Sunday, April 3, 2011

Healing hard

My drive to push myself to the limit is what propelled me to a 2:45 marathon on a hot day in Chicago last October.  It is also the quality that keeps biting me in the ass as I come back from injury.  Maybe I'm a slow learner or just really thickheaded.  However, I think I finally get what Coach Tom has been trying to help me understand about the healing process and the double-edged sword of cross training.

When I was injured last spring, I cross trained like a mofo.  At first, this was because I was trying to maintain a high level of fitness to hopefully carry through to a marathon I was training to run in April.  When it became apparent that the injury wasn't going to allow me to run that race, I didn't back off the cross training.  I kept going.  I was doing ~10 hours of aerobic training each week often with 2-3 long, hard workouts in the mix.  I did strength training and yoga on top of that.  The reward for all of this effort was that I maintained a very high level of fitness--PRing in the 10k within 6 weeks of my return to running.  While I don't question the value of cross training for maintaining my fitness, I wonder whether I delayed my recovery from the injury and ultimately my return to running.

So, that is what I'm starting to understand: the tension between maintaining fitness and healing the injury.  This tension has become very clear to me as I have tried to "stay ahead" of my IT band tightness.  So, I use tension in the literal sense here.  If I tighten my muscles more with running, cycling, ellipticaling, strength training, than I can loosen them up, then I end up with a net tightness that will lead to re-injury pretty quickly.

When this injury first hit, my instinct was to go back into mofo territory.  Coach Tom said to me more than once that I might be hitting the cross training a little hard.  He said that, sure I was maintaining my fitness, but the only thing that would truly make me a faster runner would be to get back to running.  So, it's like balancing an equation: I might lose fitness by backing off on the cross training, but if I get back to running, say a few weeks sooner, which enables me to start regaining my running-specific fitness faster, then I might actually be better off.

The thing is: it's really hard to voluntarily give up the fitness.  We work so hard to build it up.  I have found the key is to put the energy I would be using trying to hold on to every molecule of fitness in my body toward healing the injury.  So, say I have 2 hours each day I can devote to exercise.  I would normally try to maximize my aerobic-based, frothy-sweat generation time.  I would go with maybe 90 minutes of aerobic training and 30 minutes of other stuff.  That other stuff would probably be 10-15 minutes of stretching/rolling + strength training or some exercises that I believe will help me heal faster.  Instead, I am trying this out:  45-60 minutes of aerobic exercise and an equal amount (45-60 minutes) of stretching/strength training/yoga or some activity that is focused on healing.  This is what I refer to as train hard: heal even harder.

I use the time spent on the maintenance activities as a time to heal hard, meaning that I direct energy or concentrate on healing.  With a rabid, fitness-maintenance focus, I constantly worry about feeling my injury and, even when I don't feel actual pain, wonder whether I am helping or hurting myself.  While I love the rush of a hard, sweaty workout, it further tightens my muscles which then requires even more time to stretch out: time that I can't always devote to it.  When I'm stretching, rolling, doing yoga and strength training I know that I am doing something positive to heal myself.  So, my thinking shifts from injury-focused worry and negative energy to focus on healing and positive energy.  It all sounds very touchy-feely, but I really do think that the constant worry and focus on pain (even the absence of pain) can keep us trapped in a vortex of injury.  I need to picture myself running care free (notice I didn't say pain free because then the focus is still on the pain!) and do everything within my power to get there.

The upside to this approach is that it has made me more positive in general about my running.  I feel like I'm doing something to move myself forward into a better running future rather than desperately trying to hold on to something that I had in the past.              


  1. The 45-60/45-60 sounds like a good balance to maintain fitness (or not lose too much) and come out of the injury care free.

    I was going to ask what you think about swimming for cross training? To give the legs a break but maintain aerobic fitness.

    I try and avoid mofo territory - I'm scared of mofos.

  2. Hi Ewen, I think I am actually underestimating the amount of time I'm putting into maintenance activities. Yesterday, I spent 2 hours on yoga/stretching and rolling while I only ran for 40 minutes. Today will be the same. So, maybe the ratio is more like 2:1 maintenance to aerobic activity. I do think that's what it's going to take for a while for me to get past this rough spot.

    As for swimming, I think the type of activity doesn't much matter. It's the amount of time and intensity of the XT activity relative to the amount of time spent on the maintenance stuff that I am playing with right now. My urge is to spend as much time or more with cross training and running as I would normally spend on my running alone. But, with a finite amount of time available, that only robs me of time I need to spend lengthening my muscles.

    When I was swimming for cross training, I was actually not spending the time stretching my upper body that I needed to. So, my back got super tight. My tight lats were actually one of the factors that made my leg hurt when I was trying to return to running earlier in the year. Once Dr. Lau loosened up my back and I started stretching it, the leg pain went completely away. Everything is connected.