January 12, 2012

A runner's greatest fear: injury

In my 21K session yesterday, I averaged 5:00 per km - comfortably in the target range I am aiming for in these types of runs and it felt great to be there. It's very early days, just being in the second week of an 18-week program, but so far I've been surprised at the ease with which I seem to be doing the sessions of a 100K-plus week.

While I believed I was ready for this level of training, I couldn't help but worry that the first week already might prove me wrong. The training is challenging, no doubt; yesterday's 21K might have felt comfortable, with my pace and effort exactly where it should be, but I was tired after the run too. And that's OK. 

My body, however, is also warning me that to sustain the volume, a record for me, I'll need to take better care of it; my calves, always the most vocal, are tight which is a result of what's happening in my glutes. Those big quiet muscles, gluteus maximus and gluteus medius, never speak themselves but let other areas do the talking for them.

I got their message loud and clear in 2003 when an ITB injury stopped me dead in my tracks as I was preparing for the Honolulu Marathon; fortunately a superb chiropractor knew how to fix it with Active Release Techniques. He got me back running in just a few treatments; I ran the marathon, too.

My injury was simply a result of imbalances and a lack of strength that an increase in training is sure to point out. The chiropractor recommended strengthening exercises that I followed initially but didn't stick with. There's an excuse for everything, but the simple fact of the matter is that it already takes a lot of time and effort to do the run training itself.

Regular preventative ART treatments kept me on track, as did sticking to a good training schedule.

Since moving to Canada four years ago, I've cut back on the regular ART treatments that release my tight muscles periodically for various reasons, including the cost. Last year I might have had five treatments, compared with the monthly ones I used to get in Australia.

However, preventing an injury is, as they say, priceless.

Tightness in a runner's body is the early warning sign of problems developing and we ignore it at our peril; I use hot baths with epsom salts, self-massage including with the Trigger Point Therapy products, as well as heating creams and Voltaren, aside from a proper training routine, to ease it before it has a chance to develop into something serious (so far, knock wood).

There's nothing I fear more than getting injured as it forces you to drastically cut back on, or even stop, your training altogether. Improving as an athlete takes consistent effort, rather than a few months here and there, so you're ready to train a little bit more, better, harder each following season; the more consistently you're able to maintain a routine by keeping interruptions because of illness or injury to a minimum, the better you'll get.

It takes years. Well, it has for me.

I am speaking as someone who did her first marathon in 4:18, after three years of running, followed by a 4:44 marathon two years later. It wasn't until my third marathon, in July 2003, about seven years after I began running regularly from scratch, that I finished a marathon in less than 4 hours.

In that time I had slowly but surely boosted my fitness, as minor running injuries (including shin splints), led me to triathlon; the added swimming and cycling (I did a slew of triathlons and by then completed my first two Ironmans) paid off in running too, as I ran that third marathon in 3:24. By October I was injured, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it taught me a lot about my body and how to listen to it.

Today, almost nine years later, my marathon PB is 3:06:06. Of the 15 marathons I've run, I've run the past 11 in 3:15 or faster; it has taken plenty of work to find that shape that I still believe I can improve. To do so, I need to stay healthy.

I spent most of last night massaging my calves, rolling them, and those glutes, over a ball to release some of the tightness. Before going to sleep, I covered my lower back in muscle-heating cream and slathered my calves in Voltaren, before wrapping them in Gladwrap so the cream could do its work overnight.

While that helped, I felt looser on the 12K recovery run this morning, I also decided to call a local chiro who does ART and made an appointment for tomorrow as there's still too much tightness. I'd rather be safe than sorry, so hopefully I've heeded the warning signs of my body early enough.

It also tells me that I will have to commit to making time and energy for a regular strength workout if I want to sustain my training on this level. Improving your running takes more than running alone.

"As soon as your foot hits the ground, your glutes should fire first, followed by hamstrings and then quadriceps," Nancy Cummings, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, athletic trainer, and assistant professor of physical education and athletic training at Florida Southern College, told Runner's World for this article.

"If the glutes aren't strong enough to activate, the quads and hamstrings will have to pick up the slack. This throws off the alignment and mechanics of the entire leg and can lead to knee and foot problems."

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