1. Don’t assume you should stop running entirely. There’s a good chance you will make the situation worse by fully stopping. One or two days off is reasonable. Your body’s tissues maintain themselves best when there is a baseline frequency of exercise. Take that particular baseline away for several days and those tissues have no reason to maintain their adaptations to exercise, so they will actually weaken and regress. Tendons, muscles, ligaments, it doesn’t matter. All of these tissues begin to degrade without regular use. It’s the same reason astronauts become weak and lose muscle mass when they travel to space. The frequent demands of gravity here on earth are suddenly gone so their body says “if you aren’t going to use this *fill in tissue name here* anymore, then I’m going to start to break it down - it’s a waste of energy to maintain it for nothing.” You don’t want to lose more of these hard-earned adaptations than you have to.
2. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your previous running pace and distances in order to stay active. If there is one thing that happens very commonly after an injury takes hold, it’s that folks assume resting fixed their problem entirely when the pain *appears* to go away. So what if you took two days off? Expecting to jump back in at the same level of pace and distance is often disastrous. Just as I mentioned above, the tissues maintain a certain level of adaptation. By jumping back in at the previous intensities and distances you may actually be stressing the tissue at a rate greater than it can adapt. Remember, this was injured tissue that caused pain just a couple days earlier, which probably means it wasn’t adapting quickly enough to begin with. It is unlikely that magically, with a short little rest, that the area suddenly became “normal” uninjured tissue again and you can start beating it down with your typical training. Temporarily decreasing the intensity and distance to decrease (but not eliminate) the overall demand on the tissue is often a better solution for overuse injuries. It typically takes weeks and months for an injured area to remodel and you can certainly progress again during this time if the running is dosed appropriately.
3. If you have a competition coming up and it’s something like one to two weeks away, there’s a good chance you can still compete and do so at the level you had hoped - if you play your cards right and don’t panic. How much measurable fitness do you really think you were going to gain from that one last long run? This is more of a psychological barrier than a physical one. If you had been training consistently for two or three months, or years for that matter, then you have the necessary fitness. Yes, it’s frustrating and a blow to the ego. Nothing ever goes as planned anyway, does it? It’s usually not worth testing things to their limits when you can easily increase or maintain fitness with things like cross training.
4. Cross train, but do it right. Yes, I understand that no other form of exercise seems to cause the same type of wonderful fatigue and satisfaction that running does. Which, again, is why people try to push the distances and paces prematurely. But if you need to cross train, doing hard interval or tempo work everyday on the bike or elliptical isn’t the right way to go. I would hope you wouldn’t do that running (although I know people who do). The same principles apply to cross training as they do to running:
- super easy recovery to stay warmed up and loose after harder days
- aerobic work for aerobic fitness
- intervals and tempo work for improving anaerobic fitness
- maximal efforts for improving that nerve/muscle connection and gaining more anaerobic fitness
I am absolutely convinced that a semi-experienced runner can cross train for several weeks, never run, and still achieve their goals if they do it correctly.
5. Don’t forget about this current injury when the next injury comes along. More often than not, these injuries will be connected to one another. Every week I see people who had a low back injury that eventually played into a hip problem that became a calf problem which morphed into a foot problem. Our body’s are so good at compensating for pain, loss of motion, and weakness that we can nearly always get the job done - for a little while. The trickle-down and displacement of forces doesn’t bode well in the long run. Fixing problems correctly the first time around will play out better.
6. Some medicines are actually inhibitory to normal healing processes if taken for prolonged periods. This is partly due to the fact that inflammation is a desirable and necessary part of healing. It is just that inflammation is accompanied by pain and we all want to get rid of that part of the equation. Taking drugs to modify the inflammatory response over a longer period of time (>2 weeks) may result in an incomplete cycle of healing. Here’s one recent review (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22744434). These drugs are also an important factor to consider in bone healing from issues like stress fractures, as reviewed here: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/39/2/65.
7. Prevention is the best medicine. Remember, you can have too much of a good thing. Exercise and running are good only up to a certain point and that point is different for each of us. Maybe if you had just taken a full day off every week for the past month, then perhaps this injury wouldn’t have happened. You will do best by emphasizing proper recovery time, doing regular soft tissue maintenance, refining your running technique, attending to nutrition, and being consistent with slow progressions in training. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “well, I felt good so I decided to go an extra four miles” from people that aren’t feeling so good right about the time I see them in the clinic. There is always a breaking point and you can find it by throwing caution to the wind. (Not saying I haven’t done these things myself!)
8. Don’t “test” an injured tissue repetitively and expect a different result. Here’s a common scenario: Monday I tried to run and my leg hurt within 200 yards, so I stopped, figured I would just rest a day. Tuesday I tried to run again (because Monday was a failure) and the pain started again at around 150 yards. Ugghh, I hate being hurt. Wednesday I’m really aggravated and surely the last two days of “rest” have fixed it so I run for 300 yards, even though pain started at around 200 yards again, before I reluctantly quit because of the pain. Thursday I’m really angry and try to run again. Friday again... Notice a theme here? Numerous days of testing the injury, pushing until and through pain, ultimately delays improvement. It’s clearly not going away. The right thing to do is seek help from an injury treating professional, not a personal trainer and not a coach unless they are going to refer you to a valid licensed professional. It is important to consider what pain intensity we are referring to. If it’s enough to make you consider quitting the run, that’s probably a good sign that you should indeed stop. Nor would it be good to push through pain that makes you change your technique for pain avoidance. If the pain is occurring early in the run and worsens rapidly, you aren’t going to win the fight. Every time you test an injury like this, it’s just inflaming the tissue all over again after it has tried to calm down.
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