Running Injuries: Potential Show-Stoppers and Powerful Teachers

I made it to eight miles!  This half-marathon training thing feels real now.  I’m continuing to stick to my training routine, made easier by September with its back-to-school embracing of rules for living, times for getting up, times for work, times for eating and sleeping, and for running.  Despite all those routines, the body sometimes rebels, because I’m also pushing it, a little further each week.

 Some parts of my body keep letting me know that running isn’t easy for them, that they might be willing to keep cooperating, but I can’t be sure, and I should listen to them and take good care of them.  Getting to the eight-mile mark feels significant in this regard, because when you’re 47, your body is willing to remind you, at this point in the push, of every wrong-doing it has endured.  Before I even ran that eight miles yesterday, my wicked planter fasciitis (heel pain, for anyone who hasn’t experienced this malady) made itself felt for the first time in a long time.  It went away, but by the end of that run, I was feeling, just in muted form, in tiny voices, some old bursitis in my hips, and some crankiness in my knees.  All of this reminds me not to take running for granted, and not to take my still-functioning body for granted. 

Over the years, one persistent injury has taught me the hard lesson of maintenance.  Caution comes naturally to me, but maintenance, not so much.  My most consistent problem as a runner has been heel pain, known medically as planter fasciitis.  Ever since I went back to running—probably too soon—after my second pregnancy, at the tender age of 30, I’ve had this problem that has sometimes managed to de-rail my running for many months at a time.  It’s the thing that kept me from completing half-marathon training last time I tried, in fall 2010, when I got the seven-mile mark and decided not to wreck my left foot by continuing. (I always remind myself, I want to be able to walk when I’m 80.)

If you’ve never had this thing, it’s hard to overstate how frustratingly tenacious it is, and how powerful.  If you’re a runner, walker, or hiker, you probably already know about this.  In his excellent book, Chi Running, Danny Dreyer writes that there are few things he would wish on his worst enemy, and planter fasciitis is one ofthem. (He also notes that when he experiences that heel pain starting, he knows how Harry Potter feels when the Death Eaters were after him. ) At its worst, the pain is present in every step you take, including walking.  In better times, you feel it only in the morning, for the first few steps, when your muscles are tight, during a running warm-up, or at about mile four or five in a long run, when the pain starts to flare up again, and you know you should quit running now because you’re only making things worse.  When things are really bad, it hurts to walk, all the time.  To add to that, as one physical therapist friend told me, once it starts, it typically lasts about a year.

I’ve had planter fasciitis off and on, and in the past several years, mostly on.  It alternates from foot to foot, with some breaks in between episodes. Over the years, I’ve consulted just about every kind of medical professional, from the GP who first told, me, at age 30, that the problem was my tight calves (which is true, and those tight muscles pull on the foot muscles, causing the pain), to the orthopedic specialist who told me it might help if I wore high heels more often (?), to the podiatrist who fitted me with orthotics, gave me a splint to sleep in at night to keep the calf muscles stretched, and even, when I got desperate, tried shooting one of my heels with cortisone. 

I’ve also gone to physical therapy and tried every trick they know, including the dreaded stretching.  (I truly hate stretching before a run.  I’m just too impatient.)  I’ve worn inserts in my running shoes and bought myself many pairs of $100 non-running shoes for walking around.  (Below is a brief history of my $100 or more shoes since about 2005; not pictured the $30 pair of Crocs I live in when I’m at home to cushion my feet.)  Really, I’ve put more energy into this ailment than any other, though I’ve also been out of running for awhile due to knee problems, with amazingly enough, resolved themselves with a little physical therapy.  Probably the longest I ever quit running was seven months, due to plantar fasciitis.   

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So, I wish I could say the answer I’ve found would work for everyone, though I can tell from reading running blogs and noting four pages of Dreyer’s book devoted to the dreaded PF, if there were an answer for everyone, we’d know about it.  But here’s what worked for me, and it took some time:  a couple of years ago I decided to pay out of pocket to see an acupuncturist.  The bad news is that, hundreds of dollars later, I still had heel pain.  The good news is, this guy taught me more about my body.  He really helped me understand that it was all about my calves and even my upper legs.  The tight bands in those muscles took the problem all the way down to my heels.  He wanted me to learn how to massage my calves, and have my husband help me with that since he could get a better angle.  We did some of that, though it is very painful to have someone else massage your calves.  It wasn’t exactly something either of us looked forward to.

So over time, we let go of that.  But at some point a runner friend told me about massage rollers for your calves, which somehow had not gotten onto my radar through physical therapy.  Knowing what I knew about my calves, I was receptive.  I spent about $30 online for something that’s kind of like long, soft rolling pin, small and easy to store near the door. 

I now use this “magic wand” before every run.  I massage all the major muscles in my calves, and a little bit of the long bands of muscles in my inner, upper legs, for good measure. 

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It’s remarkable how much looser I feel when I start running.  It only takes a few minutes to do this, and it provides a good warm-up because it’s actually hard work.  Most importantly,  I’ve truly seen the results.  I tried this thing the last time the PF started, probably about a year ago, and the dreaded pain never progressed like it always has in the past. 

For me, this was not just about finding the right product, though.  It was about recognizing the need for maintenance.  I actually use the roller at other odd times when my calves feel tight, especially after a long run.  I’ve realized that, as the acupuncturist said, history repeats itself, and if I don’t do some preventive maintenance every run, ideally even every day, I’ll just keep repeating this cycle.  As I age, I know that I can’t count on my body to behave like it did in its twenties.  I no longer see these injuries as annoying things that I just have to wait out or try a bunch of expensive treatments for.  What I mostly need to do is my maintenance.  But my injuries have also taught me this:  I need to be grateful when I can run, and hold loosely to goals like half-marathons.  Each week I can run that extra mile, I feel lucky, and grateful.  Maybe I’ll get to 13.2 this time; maybe I won’t, but I am thankful to have gotten this far.

 

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About Jodi Vandenberg-Daves

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves writes about learning to live by loving to run.
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