(The following post appeared as a NH Runner column in the New Hampshire Sunday News on 1/30/11.)
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten as a runner is to listen to your body. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.
As runners, we seem to naturally want to push ourselves, to stick to a training regimen or, quite simply, to just get out and run. It becomes easy to ignore what our bodies are trying to tell us.
After several weeks of marathon training logging weekly mileage that my body wasn’t used to and a series of hill and speed workouts, I started to feel a slight tightness in my left calf. But it was quiet enough to ignore.
I kept running and kept up with the training plan.
A week or so later, my body was done whispering and hinting to me. By then, its complaints were getting louder, now with a sharp pain in my left calf complemented by a nagging ache in my right ankle and shin.
I tried not to listen. But on a four-mile run that was supposed to be an easy run, my body had had enough and was downright screaming at me. I ended up walking most of that scheduled run, my mind swirling with thoughts of doubt and anxiety. The Boston Marathon was less than 100 days away and, mentally, I needed every one of those training days.
It was the first time I’d cried during this training. Sure, running hurt sometimes, but it didn’t hurt like that. But the tears weren’t tears of pain (although I’m sure I was holding those back a little), they were tears of fear – the fear of getting thrown off my training plan and the fear of not being able to cross the finish line in April.
After a brief mental breakdown at home, I sent a semi-panicked email to my running coach detailing my aches and pains – and complete failure on the four-miler. Until then, I’d kept the pain pretty quiet, thinking if I didn’t actually say anything about it aloud that it would be real.
She immediately jumped into action, telling me to back off training for the next week and replace all of my running miles with time on my bike trainer. My body needed a break.
Honestly, after several weeks of running in the cold and snow, it was nice to be ordered to stay inside. Still, my mind told me I needed to be there running. I had a training plan. I was missing miles. How would I make those up?
I rode 75 miles in my living room that week, hoping that all of the spinning was giving my body the much-needed rest it was craving. I stretched and used my foam roller more than I ever have, giving my body everything I thought it needed.
A week later, I did a test run, my fingers crossed that I’d be pain-free. But just a mile or so into the route, I felt that same tightness – like someone grabbing my calf muscle and squeezing as hard as they could.
Several days later, I ended up at a physical therapy appointment. Until then, I’d been avoiding even the thought of making an appointment.
I’d only gone to physical therapy one other time in my life, after a car accident a few years ago. I was in the midst of marathon training at that time, too, and although the injury was very minor, it sidelined me from the race.
This time around, I wanted things to be different.
I wanted a therapist that would help me work through it, who would help me ease back into a training plan. I wanted someone who understood that I “needed” to run.
I guess I should have been skeptical of my last physical therapist when he asked me how far a marathon was during my first appointment. And, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when his advice was simply to stop running – without advice to replace those workouts with cross-training, stretching, strength-training or anything else, I might add.
That kind of advice to a runner – especially one who’s in marathon training – is mental torture.
Yes, this time would be different, I told myself. So I sought out a sports-minded facility, one that came with strong recommendations from a few people. I think I was sold on Apple Therapy Services when I read on their website that their goal is to “bring our patients back to the work, the play, and the lives they love.”
Exactly what I was looking for.
The facility was impressive, with every piece of rehabilitation and stretching and strength-training device you could imagine. The staff was friendly and the mood was upbeat, much less like a doctor’s office than I expected.
My appointment and examination was beyond thorough. The therapist talked to me – and more importantly, she listened to me. I’m sure I was beaming when she said, “Our goal is to have you run the race to the best of your ability.” Finally, someone who got it.
I learned more about the calf muscles – yes, the calf is made up of two muscles – than I thought I would. I learned some specific stretches to use on my problem areas. I came away with handouts and visuals, but more importantly I left feeling positive, enlightened and reassured.
I already know it's important to listen to my body, but this whole experience has taught me to find a physical therapist that will listen to me, too.