Saturday, August 30, 2008

Injuries...a 'developmental opportunity'

In the latter part of 2005 I ran the fastest marathon of my life. Despite the marked fatigue I felt at the end of this race, I knew I could run faster. I thought this race would be like all the others, a catalyst for me to train harder, run faster, and post yet another personal best in the not too distant future. Little did I know nearly three years would pass before I would even contemplate tackling another marathon.

2006 was marred by plantar fasciitis that ultimately required surgery in the latter part of the year. In typical fashion, I remained positive/optimistic about recovery despite the fact that I could tell my body just wasn't happy.

I spent countless hours on a stationary bike in 2007 trying to maintain my running fitness. Periodically, I'd get out and run a few miles, but in the summer of 2007 I had a nasty Achilles tendonitis flare up. Any hope of running a marathon in 2007 (or any race for that matter), was put on hold.

At the end of 2007, I took a month off from running to focus on treating my Achilles tendonitis. Icing, stretching, active release therapy, and massage were all part of my assault on this insidious ailment. After a month, things still weren't working the way I had hoped.

I started thinking a lot about the kinds of physical challenges I've had in the past and examining the reasons why I was having these challenges. Most aggravations/injuries occur due to biomechanical inefficiencies and/or overtraining. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that overtraining led to my plantar fasciitis in 2006. Reflecting on the myriad other nicks I had endured over the years, overtraining was often the smoking gun.

BUT, I had significantly dialed back my running in 2007 and I was still not feeling close to 100%. I had done a good job of addressing the training part of the aggravation/injury equation, but really hadn't looked closely at the other part of the equation, biomechanics.

Around the time I was pondering all of this I read an article about how many elite level Kenyan runners train. Many of them grew up school, to work, etc. At a very early age, many Kenyans log sometimes 10+ miles/day. More interesting to me was the fact that very few of them wore shoes. They usually couldn't afford them. Despite this seeming disadvantage, a disproportionate number of elite level runners come from this region. Many elite level Kenyan runners are some of the most biomechanically efficient and injury-proof runners around.

At the time I was wearing shoes designed to control the motion of my foot coupled with custom orthotics that were presumably designed to address my biomechanical inefficiencies and reduce the chances of injury/aggravation. But despite all of this, things just weren't clicking. In some respects, I felt like the shoes and custom orthotics weren't really addressing the 'root cause'....which was likely some kind of weakness in my feet/lower legs.

So much of my life these past few years has been about rolling the dice and I decided to roll them one more time. I purchased a pair of Nike Frees which effectively provide no support, guidance, or motion control (effectively the polar opposite of what I was doing). The whole premise behind the shoe is to emulate barefoot running (similar to what many Kenyans do). Many of my running related aggravations/injuries have involved issues below the knee. The Nike Frees specifically ask more of your feet and lower legs. Clearly, this was an area of my body that needed help anyway. What was the worst that could happen? I get injured. I was already painfully familiar with that.

Admittedly, running in a shoe that lacks all the things that conventional running shoes provide was a bit of a shock to the system. I could 'feel' the ground in a way I never had before. I felt like I was in control in a way I never had been before. I also felt like my body was moving in a more biomechanically efficient manner.

I started out logging just a few miles in my Frees, but I came to enjoy the experience so much that I started running in them more regularly. To my delight, my body complained very little. I experienced garden variety fatigue/soreness, but no plantar fasciitis, no Achilles tendonitis, or any other significant issues. This is what running should feel like.

The other variable I introduced was regular usage of a foam roller. I started using it daily in November of 2007 after every run. I've now become a huge advocate of the foam roller encouraging all my runners to purchase one and use it religiously. In lieu of a sportsmassage, it's without a doubt the next best thing.

Runners (myself included) can be extraordinarily stubborn and set in their ways. This is a wonderful quality on race day when fatigue and discomfort sets in, but this quality can also be a real albatross when it comes to aggravations/injuries. You can't 'fight' through an aggravation/injury the way you can the latter miles of a half marathon or marathon. Getting over an aggravation/injury can be frustrating, enigmatic, and tedious.

But, there's little question in my mind that virtually all aggravations/injuries present an opportunity for us to learn more about our body and our limitations. Hopefully, we recognize these opportunities and capitalize on them. In the wake of the worst injury of my running career, I recognized an opportunity and find myself running at the highest level I have in three years.