Back to basics

In the long run, coping with life’s challenges and hardships can provide unforeseen benefits such as a more grounded perspective and sense of empowerment. Similar strengthening can also occur during a runner’s battle with injuries. For instance, I’ve emerged from prior injuries having learned critical lessons in patience and adaptability. Yet this growth has often also been accompanied by an awareness of concomitant physical losses, including reduced strength and stamina, missed races and training setbacks. My most recent injury, however, has demonstrated that when the injury is severe enough and the struggle to recover is sufficiently trying and lasting, even these physical losses can be converted into gains. How, you ask, could a five-month hiatus from running, ignited by a metatarsal stress reaction followed by a lateral foot injury and then severe calf pain, turn one into a stronger runner? By radically transforming their technique and definition of running.

Too often we address injuries with a patch; we treat the pain and inflammation with drugs, ice, orthotics, creams and bandages, until the symptoms disappear, without ever understanding how they originated in the first place. A frustratingly stubborn recovery, for which these quick fixes are ineffective, can force a deeper understanding of the biomechanical imbalances that frequently lay at the source. While each runner is unique and must listen closely to their own body to learn such lessons, let me share a few personal experiences that may strike a chord with some readers.

As the cause of my injuries was not immediately apparent, I initially tried to treat them while adhering to my ingrained, unhealthy running habits. Only when I finally realized this old routine would no longer cut it, I launched a new approach to my recovery with a clean slate. I abandoned my goal to rebuild mileage and became determined to simply learn to run again – correctly and painlessly – which I’ve approached by incorporating frequent short, easy and mindful barefoot runs. This simple tool not only teaches proper running biomechanics, but has also revealed subtle differences between my shod and barefoot running form that have likely been the culprit of injurious, inefficient running.

Metatarsal stress reaction

The ignition to my train of injuries, a stress reaction in my left metatarsals, was assumed to be a classic result of too many miles in too little shoe, before my feet were strong enough. Yet this explanation seemed at odds with my intentionally very gradual, cautious transition to a minimal shoe and foot strengthening efforts through barefoot walking. A recent barefoot run confirmed that the culprit may not have been the miles and weakness, but rather, poor running form transferring undue stress to the forefoot. During this particular run along a harsh urban route – my only unpleasant barefoot run to date – I adopted a rigid, tense and sloppy foot strike as I traversed uneven, rough terrain. The consequence was an aching, swollen top of foot, disturbingly remniscent of my old injury.

Lateral foot tightness

Just as my stress reaction was healing and I resumed gentle running, I became plagued with a nagging ache along the lateral foot (presumably the flexor digiti minimi brevis / abductor digiti minimi muscles), from the cuboid to the base of the fifth metatarsal. To no avail, I tried massage, ice, heat and running on every imaginable surface, from concrete, dirt and grass to an Anti-gravity treadmill. It wasn’t until replacing my already minimal shoes with an even lighter, less cushioned and less supportive shoe that I found relief. The subtle arch support of my prior pair had evidently been encouraging excessive supination, placing undue strain along my lateral lower leg and foot.

Calf strain

Finally recovered from my foot ailments after months of rest, I launched back into running cautiously but soon discovered my calves were not up to the task. A month of running with tight calves culminated in intense pain and swelling that spread throughout my calf, ankle and foot, forcing me into another two-week running hiatus. Despite common logic that weak, strained calves would benefit from cushion, support and soft surfaces, I discovered a peculiar phenomenon that the calf pain appeared instantly when running in shoes, but I could run painlessly barefoot … on concrete.

Could it be that each of these injuries did not in fact result from too many miles, aggressive training or insufficient support, but instead stemmed from running with unnecessary tension and improper biomechanics? 

Admittedly I’m eagerly awaiting the days when I can enjoy endless miles with full strength and endurance; but for now I’ve discovered a new source of joy from running. Rather than progressing in terms of mileage or speed, I’m gaining satification from my gradual improvements in form which allow me to run free of pain, tension and injury. These lessons have spawned a new era of growth in my evolution as a runner, one marked not just by improved biomechanics and strength, but also by a rekindled appreciation for the pure joy of running.

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