Becoming A Better Runner Through Illness And Injury

Anyone who has raced often enough knows it’s only a matter of time until one will have a prolonged tough stretch in a race, or even an entire race that seems to go poorly. No matter who you are you will have times in which you are not able to run anywhere near your usual level. Many runners are often unable to effectively cope with these tough stretches, but others seem to regularly be able to come out of these down times running stronger than ever. There is of course no exact science to any of this, but there certainly seem to be patterns to this which we all can potentially learn from.

I think confidence is the main thing we use to be able to get through these tough stretches or tough races. I’ve written a lot about confidence in the past, and the one thing to always keep in mind about confidence is that it’s not something you can fake. You can’t force yourself to be confident. This said, I do believe you can manipulate things in a way to gain confidence. One way to do this is to keep an intentional focus on the larger picture, and pay close attention to any time you do go through a rough patch and come out of it in an improved and positive way. This applies even in cases which aren’t isolated to an individual run or race. Prolonged rough patches in our health and in our training can also be used as very effective confidence builders that we can use to help cope with tough situations in future runs and races.

This is something that has taken me a long time to understand. I used to think that a down turn in my running for any reason was definitively a negative thing. If I was sick or injured I felt like I simply needed to get through the sickness or the injury before I could begin to grow as a runner again. Over time though I have come to understand the opportunity for improvement and learning through these times of illness or injury, and how I can apply these lessons to rough patches I am having within an individual run or race.

I have been in one of these rough patches lately. I have had lower-back and hamstring issues which have limited my running to less than 50 total miles in the past three weeks. It certainly hasn’t been mentally or physically easy to go through this stretch, but as I am now starting to come out of it I feel like I have been able to learn a lot from it that will make me a stronger runner in the future. More than anything I notice the confidence I have gained from knowing that with patience, determination, and hard work things will get better. The next time that I am in a rough patch within an individual run I will remember these past few weeks and be able to cope with things just a little bit easier.

You might think that recovering from a prolonged rough patch (typically in the form of injury and/or illness) is totally different from rebounding from a rough patch within an individual outing, but I do believe that there is more than enough crossover to make these longer term rough patches extremely valuable in getting through rough patches within individual runs.

First, and perhaps most important, is the value of recognizing and accepting when we need rest and recovery. This is pretty easy to understand when we are injured or sick, but it can be harder to recognize that in most rough patches within races or individual runs the same thing applies. More often than not when we are struggling within a run the most important thing we need to do is to rest and recover. Rest and recovery on the go certainly looks different than rest and recovery over several days or weeks, but the general idea is the same. Slow down, take it easy, and give your body and mind a break from the stress you are inflicting on it. There is typically an urge to keep running as fast as possible (especially within a race), but more often than not, when we are struggling mightily within a run we can slow down and take it easy for a while and bounce back faster and stronger than we felt just moments prior. It can often feel like we are never going to make up for lost time if we slow down too much, but in my experience, if things aren’t going well and I slow down considerably for just 20 or 30 minutes I am almost always able to make up any lost time very rapidly once things start to get back on track.

Another thing that goes hand in hand with rest and recovery is nutrition and hydration. One thing we always try to do when we are injured or sick is to eat and hydrate well, knowing that this will help get us back to feeling strong as soon as possible. Once again, the same thing applies to any struggles within an individual run. Slow down; take in calories; take in water, and things will almost always find a way of correcting themselves.

I could go on with other ideas, but the general notion is becoming pretty obvious here: any things we use to help feel better over prolonged stretches of struggles within our running can be used in very similar ways to get through isolated struggles within individual runs. This is a very simple notion, but one that took me quite some time to understand, and one that I often see others overlooking. The next time you are sick or injured you might want to think more specifically about this notion. If you look at things in the right way you can do more than just survive one of these rough patches, you can actually teach yourself to thrive from the things you can learn in these situations.

No one ever wants to be sick or injured, in the same way that no one wants to have severe struggles within a race, but the fact is that over time we are all going to deal with these types of challenges. The good news is that we can actually use these longer-term struggles to make ourselves better runners and racers by developing a better understanding of how to work through these things when they come up in the future.

I am more than ready and happy to be done with the minor issues that have been nagging me this month, but I certainly don’t feel that this has been a wasted month of running, as I know that what I have been through has undoubtedly made me a better runner going forward. The next time I have prominent struggles within a run or a race, I will have a little more confidence in my ability to get through those struggles. It’s only one small change right now, but when added up over time these small changes are what make us into individuals who can accomplish more than we would have ever thought possible. If we keep our minds open we keep learning. If we are wise enough to pay attention to what we learn we are able to keep growing, and keep moving forward, one step at a time.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

When was your last illness or injury? What did you learn from it?

There are 11 comments

  1. @zachdluchs

    Currently, I am 4 weeks out from my Leadville 100 and dealing with a strained muscle that has me asking a lot of questions of myself. My tibialis anterior muscle (runs down the front of the shin into the foot) on my left leg is strained – any sort of flexion of my foot hurts the muscle.

    It started 2 weeks ago, I took a week off, felt good last week, now it's back to feeling weak and worked – after 9 miles yesterday, my left foot was kind of dragging like the muscle had no power.

    This sport is full of tough decisions sometimes wrapped in with a lot of learning all the time…

    1. knobbytracks

      Ever consider dry needling? I had 2 calf strains last summer. No running but cycling, massage and ultrasound helped the first time but it came back 6 weeks later. I promptly had dry needling performed on a Monday and ran a 50K the following Saturday with no issues.

  2. Hillrunner50

    I've never had a major injury that has prevented me from running for a lengthy period of time. Over the last 22 years, the minor injuries I've had have been mostly rolled ankles, mild hamstring pulls and piriformis 'butt pain', that have kept me out for a few days here and there. My #1 goal ever since I started running in the mountains has always been to avoid overtraining and injury. For me, this has meant not racing too much, keeping the majority of my running easy, doing other things besides running, and taking days off. I personally do not think that injury and illness are part of the game, but I know that many runners do, and that's a shame because I think that injury and extended layoffs can be avoided right from the beginning.

    1. David @ OrdinarySuperhuman

      I re-started running 2.5 years ago after taking nearly a year to recover from a ruptured achilles tendon (from playing squash). I can definitely empathise with the feeling of making avoiding further injury a priority. It's been an over-riding thing for me in this time.
      And, in many ways, it's helped me become a better runner. Although focused on training for ultras, I've also achieved a PB in the marathon. I think this might be because more easy running has helped me train consistently without major injury and also build a better aerobic base.
      And yet, and yet …
      I can't stop myself wanting to push further.
      I can't stop thinking about what might have been achieved if I trained a little bit harder.
      I can't stop feeling that I want to find my limits.
      Even though I know that all of this will increase the risk of injury, I struggle to fight those feelings.
      Participating in an ultra marathon is such a significant slug of time, I would struggle to enjoy it as much if I didn't feel I had done my "best" (whatever that is).
      So, although I agree that injury and illness don't have to be part of running. I can also see why so many runners accept it as an inevitability.

  3. Mattjsy

    I was meant to do my 3rd 100 last October but my body imploded last summer. After countless visits to Dr's and consultants I eventually got diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis and with 10 months of no running I have finally found a medication that is working. Dark days and months have only been possible through knowing that I can dig in and I will pull through. Pain is truly temporary whilst the joy of the trail is always there

  4. senelly

    Right you are Geoff. Thanks for the reminders.

    #1: Changes in our physical and mental abilities happen. They are inevitable. How we perceive them is uber-important and it is totally up to us. We get to decide what they mean and how we move on. Some changes are welcome and are easy to accept… like improving race times, not puking during an ultra, and just feeling really good.

    #2: There are different kinds of not-so-good changes… there's the acute (the realization of a wrong turn, the tripping face plant, the oh crap ankle turn, the holy sh*t broken bone, etc.) and then there are the chronic agonies (unrelenting plantar fasciitis, screaming knees, and so on).

    Finally, #3: There is the inescapable decline of incurable long-term illness and/or aging. I am deep in the throes of the latter, and I can tell you that, as Bette Davis said, "getting old is not for sissies". Well, truth be told, living isn't for sissies. And, all these changes are just part of living. Some time ago, when I coached high school runners, I told them to just do the best they could with what they had at the time. I follow my own advice. I may be becoming a meaningless lump of flesh, but I am still moving and smiling.

  5. @Watoni

    I am really hoping to come through my current injury woes a better runner …. I caught my foot under a mud-hidden root in April and face planted at full speed going downhill. My left leg turned black, and several tendons got messed up to say the least. I am just starting PT-approved short runs to try to help get mobility back in the joint. I did a hilly cycling century this Saturday and a 5-mile run Sunday. How do I hope to become stronger? Finally work on imbalances that I have always ignored, do more core/strength work, get a coach and listen to her! Come up with a wholistic training plan for the first time, including attention to nutrition, etc. Here's to hoping I end 2015 with at least one good run/race and have a great 2016!

  6. Bryce_in_VA

    Thanks, Geoff. I'm dealing with a non-running-related illness which has kept me out of running shoes for a week, and it will be at least another. Friends have suggested to me to "keep my mind running" by reading, watching races on YouTube, etc. It does help. Sometimes it is time to stop being a student of yourself (I can at times get myopic in training) and be a student of the broader sport. Down time doesn't have to be off time. I can tell myself that, but it really hits home in your column. I always enjoy your column, for its candor, your humility, your love of the sport, and the lessons you have to share. Best of luck to you as you keep moving forward.

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