What’s the nagging pain you’ve been ignoring for months, even years? The one that makes you limp a bit at the beginning of your run, and tightens up after. The one that flares up and hurts, even at night, whenever you push harder or longer than usual. The one that isn’t bad enough to make you stop running — or even cut back much on your training volume and intensity — but is always there, annoying you, making you worry. The one you’re afraid to ask a doctor about, because she might make you stop running.
Me? My right knee has been a bit wonky since March. It may have started from a slip on an icy trail, but I’m not sure. It goes away almost completely after a mile, or 2 or 3, and actually feels better after a speed workout or time trial — for about 24 hours. It hasn’t stopped me from training for and running a few 5K time trials, or from accomplishing my spring goal of lowering my current 5K time by over a minute. But it hasn’t gotten any better over time. Instead, it’s begun to alter my stride and cause pains in other places.
Given my psychological addiction to running, and my need to still be chasing things during this uncertain, disconnected year, I have been reluctant to acknowledge the pain or go to a doctor. What if I needed surgery? How would I cope with the recovery time? What if it made things worse, not better? No, I thought, better to ignore it and appreciate what I’ve got, pain and all. I can’t be injured if I don’t go to the doctor, right?
A New Perspective
That mentality changed last week. I’m not sure exactly what altered, but it seems a confluence of having accomplished my spring goal, the knee getting worse after a long run such that I was limping even on a walk with my wife, and the New York City Marathon being canceled.
About that last item: I wasn’t planning on running New York, I didn’t even have a fall marathon in mind except for a vague desire to qualify for Boston again. But taking New York off the table seems a watershed moment that confirms we’re not going to have any races in the fall, at least in any usual way. And if we’re not going to have races, we’re not in a holding pattern, trying to maintain our race fitness and our mileage totals to be ready the moment when running returns to normal.
If there truly are no races on the horizon, then now is the time to deal with those nagging problems. If I need surgery, when better to get it? If I don’t, but need to back off and heal, maybe fix my mobility, muscle strength and balances, let my body find a more efficient gate, even, as Mark Cucuzzella says, “hit control/alt/delete” and reboot my running — what better opportunity than now?
Reno Stirrat is another runner who came to the same conclusion this week. Stirrat, 65, was one of those aiming to complete his 6th decade of sub 3-hour marathons when the calendar turned over to the 2020s last January.
Going into his sub-3 attempt at the Phoenix marathon on February 9, however, he was nursing hip injuries. He tried to gut it out, even getting cortisone shots before the marathon, but had to drop out.
By the time his hips were feeling better, the racing world had shut down for COVID-19. Stirrat thought, “I might as well do heavy lifting.” After a few weeks of aggressive powerlifting — never one to do anything halfway — he ended up with a compression fracture in a vertebrae.
Once over the back issues, Stirrat began building miles and workouts again. But after New Jersey closed tracks, he was doing an interval workout three weeks ago on a crushed rock trail and strained a hamstring. As expected, he ignored it and ran through it. “I could run on it, but I couldn’t go very fast, and it was always there with every step,” he says. Finally, the hamstring shut him down when he tried to run a 5K time trial last weekend. And, he decided it was time to take time off and get better.
The Pressure is Off
He’s putting off any thought of going after a 6th-decade sub-3 marathon until spring 2021, after he’ll have a good nine months of healthy training under his belt — and when there are hopefully marathons on the schedule again. Plus, he doesn’t have any pressure to be race ready for national masters championships or team races this summer. “I’m a strong team runner, so normally I’d sacrifice certain things to help the team,” Stirrat says. “I don’t feel that now, because we don’t have team events.”
He’s accepting and adapting to the world in the time of coronavirus. “It’s a whole different perspective,” he says. “I don’t feel as anxious and as rushed. There’s no pressure for me to get back — I can take time off and not rush back. Because that’s always the issue. Rushing back.”
Besides backing off on training, Stirrat says, “Tomorrow I’m doing the trifecta: Seeing my chiropractor, PT person and acupuncturist. I’m getting heavy duty treatment.” Going to a professional is not just to get relief, but to figure out what is causing the problem and find out how to start doing things to make it better. “It’s diagnosing it,” Stirrat says. “You might have a pain in a specific spot, but that’s not why you’re having it. Trying to find the cause, versus treating the system.”
As for me, I too decided to face the music and went to see physical therapist and runner extraordinaire Mark Plaatjes yesterday. Under his experienced hands, Plaatjes quickly diagnosed that my issue wasn’t a meniscus tear requiring surgery (whew!) but a tendon that was getting rubbed the wrong way due to overly tight quads and weak, ropy hamstrings. He sent me on my way with a plan for correcting those tightness and imbalances, a plan that, with no other pressing priorities and a promise of a pain-free future, I’m all over.
“If you haven’t been training hard, this is a time to maintain fitness,” Plaatjes says. “Elite runners, and those who have been pushing hard — they are taking this time to fix things.”
I don’t fall anywhere near the “elite” category, but I have been pushing rather hard, for about as long as I can remember. I’m probably not going to change my personality for the virus, but it does give me an opportunity to redirect my efforts toward long-term running health and success, rather than my usual practice of ignoring, pushing through and faking it for as long as I can.
Today my email inbox has more fall race cancellations. The pressure is off. Maybe it is time for all of us to recoup, reboot, diagnose that chronic injury-in-waiting, correct the cause and head into the future healthier and ready to push harder than ever.