“Ouch! Damnit. Shit. My leg hurts!” I complain to myself as a junior in college, walking to class, passing through the historic stone arch by the university steps. It’s then I realize that in order to move straight forward I’m forced to lean a bit left.
That’s how far my hips are out of line.
Frustrated and in pain, with a major cross country meet looming this weekend, I decide to skip class. Making my way through the picturesque campus fall foliage, I’m pissed. I head to the training room in desperate search of a solution. Unsure if one even exists.
As a collegiate runner, I ruined season after season with soft tissue injuries inflicted by my stride directing the stress of mileage in the wrong directions. For me, the difference between injury and achievement was whether my stride was working. Cause when it’s aligned the pounding passes through me. It’s only when it’s off that I end up with sore shins, aching hips, and tugging hamstrings. Like a neglected marionette doll’s wires pulling in all the wrong ways, when my stride is off-kilter each mile does more harm than good.
“You know the definition of insanity?” the college trainer asks me, a desperate young athlete jabbing at his hip flexors and leaning deeper into lunges in search of a solution. I shake my head no.
“Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” She lets the Einstein quote that I’d never heard before linger between us.
I hate her for it.
Yes, I’m broken again. Like last season, and the season before. But it wasn’t like I wasn’t trying to figure out why. Or wasn’t seeking out all the “experts.” What began with trips to the university trainer graduated to visits with a chiropractor, and meetings with one massage therapist after another. Technique after technique intended to ease the results of me slamming my body with thousands of strides each day.
All to no effect.
Lost in a labyrinth of muscles, tendons, and fascia was the answer of how to balance my body atop my stride while I attempted to complete mountains of mileage and intervals.
We each have our way of getting hurt. Our body’s own way of moving wrong.
For me it’s my hips, years spent sliding sideways in the midfield, approaching a soccer ball prepared to dart left or right, formed existing bow-legs into an awkward stride with imbalances galore.
The thing no one tells you when you begin to run is that your journey against the forces of injury will be personal and unique.
“Why is my left leg sore and not my right?!” A novice runner inquires incredulously. Meeting her fiery stare with understanding, I pause, attempting to decide how to reply.
“Because our bodies aren’t symmetrical, so our injuries rarely are either,” I respond. Hardly the answer she was seeking; simply the truth she’ll need to accept if she hopes to continue with this mysterious sport.
“Oh, to have an impact injury!” I’d joke. Remembering nostalgically how bruises in soccer tended to heal on a dependable schedule. Sadly soft tissue heals on no known calendar, especially when you continue pounding it into the pavement.
Such a plethora of pains all contained within the endurance athlete’s nightmare phrase: “Overuse injury.”
Such a judgemental term.
Who decides when you’re “using” versus “overusing”?
Your body of course. The real decision-maker in this sport.
Moving at these speeds, sprinting at these rates, demands a symphony of strengths. Something that’s easy to overlook when systems are working together in tune.
I have friends whose bones break with frequency.
Other’s whose ligaments and tendons stretch and snap.
And others whose bloodwork comes back wrong, with levels and hormones that won’t ever seem to balance. An abundance of options to send the forlorn runner down an offramp from the highway of everyday training. And each with their own set of sensations and signals.
“Listen to the whispers before they become screams” is the injury truism every athlete has heard repeated in hindsight. And while the call to recover from small aches and pains is justified, hearing impending injuries is often difficult amidst the cacophony of training.
A full body broadcast of grievances.
Yes, the body provides signs before it snaps, but the inspired athlete can be forgiven for missing them amidst the racket.
Troubling, it’s on each of us as athletes to decode our own movement maladies. As I age I’ve come to see the medical industry less as good or bad practitioners, and more as a variety of providers whose techniques serve each athlete differently.
It’s a runner’s life.
A few years ago, deep within the fog of another hip misalignment, the words of a chiropractor wash over me as I choose to tune out rather than snap back in frustration. His input overlays with my physical therapist, and combines with the thoughts of my massage therapist, to amount to an overflow of perspective that is all largely correct, but still doesn’t exactly explain my slightly clicking, hitching, painful stride.
And yet, like a kayaker aiming to escape a circling pool of deep water in which their craft has gotten stuck, with patience, time, and the right series of movements I eventually find myself running down the street in the early AM, surging repeatedly with ease when it occurs to me, I’m no longer in pain.
My stride feels like me again.
I try to remember that as runners we aren’t owed healthy miles. Yes, as homo sapiens we are uniquely tuned to long-range bipedalism, but given our modern sedentary style, mixed with our over-eager athlete impulse, we must give our body grace.
It’s only our competitive mind’s idea that loading on such stress within the artificial timeframe of a “season” is a good idea.
The only certainty in endurance sports is that you’ll get stuck in a frustrating abyss of injury at some point. And that we must support one another through our understandable exasperation since each of our bodies will reveal the path out of pain in time. It’s on all of us to accept that injury and improvement are forever intertwined on the path to running success.
We must accept that it’s the times we most want to push out of pain that we have to ease up and find our own solution for how to heal.
This came from issue 12 of The Positive Split newsletter, you can get it here