When people ask me about my weekend or what’s new, my answer almost always includes something related to running. I find it difficult not to talk about running, even to non-runners, because it’s such a big part of my life and my identity. It’s like when people talk to me about their kids. I don’t have kids, but always have an anecdote about my niece and nephew in my back pocket. I never feel compelled to explain why I don’t have kids though. Interestingly, I find that most people feel the need to explain why they don’t run and it almost always involves the phrase “my knees”.
Let’s get something out of the way first. I recognize that there are plenty of people for whom knee or other issues are a legitimate reason why they can’t run. My intention is to open up the possibilities for people like me, who fell victim to false beliefs and a misunderstanding of the underlying reasons for pain and injury.
There’s a general perception that running is hard on the knees and consequently, one’s life as a runner is inherently finite. Sure, the body breaks down as it ages, but it can do far more than it gets credit for and I personally refuse to buy into these limiting constructs without challenging them. I’m striving to combat this mentality of giving in at the first sign of injury and succumbing to inactivity, which leads to far worse things than injury. Blaming aches and pains on “being old” and using that as an excuse not to move one’s body is the most detrimental load of shit that people can swallow and I hear it all the time.
I used to believe that running had a shelf life. So when I first read Born to Run I was able to imagine something other than becoming a victim of the aging process. While most people consider this book to be a testament to barefoot running, for me it served to illustrate a different reality and introduce me to role models who pursued life to its fullest expression. It also introduced me to the concept of trail and ultra running. I immediately sought out and ran every trail in the metro Atlanta area where I was living at the time.
My journey with running began in my late 20’s, but it has only been in the last three years/one year that I’ve reached marathon and ultra-marathon distances respectively. Moving to Boulder and the daily access to trails that comes along with it has changed my life. I LOVE running trails and I want to do everything in my power to keep that available to me until I’m called to something else.
Anyone who runs as much as I do, which is a lot or not that much, depending on your frame of reference, is going to encounter injury. Injury in this context is loosely defined as any acute or chronic irritation or pain resulting from the activity of running – whether falling and hurting yourself, or imbalances due to weakness and tightness that lead to poor mechanics and thus, pain.
It really wasn’t until I started signing up for longer races that I began searching for solutions, as the stakes became much higher. I’ve been dealing with the same issues for over a decade, but it was only recently that I discovered ways that I can be proactive and responsive to injury that gets me back on the trails stronger and in less time. I have discovered tools to increase the strength and longevity of my running and I want to share what I’ve learned because it can be hard to discover if you’re not surrounded by a community of athletes like I am, living in Boulder. I may be late to the game, but it’s better than never. This is my attempt to spare others the same lengthy learning curve. I hope it serves you well.
Acupuncture and dry needling. In the weeks leading up to Quad Rock, I went to see Ginna at Boulder Acusport once a week. During my first visit, she said she’d never seen such tightness and that the release was like that of a steel cable. Yikes. I also managed to launch a needle out of my quad – I didn’t witness how far it flew, but I like to think it launched clear across the room. It may go without saying that I was holding a bit of tension. After a few weeks, I was temporarily pain-free, but I was chasing injury. I still had to address the root of the problem and this is why I hobbled the last seven miles at Mount Hood. Many people find it helpful to start with more frequent initial treatment and then move into monthly maintenance. That would be my recommendation.
Physical Therapy I go to see Michael at Red Hammer Rehab for monthly-ish maintenance. He treats me in whichever way is relevant to my ailment, and generally tends to be some form of adjustment, plus dry needling, cupping, and making me cry with some torture device, aka his hands, followed by e-stim and heat. He leaves me with a list of appropriate exercises and how often to do them, but this doesn’t work for me. It’s not that I can’t motivate myself to get to the gym, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to plan and track all of the exercises. So I default to doing the same ones over and over and again, which isn’t the best execution on my part. PT is a great maintenance tool, but I need more structure and accountability for addressing the foundational weakness and tightness of my body.
Personalized Fitness Program About a month ago, I started working with Ellen at The Chiro Lab/Height Performance. The program I chose includes 2 workouts a week that are created weekly according to my needs and adjusted as necessary. There is always a trainer at the gym, usually Ellen, who can guide me through each move and make sure my form is correct. The issues I struggle with are very common for runners – weak glutes and core (not abs, but CORE) and tight hips. Compounding that is my lazy right glute which Ellen described as sitting on the beach sipping a margarita instead of firing. Hence the chronic IT band issues I feel in my right knee.
You may have read my post about working with a running coach. My overall mileage didn’t change much, but the structure of my running did – speedwork, incessant hill repeats and my tendency to push too hard strained my hip flexor and I have had to be gentle while waiting for it to repair so that I can come back stronger. I went through a short period where everything hurt – IT band manifesting as knee pain, lower back ache, hip flexor strain, foot arch and irritation of my toe joint. It was then that I realized that chasing every irritation was not the solution and that a comprehensive strength and mobility plan was what I needed.
Over the course of the last month, working with Ellen for about two hours a week, my lower back pain is gone, I’m experiencing almost zero pain in my knee from IT Band, the pain in my arch has dissipated, a somewhat-running related injury – an impingement in my shoulder from trying to rub sunscreen on my own back last summer – has disappeared, my hip flexor is improving and my toe joint, well, I still need to get that worked on.
Although external validation is no real indication of anything, two of my running friends on separate occasions noted that I was “looking strong” in my running. And I’m feeling strong, so it’s encouraging that it shows.
In addition to these things, there are some other ways that you can support strong running with your lifestyle.
- Foam rolling – I feel best if I’m consistent with 5 minutes a day or if I roll out before a run
- Proper sleep – it’s not just quantity, but quality that counts. This is my biggest challenge, personally. Getting away from screens and in bed at a decent hour is hard with a demanding job and a 5am wake up call, but I recognize that it’s critical to my body’s ability to perform the miracle of recovery. In reality, it means saying no a lot and doesn’t do much for my dating life, but I’m okay with that. This is also why most of my friends are also runners.
- Whole foods – trail and ultra runners love to brag about devouring pizza, beer, and doughnuts. While those treats are fine to indulge in, understand that the food you eat is literally building your muscle and tissue. The bulk of it should be nutrient-dense, because if all it has to repair muscle with are chips and salsa (SO guilty), you’re not going to see the kind of gains you’re hoping for.
- My dietary staples – sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, peanut butter and beans – but like… not all in the same meal. I also tend to eat seasonally, so the variety of fruits and veggies beyond those stated are typically what’s in season – right now I’m eating a lot of Brussels sprouts, spaghetti squash, roasted purple potatoes and grapefruit.
- Supplements – At the recommendation of my endocrinologist, I supplement with 5,000 units of Vitamin D3, B-12 and Selenium.
- My go-to herbs – I have the great fortune of working for an amazing company whose products include organic herbal supplements. As a result, I discovered success with a few key herbs that I include on a daily basis.*
- Ashwagandha – this is an ancient Ayurvedic adaptogen that is starting to gain popularity in the mainstream. I find that it contributes to my stamina and for many people it helps them get more restful sleep.
- Moringa Powder – this comes from the powdered leaf of the Moringa tree. You should expect that it tastes like nature! Despite the fact that it does not contain caffeine, I find it to be highly energizing. I like to shake it vigorously into my morning lemon water and chug because I’m too lazy to make a smoothie. As with any concentrated green, to avoid a laxative effect, start small. I recommend a 1/2 tsp for the first week. Once you move up to 1tsp or more, you should feel the energizing effect without the tube lube.
- Tulsi Greens Plus – the ginger and licorice root in this blend round out the “green” flavor. I stir a Tb or so into my lunch, usually soup or anything with sauce. It doesn’t have a strong flavor, so it’s a super easy way to supplement without having to remember another capsule. It’s my current favorite.
- Hydration – I start the day with a big ol’ quart of warm lime or lemon water first thing in the morning. Living in Colorado, it’s so easy to get dehydrated and it’s the first thing that will derail a run or workout for me. Large insulated bottles help me remember to drink water at work. I sip on warm water all day in the winter for better hydration.
The last few months leading up to January, my official diagnosis was “hot mess”. Granted, my schedule is far more regimented than it was at this time last year, it’s what I need right now and I’m more encouraged about my progress in the last month than I have been for the last six. Don’t feel like you need to do everything, just start with what feels like the right place for you and your progress will spark the energy to pursue more
Whether you use these specific resources or not, the main thing I want you to know is that pain is a great indicator that you need to pay attention, but it doesn’t always mean that you have to give up. You just have to work for it. No one can just run free without pain or injury if they don’t do the work to keep their body balanced and maintained.
*Full disclosure, the links provided are to a product made by the brand I work for and if you purchase directly through these links, I receive a small percentage from Amazon.