Overcoming Injury – A Return is Possible #10

A bracing easterly accompanied this Sunday’s long run, however the special views afforded by the route to the Thames, and along and back via Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, brought some sense of warmth.  As we worked our way round on a route that was quick in transforming into Alan’s Gastro tour of central London (the bistro at the Globe is very good as is the beer at Doggets Pub by Blackfriars bridge were key highlights for those wondering).

I’m still in a really positive zone at the moment with a noticeable improvement in my stamina and pace with some great runs in the couple of weeks since my last post.  The training is now providing real dividends and illustrates the value of persistence in the face of your body/mind telling you to stop, slow down, or both.  Yet this vein of form has also got me remembering how I was in a completely different zone at the beginning of the year, coming back from injury and illness which made almost every run a major exercise in endurance, a blur of niggles, and worry about my future race targets.

Seeing a smiling face on Wednesday of a ‘returning from injury’ runner on a recovery run, made me remember just how different people we become when we have an injury, or are just returning from one.  So why is it so difficult returning to running?

The critical element seems to be the hypersensitivity to your body.  Your mind is particularly raw with the memories of the pain and discomfort that came from that injury.  The slightest niggle in a similar part of your body seems to immediately reawaken your fears that it has returned.

This is a factor that is not helped by the fact that your level of performance will be less than where you were prior to your return to running.  Even with concentrated rehabilitation (targeted stretching/rolling/sports massage/rest/recovery) to the area in question, it is inevitable that it will be sensitive, but what I find more interesting is how you seem to respond consciously to this, and seem to revert to indiscriminate listening to your body, when previously we had begun to learn that we need to question it because seemingly its only purpose was about stopping us running..

I’ve recently discovered some material online which looks at the philosophy of running and it seems there’s some clear philosophical elements to this, which given I spend so much time thinking through stuff while I’m running could be a good thing.  Then again…..

This philosophy stuff (does that make me sound like a philistine?) points to some particularly useful ideas which focus on how throughout our training, or racing, we are fighting the temptation to stop hurting ourselves.  Trouble is, that temptation can be very strong, sometimes preventing us even getting out the door, easing up when out, or even stopping in the most extreme cases.

In some ways the key element of training is learning to overcome this temptation, to distract ourselves to achieve our goal, but to do this on a regular basis to build a running momentum so that we can enter the zone, to build our confidence that our running goal is achievable.  All because we develop the elusive skill of resisting the temptation to stop hurting ourselves.

The ability of resisting that temptation is made even harder when coming back from injury because the temptation is all the closer because what you are trying to resist is what you have just come back from.  Where you did hurt yourself, and that niggle, that familiar throb of pain, is just giving the temptation an extra boost.  A gel fuelled boost you don’t need at any stage of your training.  In my experience this brings a new stress to your training and the philosophy material I’ve read backs this up highlighting how it becomes really easy to run a bad race, or have a poor training session because those stresses get you focussed on the thinking of your running, rather than the running itself. I’ve focused on this before (sorry for using the quote again, but it does get to the nub of this issue) and it’s as much about our training moving us out of our heads such that:

For runners the task is simple.  We just need to rid ourselves of all the symbolism and metaphor in order to become pure kinetic energy.  We must unharness ourselves from the rubble that we drag around with us, free ourselves from imagination, and learn, as we did as children, what it is to run with our feet alonep.84, R. Harvie (2011).

This is where the philosophy of running stuff gets really interesting because as Faulkner highlights (listen to the podcast here) these stresses create the ‘space’ for a whole welter of reconsiderations while we are running.  Reconsiderations which can cause us to ease back a bit ‘because the target was unrealistic anyway’ or the old chestnut ‘I’m feeling too tired today’.  But also when coming back from injury ‘that niggle is familiar, that’s where it hurt before, and I don’t want that back again’.

In my experience, these reconsiderations come through most powerfully in the stages of the race when we are most tired, and it’s about overcoming them in whatever way possible.  Yes, we need to pay attention to our bodies, listen to niggles, and respond with assessments and repair where possible, but also ultimately that we will simply stop when we can’t physically run anymore, not when our mind tells us we can’t run anymore.  That’s a mental thing, not a physical thing.

So how to block out the reconsiderations, the temptation, the messages to stop?

Self-distraction works really well, chatting to your running companions, checking out the scenery, even a gel block.  Another one used in races is the mantra.  Chanting this to yourself gets you out of your head and just focuses on getting it said rather than the myriad of reconsiderations flowing through your head.  For me it is ‘Run Strong’, chanted between miles 22 and 26 of the Brighton Marathon it got me through the tough time and through to my two best times so far.   Find yours and it’s another distraction weapon to use in the running battle.

However, it’s also about structuring your return to running carefully.  Easing back into your training plan, being patient, and getting a proper assessment – never try to second guess an injury as it always has a habit of coming back to bite you in the calf/hamstring/groin/glute.  You will be back, your previous training will stand you in good stead, and your training/racing goal remains achievable.

Hold the faith – there’s plenty more gastro tour training runs out there for you.

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About Simon Tanner

Seven time marathon runner, having run Brighton x5 and London x2, finally got a London ballot place after 7 consecutive attempts. I try to write about things I'm going through / have gone through in training to help others attain their running goals.
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