One of the toughest challenges for us runners to overcome is increasing our flexibility. I’m not talking about your muscles – although that’s important too, especially when you’re a geezer like I am. I’m referring to the mental flexibility to re-vamp your training plan when faced with inevitable problems, from schedule changes to minor muscle or tendon tweaks.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of lesson most runners can only learn the hard way: by ignoring their bodies until they turn a minor nuisance into a full-fledged injury that requires significant time off. I did that last year, when I turned a slight calf muscle tear into a full-fledged tear, then a more debilitating back and piriformis problem. I was tapering for the Cowtown 50K at the end of February, running a slow 4-miler, when I got what felt like a quick calf cramp, but one strong enough to drop me to my knees. That’s unusual for me, but I got up, gave it a tentative stretch, and it didn’t really hurt. I ran a few more steps on it, but it felt too tight. I walked the mile and a half home, figuring it wasn’t worth the risk this close to a big event, and I took the entire rest of the week off, figuring that was the safe thing to do for a minor muscle tweak. I had no idea I’d gotten a calf tear until much later.
A couple days before I was due to get on the plane for Texas, I did try to jog a mile on the treadmill. My inability to do so without feeling the tightness in the calf convinced me that I should skip the race. I skipped it, but returned to my typical daily mileage (4-8 miles) a few days later, feeling no pain at all. A couple of days of that and I felt the pain return, and only then did I realize I had muscle tear. I took another week off then began to turn my mind toward Rock ‘n’ Roll USA in March. The calf didn’t appear to be healing very quickly, and I decided I could probably limp my way through that marathon anyway. How smart does that sound?
I resolved to run the first half with my wife. We took it slow, because she wasn’t in top form, and it’s more fun to talk. She was registered for the half, but at about the 5 mile mark, my calf was telling me I probably wouldn’t be finishing even the 13.1. I told her to go ahead and leave me, but she just slowed down. I kept at it, and the acute pain disappeared and by mile 10 I felt like I could finish out the marathon. I did, having a very nice time chatting with folks at a 4 hour-ish pace. I didn’t realize until later that the reason I’d done with was that I’d developed a compensatory limp. A month later, I ran a 3:13 at Boston with that limp, and 5 days after that, a 3:30-something at the Blue Ridge marathon (with 3k feet of elevation change!) also on that limp. Completely oblivious.
Until the bottom fell out on me a couple weeks later. Eventually, the muscles in my back and ass that had been taking up the slack for my screwed-up calf couldn’t do anymore, and they stopped working correctly. This meant that my sacroiliac joint wasn’t closing properly before each footfall, with the result that it felt like someone was stabbing me right in the lower back every time I stepped. It took me a few weeks of very painful physical therapy to get that worked through, and a lot of slow running, deliberately retraining my body to get rid of that limp. As late as last fall, despite running better speedwork and getting more rest before my PR attempt at Steamtown, my form was still no good. I blew up trying to hit a 2:55 and barely made it in under 3 hours. It’s been a long time since I felt that rancid in a marathon.
Only in the past month did I realize that despite my return to near-normal times and good mileage, I was overstriding, reaching forward and pulling, not only slowing myself down but putting more stress on my glutes and hamstrings than they could handle. By consciously willing myself to lean forward and push the ground away behind m, I dropped 7 minutes off my December marathon at the same or less effort than I’d expended on a pair of 3:07 marathons in October/November. It seemed too good to be true in training the week before, but when the results came in on a very windy and cold Rehoboth Beach marathon, I knew the form mattered and I’d made an important improvement.
Here’s the sad truth: Most, if not all, of those problems would have been avoided had I simply taken the rest I needed when I tore that calf. Though part of my problem was ignorance (I didn’t know it was a tear for several days) the rest, I’ll say 80%, was wishful thinking, hoping that a calf tear would heal in 10 days versus the 3 weeks it deserved. In my effort to save myself a couple weeks of training, I cost myself several months of training. That’s a shitty risk/reward ratio.
Yesterday, near the end of my run, having successfully navigated the surprising iced-over bridges along my trail (They’d been liquid water 30 minutes before!), I rolled an ankle because I was chatting with an old-timer as a slow cooldown. I simply didn’t look where I was going and stepped off the pavement when the trail turned and I didn’t. I got one of those tongue-biting shocks, the ones that make you sick to your stomach for a few milliseconds as you fear you’ve really screwed yourself up. But I got no pain, no swelling. The ankle’s OK to walk and run on, but I know for a fact it’s going to be a little weak after that turn. So, I’m going to suck it up, ditch the speedwork that’s on the schedule, and stick to the treadmill, where I can run a constant pace, on a smooth surface, and where I can quit as soon as it might be necessary, without a long walk home.
The old (younger) me would have considered that a pussy move and tried the speedwork anyway. But I’ve learned at least that lesson. If you can’t be flexible in your training when your body requires it, you’ll under-perform and set yourself up for a lot more long-term disappointment.