run with the 6 mile group (even if I'm waaaaay slower than most of them), then run 3 miles back home. (This would partly make up for missing my 10-miler on Sunday.)
  • "B" goal: Run 3 miles to Lemon Club, run with the 6 mile group, BART home
  • "C" goal: BART to Lemon Club, run with the 6 mile group, BART home
  • "D" goal: BART to Lemon Club, run as far as I can without upsetting my Achilles, BART home
  • "E" goal: Run some amount of miles, somewhere, without upsetting my Achilles


Well, it became very obvious very quickly on Wednesday that no running was going to happen; I was in too much pain, even just walking around at work, so I didn't. Surely, I thought, if I rest today, then my body will reward me tomorrow by feeling better and ready to run.

Or not. Even after a rest day, I couldn't shake the sharp pain in the back of my calf. Even a little jog down the hallway would set it off. Not looking good.

But I came home, had a little rest, had a little food, & later in the evening experimented with a few strides up and down our hallway. The pain seemed gone, so I figured I could try to get a few miles in. (I skipped goals A through D, though, & went straight to E; I would be running on yellow alert, basically just waiting for pain, and I didn't want to risk getting distracted by anyone or distracting anyone else with my issues or getting so caught up in running with other people that I end up in DASA territory. Also walking to and from BART with leg pain sucks.) So I suited up and headed out the door.

I got maybe a third of a mile. I was having some weird knee pain on the right side as well (weird as in I haven't had any knee pain to speak of in 4-5 years), which freaked me out a little at first but then made sense once I thought about it more. I've noticed I've definitely been compensating on my right side when I have pain, usually by trying to take pressure off my calves / Achilles, usually by switching from a forefoot strike to a midfoot or sometimes almost a heel strike, which is one of the main causes of knee pain. I hadn't thought I'd been doing it enough for that to happen, but maybe I have. I tried a little half-hearted compensation, trying to find some part of my foot to land on that didn't cause pain, but about five blocks in I felt that sudden, familiar, sharp slicing pain and that was it for me. As Amby Burfoot has pointed out in the past, if you can run normally and are experiencing some pain, it's really a matter of how uncomfortable you're willing to be in terms of whether or not to keep going. But the moment you can't run without altering your gait, that's a red flag and it's time to stop. (Hey, at least if you quit after only a third of a mile, it's a short walk back, right?)

In the last ten years or so I have gotten INFINITELY (well, okay, maybe not infinitely, but a lot) better at dealing with my emotions, particularly my emotions around running. At this point, I'm self-aware enough to realize that I associate walking the last few blocks home tired and covered in sweat with victory, strength, and competence. Check me out, I am a RUNNER and I have been off RUNNING and am now very TIRED and SWEATY as a result; this is how you can tell that I am STRONG and TOUGH and generally AWESOME.

I am also self-aware enough to realize what that means for the other side of that coin. If finishing a run makes you strong, tough, and competent, you can imagine what it must mean if you fail to finish. Earlier in my running career, when that happened (because it will inevitably happen, given enough runs), walking back to where I started without having completed my run was one of the most shameful experiences I could remember having (and yes, there were tears at certain points). No one could convince me that there was any good reason to cut a run short; I would allow that yes, it might be necessary at times, but it would be because you were weak / untough / otherwise not competent, not because you were making a smart choice for your body. (Seriously, parts of this hung on for a long time; I can remember a run at my mom's house a few years ago where I tripped and twisted my ankle about three miles in. It took at least another mile of hobbling along in not insignificant pain before I called her to come pick me up, and I still felt like a complete and total loser.)

So there was a touch of that as I headed back home. That stretch is normally my cool-down stretch; when I'm walking it in running clothes, I'm used to that tired-sweaty-victorious feeling. This just sucked.

Thinking of Amby's advice about pain that changes your gait reminded me of the rest of that advice -- that running injuries that sideline us are almost never, ever sudden. They have warning signs, and it's up to us to act on them. His advice for pain that changes your gait? Three days off, minimum, with a very cautious & conservative return after that.

This is one of those situations where this is absolutely the advice I would give someone else in the same situation, but the non-rational part of me really, REALLY doesn't want to take it. That part of me is super-excited to have been back at 30 miles for two weeks running, to have my shin splints mostly gone, to feel strong running in the 8-10 range for most of my workouts. It wants to pack in as many miles as possible before this weekend, then pack in a few more before Bad Bass 10K nine days from now. It wants to say, "Welllll, we'll rest today [because we have to, because apparently our tendon is non-functional], but we'll see how we feel tomorrow, and maybe see if we can get in our tempo run before getting on the plane..."

And that's DASA territory. This is where I need to treat myself like a running friend who is not me: "Angela. This has been going on FOR WEEKS. It's not getting better. 1-2 days of rest doesn't even always make it better. You can't run normally on it. So just STOP. A few missed miles, even ten or fifteen, will not ruin your season. If you don't run Bad Bass as fast as you would have if you got those miles in, oh well. And if you try to run those miles and end up hurt worse, you may not be able to run it at all (or may end up running through real pain, and making it that much worse). So just stop trying to be such a goddamned hero about it and CHILL."

Sigh. Okay.

So I'm putting it in writing, where I have accountability.

  • I hereby solemnly swear that there will be no running today. I also swear that there will be no running tomorrow, and no running on Saturday or Sunday while I'm at the wedding.
  • I will consciously choose to look at this as fortuitous timing, and consider how lucky it is that I need to take care of an injury over a weekend when I wouldn't be able to run anyway.
  • I swear that when I get back next week, I will keep the mileage low (especially speed work); I will also call the sports medicine guy at the first hint of that same kind of pain.
  • If I feel good and am able to get a moderate amount of mileage in next week with no pain, then I will race the bloody hell out of Bad Bass.
  • If I can run some next week but am still having more than VERY mild pain, I swear that I will run it conservatively and just shoot to finish. I swear to take walking breaks if I need to.
  • If I am still having pain like I have this week, I'll still show up for the schwag (hey, I ~did~ already pay for it) but I swear that I will walk all or most of it and not tempt my tendons to melt off my body. I will hate this, but will maybe stand a chance of keeping myself intact enough to run the Summer Breeze 10K properly in August.

So. There is it. This is me, trying to be a smart athlete and not a dumb-as-shit one, trying to manage my feelings of failure and inadequacy, and reminding myself that I care a lot more about the half-marathon happening in November than I do about a couple of piddly 10Ks. ( would still be pretty nice to place at a few more, no? I think there's no harm in admitting that.)

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