I am injured again. No saga, it wasn’t even a running injury. I’m just a grown woman who manages to fall down the stairs with alarming frequency and on this occasion, rolled her ankle in the process. It took a couple of days for reasonably severe swelling and bruising to show but almost two weeks later that swelling is still refusing to fully recede. I’m not in pain but am occasionally getting odd twinges of shooting discomfort through my foot. It’s going to be a while longer before I risk running.
All runners despise being injured don’t they? Injuries cause stress and complaints and we think of nothing but when will we be able to run again. HA, no, not this girl! I’m ace at being injured; I practically revel in it. Lazing around in the warm, watching Netflix instead of putting in the miles in the cold? I’m amazed more of us aren’t self-sabotaging; I probably subconsciously throw myself down the stairs so I can justify not running.
I’m (mostly) joking but we do have a tendency to catastrophize and treat injury as a death knoll instead of an inevitable part of our journey as runners. Considering it’s likely to come to us all, I try to view injury as a detour rather than a delay. I do wonder if several years of shoddy mental health has helped me develop this attitude. Running is usually my coping mechanism for anxiety and so you would expect me to fall apart without it. The thing is, I’ve had years of not being able to do the things I ought to, or want to do. The days of not being able to get out of bed, of missing work, of flaking on social commitments because leaving the house is too terrifying a prospect. It’s frustrating and misery-inducing but it’s also a part of my life and so I’m bizarrely calm and practical about not running. Would I like to have run today? Yes, but what’s one more thing that I can’t do because of my health? It’s an odd sort of resilience that I wish I didn’t have but it saves me that additional layer of angst.
“I’m awful at not doing anything” is a common refrain from injured runners but there’s still a lot you can be doing whilst injured. Here are five things contributing to my running during any period where I can’t physically run (because remember, it’s only a detour to your journey):
I know, it’s difficult. You’re terrible at doing nothing. Sometimes it can be beneficial to take the pressure off of ourselves. There’s a physical toll that comes from the endless procession of races. Not only that, but I find that I experience an emotional toll of constantly training for something, of constantly feeling that I should be aiming for a PB. This mindset matches up with when injuries induced by running seem to occur. I suspect lacking motivation and feeling tired means I neglect strength work and let my form slip and before long, I’m injured and have taken myself out of contention.
With the pressure of racing or attempting a PB gone, I then tend to do my best running. My favourite races and PBs, they’ve come on days when I expected nothing. A good chunk of running is mental exercise – the will to carry on when it hurts, dragging ourselves out in bad weather, and yes, not caving to pressure on race day. That last one is a particular weakpoint for me and so being set back by injury and thinking there’s no chance of getting a PB? That can be just what I need to prosper.
Running gets to be a reasonably intensive process, doesn’t it? We’re training 3-4 times a week, if not more frequently. Throw in the odd bit of cross-training and the strength work that we all know we should be doing and you find that you’ve run out of time to pick up anything new. I’ll admit to being resolutely unimaginative with my cross-training; you’ll find me in the pool. The majority of friends supplement their running with a bit of cycling. Very few of us are venturing out of that box of triathlon components.
Unless you’ve had surgery and are waiting for stitches to heal, there are reasonably few injuries that are going to fully put you out of action. Throwing yourself into something new can distract you from the frustration of not running, keep your cardiovascular fitness up, and strengthen muscle groups that perhaps you’ve unknowingly neglected with your standard routine. Try something new and it could become an important part of your running routine.
In the past year I’ve been bouldering, rowing and kayaking and on one particualrly ridiculous day attempted aerial yoga, but I’m blessed enough to have lived in London and had the capital’s resources at my feet. There are still far more activities that I’d like to dip a toe into when running isn’t taking up my time. And that is how I very recently signed up for a course that is legitimately titled “Ballet For Grown Ups”. Hilarity to follow.
I’ve written before about the benefits I experience from volunteering at parkrun. I definitely don’t volunteer often enough; when I get into a good rhythm with my running it’s too satisfying to watch the times fall week on week.
Volunteering at Southwark Park
Injury is a good reason to fit in a block of volunteering and do your good deed for the year. We all know that parkrun can’t take place without the volunteers who selflessly give up their chance to run that week and we’re all incredibly thankful for them. Yet every week, emails and twitter appeals go out from parkruns up and down the country in search of more volunteers just so that events can take place.
Similarly, if injury keeps you from a planned race, then races also need volunteers. They are huge logistical events and we should give more thought to the people who hand us water and push shiny medals into our sweaty little hands. An increasing number of races offer a free race place for the following year if you volunteer in some capacity so you can console yourself that you’re just delaying the race rather than missing it.
It’s also a sneaky way to watch other runners. How often do we do that? Stand back and properly take in what other runners are doing, how they hold themselves, how they move. You’ll spot behaviours that you think look awkward – for me it’s always how other runners use their arms – and give more thought to what you do yourself.
Volunteering has kept me actively involved in the running community when I could easily curl up at home and isolate myself. Friends deserve my support even though I can’t run, and it makes you all the more appreciative of what goes on behind the scenes to allow you to run at these amazing events. Next Saturday I still won’t be running but I will be volunteering at Guildford parkrun, my new local.
Most of what I know about the human mind, chemistry and happiness has been discovered through anxiety, depression and sobbing in my therapist’s office. Similarly, most of what I know about physiology and how running “works” is from physio appointments, trying not to scream during sports massages and staring at diagrams of muscles, trying desperately to understand exactly why pain is occurring. We only look at the mechanics behind something once it’s broken and we need to work out how to fix it. This is why I’m repeatedly amazed every time that an injury is actually caused by a weakness elsewhere.
The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons. The 52 bones in your feet make up about 25 percent of all the bones in your body. That’s an awful lot of numbers without even considering your legs, what your arms are doing, how your core is supporting all that. There is so much happening with every step we run and we don’t necessarily give that any consideration. Maybe we don’t need to, but I do think that the more I learn, the more self-awareness I gain. That now when a niggle hits, I (vaguely!) understand what’s happening and as a result I can counteract it and prevent more serious problems from developing. It doesn’t always work and it will never be foolproof but I’m still learning.
The moment I most want to go for a run is precisely 25 seconds after I’ve realised an injury is going to stop me running. I’m contrary like that. The human body is an incredible, terrifying, wondrous thing and we should applaud it and revel in it, even when it’s not behaving quite as we’d like. I’m spending a lot of this current injury period trying to be thankful that I’m just being set back from something amazing that I’m capable of doing 90% of the time.
When I finally get back to running, I know that my fitness will have been annihilated and all the speed progress I was making will be lost. Again. But that first run back is going to be glorious and freeing and I hope I can capture that feeling for a while longer. Appreciate what your body can do, because it may not always be able to do it.