Patience, Part Two

Chick's CornerSome 18 months ago, I wrote my 2012 Western States race report for iRunFar and titled the article ‘Patience.’ I felt that I had practiced other worldly patience by hardly running at all in the three weeks that separated Comrades and Western States. It goes without saying that three weeks of little to no running is a lifetime for a die-hard ultrarunner. Or so I thought. Oh, how perspectives can change, even if only temporarily (I hope). Since April of last year, my patience has been tested to a whole new level, and continues to be tested with each and every run.

A quick summary of the last eight months would be: start getting pain in fibula, cut back running, pain continues, find out I have a stress fracture, stop running entirely for seven weeks, start running and gradually build up from 10 minutes to a marathon in 2.5 months, get new injury, cut back running, pain still there, stop running entirely for four weeks, build up slowly starting with a run/walk program at end of November. Yeah, this is a whole new level of patience.

To anyone who has had the blessing never to be injured, you might assume that the worst thing is the periods of not running at all, but I have in fact found it harder to run a little, and although going cold turkey wasn’t exactly easy, it was in some ways more tolerable than what I like to refer to as ‘bumbling-along mileage.’ My first run post-stress fracture was 10 minutes. I mean, is that really a run at all?  And then, the next day was a rest day–after all, I had to rest from that massive, 10-minute run. The irony that this was almost a year to the day since I had won Western States in something under 17 hours wasn’t lost on me; a 10-minute run represents about 1% of my Western States finishing time! A 10-minute run is previously what I would have considered a cooldown from a speed workout, not a workout in itself. What had my running world come to?

But I know that in returning to running post-injury, patience and discipline of not overdoing things too soon is imperative. It might seem boring to follow what looks like a beginner’s run/walk schedule provided to you by a physio or coach but the question I always ask myself is: what is more important, today’s run or next year’s race calendar? Invariably I know that I may well need to sacrifice the desire to run longer today for the long-term goal of racing in the coming year.

But not extending that easy 20-minute jog into a 30-minute workout is easier said than done. So here are a few tricks I’ve picked up to try to not overdo things as I return to running:

  • My first few runs I did on my own, rather than meeting up with friends. Although I was itching to get back to running with my buddies, I knew that the temptation would be to run a little further or on terrain that I shouldn’t be, as I would get swept along with the group. If I went out on my own, then I’d be more likely to stick to the distance prescribed by my physio. And take those lovely walk breaks when my beeping watch told me to. When I did start to run with friends again, I would tell them in advance the maximum time/distance I could run so they could help me stick to my schedule.
  • I am continuing to cross train. Whilst I was injured I was fairly dedicated at hitting the gym and the pool. Of course I hope to be able to cut back on cross training significantly once I am fully fit but it is important to phase it out gradually as I phase in the running bit by bit. I am hoping that this will result in keeping my overall training volume up and will therefore reduce the temptation to run too much too soon.
  • I used my GPS watch from the get-go to track my return to running. This was not so I could become demoralized by seeing how slowly I was running, but it was so I could track my build-up from one week to another. It’s easy to soon forget that you were ever injured at all and to keep bumping up the mileage with each run just a little too aggressively. It’s easy to get to a point where you are frustrated that you are still only running for say an hour, but if you look back and see that maybe a month ago you were completing 15-minute run/walk workouts, then you will have black-and-white proof of the progress you have made, and that you should be cautious not to do too much more.
  • Just because I had completed a 30-minute, easy jog and was ecstatic for having done so, I didn’t take this as a cue to sign up for a 100-mile race! Whilst I’m itching to get back racing, I know that it’s not a wise idea to have race targets that are too soon and might push me to rack up a few too many training miles too soon and re-injure myself. I’ve picked out a few races that I hope to do, but I am holding off signing up for any of them until I know that I am definitely back on track and over my injury. The thought of these possible races is providing me the motivation to train but as I’ve not put down any hard cash just yet in the form of entry fees, and not broadcast it all over social media, I feel less pressure to step up the running volume too soon.

I’m looking forward to being back at a stage, sometime in the future, when I can go out for runs without having to stick to such a strict schedule and without having to carefully monitor my running volume so rigorously. But I know that I will only get to that stage if I practice patience now and take my running quite literally, one step at a time.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you been in the same place as Ellie, where your physical health disallows what your mind wants to do and you have to be patient?
  • Do you have any tips for how you maintained your sanity through your injury?

There are 13 comments

  1. kjz

    Stay the course–the slow build should prevent the rebound injuries that pop up from too much too soon. You'll be back on track and racing hard–never soon enough for the mind and heart, but definitely as your body allows. Patience building experiences are rarely fun in the moment. great job, Ellie! :)

  2. Sarah

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience — I can really relate, and your tips are helpful. I had two major episodes of injury during the second half of 2013. I am just now getting back to "running," loosely defined; by that I mean, walk/jog intervals, on my feet a max of one hour. I hate the word "jog" but that's really what I'm doing to keep it low-intensity. Here's my two cents on what helps in the process of returning to running: (1) do not think "yippee! I'm running again!" Instead, think of the first weeks back as part of the rehab process — in other words, that 10 – 30 min. of "running" is more physical therapy than running, and do not expect it to feel satisfying. (2) seek endorphins elsewhere (I found them — at least a little bit — through spinning). (3) If possible, find and use an Alter G treadmill to return to running with lower impact. And (4) do your own thing. Separate from running buddies, ignore your friends' Facebook postings about how many hours they ran last weekend, etc. Follow your own slow, careful path to recovery and plug back in to the social scene only when you're truly healthy again. Thanks again for this great column.

    1. @olgav100

      Sarah, thank you for the tips. That "ignore your FB friends with many fast miles" is the hardest, as you know, especially if I am also in a category that can't find my endorphins as any cardio-related thing is not happening, but I really appreciate all the posts that keeps us, used-to-be-runners, sane a little more…

  3. Maryellendvm

    Two years ago I herniated a disc in my back while doing yard work :-) I was unable to run for 10 months. I am almost 60 years old and had run almost my entire life until that event, so not running blew me out of the water. Recovering from my injury was an unbelievable exercise in patience. I actually tried to run for a couple of weeks after I got hurt, but it was simply too painful and I also had neurologic deficits in my right leg. The most helpful thing for me was that I was able to substitute cycling for running. I was fortunate to be able to ride for hours so was able to stay somewhat fit, but most importantly it kept my mind happy. So my advice would be if you are able, find some other form of exercise that you can do, and be thankful that you can at least do that. It turned out that I really liked cycling, so that was a bonus. Also, listen very carefully to your body when you are able to run again. I really payed attention to any thing that seemed even a little off, and would ease up or take a few rest days. Last fall I ran North Face Atlanta 50 mile, and am going to try my first 100 mile in a couple of weeks. You can recover, but be very patient and stay tuned into how you are feeling.

  4. ripvanracer

    Find another outlet such as the elliptical that you can do when injured. I trained just like I was running and every couple weeks would do a "race" trying to set a new PR. When I started back running, I didn't feel the need to do too much because I could still do a hard workout on the elliptical.

    Luckily for the past few months I have hardly been on the elliptical so when I do get on it, it's like being a beginner again.

  5. rcreed

    I wish good healing and continued smart recovery to you.

    I missed the endorphins the most of all when I pulled a hamstring tendon two years ago and couldn't run for 4 months. I couldn't even bike for a while, so I substituted swimming. You have to swim pretty hard to get the same endorphin rush as from running, but you can do it! It's so hard to patiently build it all back up, but it helps if you've done it before — reading back over your logs is a good reminder that you CAN get it back.

  6. @dbconlin

    I've screwed this up too many times over the past year and am trying to exhibit more patience this time. Instead of "I ran X min/miles and felt great; tomorrow I'll do X+1", for me it has to be "….tomorrow I'll take a rest day and the next day I'll try X-1, see if it still feels okay and only after that try X+1".

  7. Lane_E

    Hope you don’t mind I’m a dude reading your Chick’s Corner, as I have a little extra spare time. I haven’t been able to run for the past 6 months due to tendinopathy where the hamstrings attach to my sitbones (overuse injury from poor hip posture). Never having a long-term injury like this before, I quadrupled the amount of recovery time required because I thought I could shake off the pain by running through it. Even with platelet-rich plasma injections coming up next week to boost healing, I gotta SLOWLY and gradually phase back in to running. Thanks for the important reminders in your article. To triumph, we trail racers have to practice patience both on and off the trails.

  8. @MelRunsUltras

    Ellie, great read. Pretty sure my husband thought I would snap when I had a pelvic stress fracture in 2012 and couldn't run AT ALL for 12 weeks. I focused on doing what I could, and changing my nutrition as a preventative measure for the future. Getting back into running was difficult. I too found running by myself kept me from over doing it. Not signing up for a 100 in 2013 was very difficult. But because of my restraint, I finished 2013 with a 50K and a 50M PR and No Injuries! Good luck getting through the rest of your recovery. :)

  9. Canyon Stories

    This is inspirational, and hopefully your injuries will not return. I am trying to apply patience to what I recently learned is a permanent "injury" — arthritis of the hip. I'm not an ultrarunner, but find trail running essential for the gajillions of benefits that this crowd already knows about — and at just 47, I don't plan to give it up. But I have to be patient and perhaps less ambitious than I might have been, because sometimes running hurts no matter what I do, and the condition is permanent. All of this is extremely frustrating, so I appreciate the fact that I still CAN run, as well as any lessons in patience I can find. Anyone else out there in the same boat?

  10. ggtri

    Great Article… particularly relevant as I am currently recovering from knee surgery. This will be my second injury recovery… the first was 3 months off after being completely run over by a pickup truck while biking in 2012. Slow steady building over time was the key to me recovering and being able to rebuild and PR at IM AZ in 2013 (http://wp.me/P1FXx6-6z). What helped me was focusing on my running (and biking) economy improvements (HR/pace or power) rather than just my paces (http://wp.me/P1FXx6-74).

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