The runner's curse

Injury – it’s the little word that every runner dreads. Statistics suggest that at least half of us get injured at some point every year. But how do we cope when it does happen and we find ourselves unable to get out there and take part?

A book that I recently copy-edited commented that there are five ‘grief stages’ to getting injured:

1.       Denial – not acknowledging the injury and carrying on regardless

2.       Anger – high levels of frustration about getting injured

3.       Bargaining – trying to negotiate with someone (possibly yourself!) about the extent of the injury

4.       Depression – low mood from not being able to take part

5.       Acceptance – finally acknowledging the injury and the importance of rehabilitation

I can certainly relate to this theory. After starting running in early 2013, within a year I was starting to experience tightness in my left leg. The tightening came on slowly, so denial was an easy state to slip into. But eventually I realised that something wasn’t quite right.

I’m not sure I really had much of an anger stage – I’m a pretty laid-back person – but I soon entered the bargaining stage. And I was definitely bargaining with myself, trying to self-manage the problem. I bought compression socks to try and ease the muscle tightness. I bought kinesiology tape to try and keep things loose. I went on a Chi Running course, attracted by the promise of injury-free running. And I visited a sports masseur for the first time.

All of these things brought short-term relief but they didn’t cure.

Painful ordeal

 Half of all runners get an injury each year – but how do we cope when we do?   (Image © 2014 Rob Crane)

Half of all runners get an injury each year – but how do we cope when we do?  (Image © 2014 Rob Crane)

Push came to shove towards September 2014 as I built up my weekly mileage in preparation for running my first half marathon. What had been unpleasant became painful. What had been something to look forward to became an ordeal. And the final clue was my left foot, whose ankle was now so tight that the foot would slap away on the pavement as I ran, alarming pedestrians as I ran up behind them into thinking they were about to get mugged by some flat-footed, bridge-dwelling troll.

Rest. Race deferral. Let it ease off. But then when I tried easing back into it, the tightness returned.

Eventually I gave up and went to a local clinic, PhysioSW19, where I had a consultation with Charlie Bradford. My first consultation confused me. My recollection is of him poking my right buttock and exclaiming, ‘There’s nothing there!’ I felt confused. The tightness was in my left leg, so why was he focusing on my right-hand glutes? And so I received my first lesson: physios know my body better than I do.

It turned out a weakness in my right glute had created an imbalance that was overloading my left leg. I’d probably had it since I was a kid – a consequence of always having a heavy school bag on my right shoulder? – but it was only when I started running that it manifested itself.

Patience

That first visit was in December 2014. Now, in February 2016, I am – touch wood – just about at the end of my rehabilitation path. It’s been frustrating, with regular painful periods as one part of my body after another was targeted and then adapted as a result, pulling adjacent muscles in directions they found strange and initially uncomfortable.

As I write this, I’m again not running: two weeks ago I felt obliged to abandon an easy run and within hours I was lying on the sofa, sharp pain and stiffness gripping my lower back. But when I clambered back to my feet I realised that my left inner thigh, the last vestige of permanent stiffness in my left leg, had finally relaxed, and my left foot was pointing forwards as it should, rather than displaying its previous slight inward turn. Perhaps the pain I was feeling was just a consequence of that inner thigh finally relaxing, prompting spasms from its neighbours.

So now I sit (gingerly – the lower back is still stiff and feeling pinched) and wait. Is the long road finally behind me? Numerous times I’ve thought the last adaptation had taken place, only for another one to sneak up and demand attention. But this time I think I might have actually run out of issues to address.

One thing I have learned since all this started is patience: rehabilitation doesn’t happen overnight. But a less prudent me is already muscling in: I’m entered for the Surrey Half Marathon in March. Suddenly it feels like I’m back in 2014 again, with a half marathon looming and an overwhelming urge to get cracking.

You can bet that this time, if anything does go wrong, I won’t try to soldier on: those experts are experts for a reason.

Update 12 March 2016: The Surrey Half Marathon is tomorrow – and I didn't make it! I'm still getting a touch of siatica in my right leg, making my foot tingle when I sit down, but in most other ways I'm feeling better than ever. My running form is feeling particularly relaxed and comfortable. But that right glute and the other muscles around the right hip are still weak and adjusting, and I don't want to push it. Being sensible won out over the urge to get cracking!