Just as meat and potatoes nourish the body, experiences nourish the spirit. Experiences supply the energy that our lives are built upon. Just as a big hearty protein meal plays a leading role in building the tissue of the body back stronger after our hard workouts, the many and varied experiences that we have do the same thing to our character, our being. How we feel after a race where we tested our strength, endurance, and our mental focus, is the food that builds our confidence and sense of personal achievement. We take that nourishment into our lives and can apply it across a wide range of activities.
This has become a ruling idea in my life, and I have applied it to running: That what is hard has as much relevance, if not more, to the big picture of my life, as what came easily. Apply this to pain and injury and it becomes clear that the healing process has much to teach us if we embrace it and keep asking the question “why?” until we get to the bottom of the issues the injury presents.
Early on, somewhere in childhood we all learn that a bone heals back stronger at the break-site. This is fascinating. Under the microscope there is a world of activity to heal that bone, a lot of hard work, a lot of players; osteoclasts, osteoblasts, chondroblasts, fibroblasts, just to name a few.
Likewise when we get injured, we are presented with options. One is to lament our situation and seek a quick and painless fix. A quite different one is to take it as a challenge to understand and heal it. The latter choice mobilizes our power and ability just as the bone break activates so many healing factors. It can open doors and windows. So what are the components of our power and ability? Patience, confidence, desire to learn and improve, ability to get perspective on ourselves and our training choices or our ability to follow instruction in the case of finding a professional in the medical or coaching world . We get an opportunity to learn and change. These kind of opportunities may not be commonplace in our lives and so taking advantage of them when they arise is important.
Just as the fractured bone healed back stronger at the break site, the body builds back stronger after hard workouts, provided that you understand the principles of nutrition and recovery. And it is also true that we build back stronger from, and learn from, mistakes and injury alike, provided we relate and respond appropriately.
This understanding, and applying it to my own injury process, opened a huge door for me as an ultrarunner. It’s part of the process of life that we suffer injuries, and as a runner we put ourselves in harm’ way so to speak. By increasing the force we apply to the body from 3 to 6 times normal walking forces, we are flirting with injury.
With this increase of force there is an increase in risk. Do enough running and all the inefficiencies, imbalances, and compensations are going to be revealed. The most well-conceived training program will not protect us from the various biomechanical errors that all but a few very gifted runners have. Many runners are going to experience an injury limitation at some point as they increase their running. It’s like we have a mild to severe mis-alignment in the front tires of our car. So your sixty thousand mile tires last you forty thousand if it is mildly out of alignment. If that front end is very out of alignment the tires could be shot at fifteen thousand miles. This so much describes many runners. We come up against either a performance limitation or an injury limitation as we pursue our goals. The performance limitation presents itself as diminishing returns with increases in effort. The injury limitation usually comes as some kind of tissue breakdown whenever you get to a certain level of training.
Taken as an opportunity to learn, and injury can yield a gold mine of positive results. Unfortunately they seem to happen always at the wrong time. You just started your marathon-training program, your two weeks out from your “A” priority race, you’re getting back on the road from a previous set back, whatever. We runners are not a patient bunch; we don’t like to miss our morning run! This is the first hurdle, finding the patience that will allow opening of the possibility to learn. When we seek a Medical Professional to get a quick fix for our pain we lose that opportunity, when we take the mandatory two weeks off and cross train ourselves to the bone, we often again miss the opportunity. An injury is always a map to some kind of self-understanding. Some self-observation and understanding of your response to being in pain or just not being able to run can reveal much.
Injury may come from bad postural habits, tensions you always carry into running, or tensions that are more temporary that you carried with you on a particular day. All sorts of emotion can affect how you move and run. Or it could be body patterns of tension that you gathered in the past. I once worked with a woman on the CU track team that had suffered severe Plantar Fasciitis and had a surgical repair on one foot and now had the same problem developing on the other foot. I observed that when she walked it looked like she was “walking on egg shells.” Basically holding all sorts of tension in the feet, the one that was repaired and the other one that was now breaking down. Teaching her to be more certain of the ground she was walking on, and relax into the ground with her feet helped to resolve the Plantar Fasciitis.
I’ve seen it hundreds of times, there are rather minor biomechanical problems that arise from taking poor postural adjustments out onto the asphalt. But with enough pounding these will either become full-fledged injuries or just nagging aches and pains that take the fun out of running. So many people just submit to this level of satisfaction with their running, when just small changes in the way they direct themselves, little form adjustments, could make a huge difference.
Injury becomes an opportunity to understand, learn and correct many things on a few different levels. On the ground level it offers you the chance to learn that you have options in the way that you move, that you can be different, change, improve. I offer this challenge to runners; if you are on your feet so often day after day doing this one simple activity, shouldn’t it be an opportunity to learn, improve, and even master this sport. A martial arts Black Belt has attained a certain mastery over his body, and most runners have an opportunity to develop some mastery. Injury can open the door to this, because in the effort to change and correct the movement patterns a learning takes place. Sometimes it is an easy fix. For example it may involve a poor foot strike pattern that has been learned and easily unlearned. Sometimes that poor foot strike pattern is based in tightness in the hip flexors, or holding a rigid upper body, and requires more thought, effort, and learning to correct.
To illustrate the “Injury as opportunity” idea I’m including this Case Study:
C came to me with Achilles pain in her right ankle. She was an under-weight 36 Y.O. distance runner who had run cross-country in HS and recreationally in college. She soon married after college, mothered three children, and now that they were in daycare and elementary school she decided to return to running after having taken a 5-year break from the sport. She found herself getting into a cycle of running, getting injured, returning to running and getting another injury. She wanted to get faster and tap into her competitive passion.
When I interviewed with her, it was obvious to me that she was putting too much pressure on herself around the running and therefore too much pressure on the running. By this I mean she wanted running to fill certain aspects of her life that it just couldn’t do. When we bring this kind of pressure into a situation it doesn’t allow us to settle within ourselves and reap the benefits that running can provide. “IT” is always not enough or not fast enough. Between this pressure and the injuries that were generated by it, her training became very erratic. Her injury picture, the pain and fears around it ruled her; how much or hard she trained, how she felt about herself, and even how much she would eat.
In addition to this, as is often the case with this scenario, the runner will use their body in a way that is an expression of the pressure they put on themselves; tightness and rigidity, lack of mobility in torso and pelvis, over use of the legs creating any number of vulnerabilities. For her the ankles and feet were the main target of her imbalances. These imbalances were in her approach to running and being expressed in her body.
In working with her I started with getting her to slow down a little and work on relaxation in her whole body. Especially in the legs and feet. Unless she did this the impact stress of running was going to go directly into her legs. This is because too much holding tension in muscle tissue doesn’t allow impact forces to spread throughout the tissue resulting in damage to area of the muscle that is tense, or damage to the adjacent joint. I also worked with her training so that she wasn’t putting erratic stresses on her entire body, with a step-by-step progression, avoiding any kind of speed or hill running while the symptoms persisted. The process wasn’t without its ups and downs. As soon as we had initial success, she ran too hard and her Achilles flared up. This was a small and productive detour, as it accelerated her learning how to relax, and trusting the instructions and her body’s capacity to heal quickly if directed in the right way.
Her running went well for a couple months and she wanted to start training for a marathon. I thought this was tricky because of her low weight as well as the fact that she was responsible for a family with three young boys. That’s a lot of work, and I know what the commitment to training needs to be to run a marathon well. It wasn’t her style to just run it easy and get it done.
I tried to convince her that her physiology and body weight wasn’t in the place to mediate the amount of stress that is inherent in marathon training.
Then she tripped, ironically not while running, but when carrying her youngest into day care, and injured her foot. It wouldn’t heal, she couldn’t run and there was no objective tissue damage. This whole event drove her to seek help from both her family and professionals that could assist her in dealing directly with the issues around her body weight.
This story has a great ending … she returned to running, training systematically and consistently, after taking a six month break in which time her foot healed, she gained weight and she expanded her field of enjoyment. I have heard other people in similar situations say they wished that they had been injured sooner so that they wouldn’t have had to take such a long way around. The truth I’ve seen played out again and again is that for each of us, seemingly unwanted events happen and learning takes place when we can best receive it.