Between 2003 and 2014, elite runner Matt Daniels had seven stress fractures and too-many-to-count Achilles and high hamstring injuries. Since 2014, he’s been (nearly) injury free.
“I credit it all to slowing down,” says Daniels. “I was out there thinking, the harder you run, the better you’re going to get. It was stress, stress, stress, and then hope to God it turns out as success.”
Choosing Running: An Insecure Foundation
Daniels first foray into running was in second grade. It was Field Day, and his mind went blank when asked what sport he wanted to participate in. He remembers his PE teacher suggesting distance running because he had long legs, something PE teachers should probably stop saying to kids. Nonetheless, it was impressionable to the second grader, and his legs, long or otherwise, carried him across the finish line and into the sport of running.
Daniels was torn. He loved running, but, growing up in Texas, he was immersed in a hyper-masculine, football-crazed culture and running most certainly wasn’t football. In sixth grade, he found the courage to quit the football team, but not without feeling like he’d committed a sin.
“All of my friends played football,” says Daniels. “When I quit football to focus on running, I felt like I had to prove to them that I’m really good at running, that I belong when I run. That need to prove myself stayed with me for years.”
To prove his worth to others, Daniels took a “no pain, no gain” approach to running. From the time he was 13 to his early 20s, every run Daniels went on was under six minute mile pace. As a result of training too hard without recovering, Daniels kept getting injured. In alignment with his mentality, Daniels thought that injury was a part of being a competitive runner and that he simply needed to deal with the pain.
Not so, according to Anna Wetzel who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and often works with injured runners. When runners have appropriate load progression, adequate recovery, surplus energy, and good biomechanics, they mitigate the likelihood of injury and the likelihood of repetitive injuries.
“All things need to be in sync to create a healthy body,” says Wetzel. “When we run in a fatigued state, the amount of stress that goes through the body upon landing is greatly increased. It’s also possible that bone stress is increased in a fatigued state because your muscles are less responsive to load, and the bone will subsequently take on more stress without that added protection.”
Instead of recognizing that he was stressing his body too much, Daniels pushed through any mental and physical pain until he would break. For years, he was in a cycle of running well, getting injured, becoming depressed, and repeating.
The Breaking Point
In 2008, during a period when Daniels was running well, he tore his hamstring during a downhill 10k. A few days after the race, he went out for a run. When he reached mile three, he stopped running and started to cry. His hamstring pain was unbearable, but the disappointment of being injured again was more painful.
“I just started to cry, and then I walked back to my house,” says Daniels. “I was like, ‘I’m done.’ I didn’t want to go through another injury. When you’re on a high from being in the best shape of your life and setting personal records, it’s hard to face another injury. That was the breaking point for me.”
Not long after that run, Daniels hung up his running shoes and joined the Navy. While in the Navy, Daniels smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, drank at nearly every port, and was stationary on the ship. He had no expectations that he would ever run again; running was a thing of the past, something that Daniels decided he wasn’t cut out to do.
When Daniels was getting ready to return home from the Navy, he met with a psychiatrist to talk about his transition to home life. His psychiatrist encouraged him to find a hobby, something that would provide him with a healthy distraction.
“It dawned on me, maybe I’ll go for a run, maybe that will clear my mind,” says Daniels. “I went out for a run on the base one week before I was discharged, and I fell in love with running all over again.” Just like in second grade, Daniels felt a sense of belonging.
Returning to Running
After two and a half years in the Navy, Daniels was honorably discharged. He moved to Colorado and was accepted into Adams State University and onto their running teams. Pretty quickly, his fight mentality returned, and with it, his injuries.
When Daniels was diagnosed with his seventh stress fracture in 2014, he could no longer deny that his mentality was getting in the way of him being a healthy runner. A bone scan further revealed that his relentless need to prove himself was wreaking havoc on his musculoskeletal system. At age 26, tests showed he lost a severe amount of bone mass and was developing osteoporosis.
In addition to training too hard, it’s possible that Daniels was in a constant state of low energy availability, which is the amount of dietary energy remaining for metabolic processes after exercising. When athletes don’t eat enough to match their energy needs, their leptin, estradiol, and insulin-like growth factor-1 decreases and their cortisol increases, creating a perfect environment for an imbalance in bone turnover that disrupts newly formed bone development and reduces the ability to repair micro damage.
“If someone is in a state of low energy availability, the damage can happen in as little as five days,” says Heidi Strickler, a registered sports dietitian. “Recent research has discovered that even if an athlete is in positive energy availability by the end of the day, large within-day energy deficits can increase muscle breakdown, perturb metabolic rates, and disrupt hormone production immediately.”
Daniels remembers modeling his eating after what Kenyan runners were doing. He’d heard that they only eat ugali, chapati, and drink tea, so he figured if they could run so well on a limited diet, so could he. In reality, Daniels wasn’t eating enough to keep up with this training.
Learning to Slow Down
After his alarming bone scan, Daniels doubled down his efforts on reducing stress on his body, which meant focusing more on what he put into his body, increasing his sleep, training with a lot more intention, and stopping being so hard on himself.
“When I was growing up, I got made fun of a lot for being skinny, so I’ve always been trying to prove myself,” says Daniels. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I still do sometimes. In a sense, it’s why I had a lot of success, but it also led to a lot of injuries and depression.”
Daniels credits a lot of his learning how to slow down to his current coach, David Roche. Not long after they started working together, Roche sat Daniels down and gave him an ultimatum: either you can continue to run yourself into the ground and repeatedly be injured or you can invite patience into your practice and start to reap the benefits of slowing down. Daniels chose the latter.
Since 2017, Daniels has most certainly reaped the benefits of slowing down, or what he likes to call being smart with your training. Not only has he been injury free and the fastest he’s ever been, but he feels more at ease with himself when he’s not running, too; he finally feels like he doesn’t have to prove himself all the time to everyone else.
“I always identified as a runner and only a runner,” says Daniels, reflecting on his past. “In the time that I’ve been healthy, I’ve gotten married, found a full-time job, gotten a dog and discovered new hobbies. My life is no longer only consumed with running.”
There was a point when Daniels wondered if he was capable of training at a high level without getting injured. Turns out, he is. As long as he does it the right way.
“Slowing down doesn’t mean you are becoming a slower runner. It means that you are being a smarter runner,” says Daniels.
Daniels Top 5 Tips for Slowing Down
- Don’t leave a meal until you are full. “Prioritize eating. If you are on a run feeling tired or depleted, that isn’t good. It’s usually nutrition related, not that you are overtraining. You need to eat more than you think you need to eat.”
- Make your easy days easy. “Embrace the idea that when you are running, you’re stressing your body no matter how hard or how easy you are running. There needs to be a balance between hard days and easy days. Your easy days are really, really important. You really have to accept the fact that not all days can be hard. The body doesn’t work that way.”
- Get plenty of sleep. “A lot of people get consumed with everything they have going on in life. The more you can sleep, the better. Sleep can improve your overall health, not just to prevent injuries, but your mental health, too.”
- Listen to your body. “Anytime something flares up, learn to be okay with taking a day or two off. A day or two is better than a month. Ask yourself, ‘what is going to keep you being the most consistent?’ Consistency is what’s going to make you a better runner. If you listen to your body, it will tell you when you need to take it easy and slow down.”
- Meditate. “Being one with yourself makes a big difference.”
This story is the fourth segment of PodiumRunner’s The Injuries You Can’t See series with elite athletes discussing how injury has helped them deal with larger issues in their lives and in running.