When you last heard from me on this blog in early April, I was managing gracefully. I'd like to think I still am. But when I wrote nearly two months ago, I was kind of hoping I'd be running a tiny bit by now. I'm not—and I don't see it happening anytime in the next month or two.
My injury has been diagnosed as everything from a high hamstring strain to sciatica to a pinched nerve. These days, I'm describing it like somebody spilled coffee my spinal motherboard, and my muscles and nerves don't know how to function or fire correctly, let alone support each other. The hamstring sounded the alarm, but it's far from the only issue. My back and hips are totally in the mix, and it's a mess.
I've bounced around to a few PT's (all helpful in different ways, showing me different perspectives on my alignment and physiology); I've been dry-needled and cupped; I've heated and I've iced; I've rested and stretched and done enough glute bridges to qualify me for the Buns of Steel medal.
While I've had streaks of good days, I still haven't found significant enough relief and progress to lead me to believe that going for a run wouldn't set me back quite a bit.
With that in mind, I wanted to share a few things that I've learned over the past few months. I'm hoping you're not injured, but if you are, I'm hoping they'll help you too:
1. Change your perspective from Not Running to Healing.
A couple weeks ago, Coach MK talked me off the ledge (again). For months, all I've thought about is the fact that I'm Not Running. I'm swimming three or four days a week, walking the other days, doing physical therapy or Pilates most days as well. Sounds like a lot—and it is, time-wise—but mostly, I think of myself as Not Running.
Any guesses on how well that's Not Running mindset is going for me? Yep, not great. As Dr. Justin Ross says in the Perform Like a Mother sessions, your mind is like a spotlight: it focuses on whatever you choose to shine it on. I've had the klieg lights on Not Running.
So I'm trying to switch things. I'm not Not Running. I'm Healing. And my only goal with Healing: Feeling less pain today than I did yesterday. I just need to do that.
2. Acknowledge the pain.
Running injuries feel minor in the world of cancer and big disease that it can feel ridiculous to complain about them sometimes. "Oh, you were just diagnosed with breast cancer? And your mom has MS? Well, I've got this hamstring thing that has been going on since October, and I haven't really run in about six months."
Yeah, not so much.
And it also feels like I—an athlete for decades—should be able to just bear down and handle it. It's not debilitating. I can still brush my teeth and send emails and otherwise get through the day as a 45-year-old functioning woman.
Thing is, chronic pain doesn't have to be debilitating to be all encompassing. On bad days, it gnaws at me, wearing away patience and compassion for those I love the most, a fact that also gnaws at me. On good days, I am anxious about the pain coming back, and the vicious cycle starting again.
I recently tried an integrated Feldenkrais session, a practice that helps restore your body to its natural movement patterns. About halfway through my first session, the practitioner put her hands on my left shoulder and said, "You are in so much pain." Her statement felt oddly validating. A running injury may not be life-threatening, but it's certainly exhausting.
3. Then manage the pain physically.
Earlier this spring, I went to my orthopedic doctor, and he gave me a prescription for what, I later learned via google, is like advanced ibuprofen with arthritis relief. Arthritis? My grandmother had that in her knuckles. My ego doesn't like that. But my back does.
Whether it's a heating pad or a prescription or essential oils or turmeric or energy work, do what you need to do to get the pain to a manageable point. There will always be people who are anti-NSAIDS or anti-cortisone shots and preach, quite vocally, about the side effects of them. Weigh all your choices and listen to different opinions, then do what feels right for you.
Bottom line: You need to find some physical relief to let the healing begin. I kept wishing my pain away. Turns out, that isn't super effective.
4. Tune in.
What exercises/techniques/practices actually relieve your pain vs. what should, based on anecdotal or other evidence, relieve your pain?
In other words, does dry-needling actually make you feel better or do you think it makes you feel better because it worked for your BRF or on a different area of your body?
This is a hard one and I'm all for the placebo effect, but so much of healing comes in shades of gray. I feel better in this position but not in this one; my back was a four on a scale of 1-10 yesterday, but now it's a six. Why? Chronic injuries are not like broken bones that just heal with time and space; they are influenced by myriad factors.
That said, it seems reasonable that one should feel some significant relief within a handful of sessions. My chiropractor was instrumental in helping my shoulder when I was training for Ironman, but when I went to her this winter with my situation, her therapies weren't working.
On the flip side, 50 clam shells with a band around my knees and 40 glute bridges with a band around my knees always provides relief.
5. And manage it mentally.
Easier said than done, as anybody who has been sidelined for extended periods of times knows. Here's what has been working for me: emphasizing sleep, working in my garden, making sure I'm eating relatively well, checking out books at the library that have nothing to do with running, meditating for 10 minutes a day, then hanging with Sylvia Boorstein or Pema Chodron for another 10 minutes.
Today, Sylvia reminded me that, pain is inevitable, but, "suffering is the demand that something be different than what it really is."
I cause myself to suffer when I set arbitrary dates on when I'll be running again. I cause myself to suffer when I think about what I should have done differently to avoid the injury. I'm healing now. I will run again one day, but that day is not today, and it's likely not tomorrow or three weeks from now. That's ok.
6. Be kind to runners.
This doesn't mean I'm advocating standing at the starting line of the half-marathon you can't run, but jealousy and envy aren't exactly healing emotions.
If I see a runner as I drive back from a swim, I do my best to think, "I hope you are having a good run and feeling strong." (Or if I'm feeling really noble and am channeling Sylvia, I think, "May you live well and be well.")
7. Don't compare your cross-training and/or physical therapy to running. Spoiler alert: It won't measure up.
Whether you genuinely love your miles or just love how you feel after your miles, running is the gold standard: super accessible; relatively affordable; a calorie torcher; good catch-up time with friends and/or podcasts/music; fresh air in spades. It's all there.
Everything else has some kind of drawback. The dude next you at the gym on the elliptical is picking is nose. Swimming leaves your skin lizard dry. Squats on the BOSU in your laundry room? No fresh air for miles.
If you're constantly complaining about what you actually can do and lamenting what you can't do, you're wasting energy. Of course I'd rather be running than swimming, but that's not my reality right now. (Or as Sylvia says, it's not what I wanted, but it's what I got.) I can swim, I can walk for an hour, I can clamshell and TVA march and plank with the best of them. #goodenough
8. Chronicle your progress.
It's super easy (and emotionally, very fulfilling) to throw up a run on Strava or in Training Peaks, but how satisfying is it to document a 15 minute session on the elliptical? Not very. Still, I'd argue that documenting your situation, both in terms of exercise and pain, is super important for two reasons:
—First, you have a record of what you did. That nebulous did-that-help-or-hurt? mentality becomes a little easier to clear up when you notice that you did side planks on Tu and Th, and on Wed and Fri your left shoulder ached more than usual.
—Second, you're keeping yourself accountable. It can be crazy hard to keep up the momentum when you're improving by centimeters, not meters, and filling in a chart is (and putting your workouts on social media, if you're so incline) gives you a gentle push.
(Full disclosure: I haven't been super good at this lately, but I'm going to get better again. Feel free to cheer for my swims on Strava!)
9. Cry. Totally fine to let your waterworks open again and again. Running is an integral part of my identity—and if you've read this far, it's part of your's too. Missing that slice of your life is going to hurt, and not acknowledging the absence hurts even more.