Paul Northup’s VLM Update – Oh No! Injury!

Our weakness

Even before today, I was planning my next blog to be about trying to stay injury-free, and managing injury and recovery when they (inevitably) come.

So – having had to stand on the sidelines at the Bourton 10k this morning, due to, you’ve guessed it, injury! – I thought I’d put my afternoon depression to some positive effect by writing this blog.

Most of us have weaknesses, things we’re prone to. My twins get tonsillitis at least five times a year. That’s theirs. But the myth of Achilles has become our shorthand for all our shortcomings and foibles, not just the physical ones. For runners, however, the fact that the phrase is rooted in a physical injury means it rings painfully true for us – perhaps more than others.

All of us have our Achilles heel. Luckily, for most of us, it’s not actually our Achilles – instead it’s our plantar, our groin, our hamstring. For me it’s a deep calf muscle thing in my right leg (some say it’s my solus?). I haven’t experienced it for more than a year now. But it plagued my getting back into running. Always the same injury. Always the same place. It’s my weakness. My Achilles heel.


Getting the simple things right

At the outset of this blog I must make it clear: I am NO expert on injury and rehabilitation at all! That’s where we look to Brendon and the professionals we know for best advice. The Internet is awash with forums and blogs about what to do when you get any sort of injury. But one lesson I’ve learned more than any other since being back into running is this: listen to your body.

Besides a touring life and too many pasties, the recurring injury that first retired me from running as a younger man was painful and persistent ‘shin splints’. In those days I thought I was invincible and I paid little to no attention to the type of shoes I was wearing, how many miles I was running, and so on. I was intuitive and unstructured in my approach to running. As an older man, returning to the fray, I’ve had to pay a lot more attention to the bio-mechanics and the gear.

What I know now is that there are some simple things we need to make a habit of in an effort to stay injury-free. (To be honest, they’re just common sense things which work for life in general!)

  • Being adequately hydrated –The research shows you’re much more likely to injure yourself if you’re not properly hydrated.
  • Being adequately rested – Running tired and exhausted is not a great idea. I find this really tricky as I have four young boys and work away half the week in London.
  • If you do start picking up aches and pains and strains, check your shoes – How many miles have you run in them? Have they lost their mojo?
  • Are you running in the right type of shoe? Get along to Up And Running and get your gait checked out and, if needed, switch your shoe type according to their advice.
  • Cross-train – Try not to be a runner only. Have another sport or recreation in your locker so that when you are injured you can still test yourself aerobically (and, let’s face it, release some of those much-needed endorphins!). Swimming and cycling use different muscle groups to running so they’re good bets. (You’ll find me in the pool, plodding up and down, during this time of rest from running.)
  • Don’t rush straight back to the mileage and intensity you were training at before the injury. Build back in slowly. Be patient. You will not have lost your fitness. But you will need to build your healing muscle, tendon or ligament strength gradually.

Other things that can help, not that I’ve tried them all (yet!):

  • Sports massage – I think I’ll be booking in for the first of these in my life this week! To get to those deep muscles the roller can’t touch.
  • Physiotherapy – sometimes you need a mechanical assessment and exercises and aids to help your rehabilitation
  • Osteopathy – I throw this one in as this is something I have benefitted from in the past. More of that another in another blog.


Identity and wellbeing

But the biggest thing about overcoming injury isn’t physical. It’s managing your sense of identity and our endorphin levels while we’re not running.

Let’s face it, most of us run because it makes us feel better about ourselves, others and life. Take running away, and we’ll feel worse about all those things. That’s tricky to manage.

Most of us also have ‘being a runner’ as a fundamental plank in the package of who we are. At a party you might tell people a bit about your family, your job, but I bet it doesn’t take too long to get onto running. It’s part of who we are. And when it’s not there, we do not feel whole.

It’s when being part of the club is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand you don’t suffer alone. On the other, you’re around people enjoying their running and often getting better at it while you feel like you’re languishing on the sidelines. It’s tricky. But I’d take belonging to a club over not any time.

Had I belonged to a club in my younger days I think I would have stuck with running in some form across the years, instead of drifting off from it completely for twenty-five years. And what I realised today is that the kick I got out of watching and supporting the Striders running at Bourton took all the pain and frustration of not being able to run away. At least for a bit!

So, here’s to my being patient enough not to run with you again too soon. But also to running with you again as soon as I can. Getting that balance right is perhaps the trickiest thing of all!

My next race booked in is the Gloucester 20 on 13 March, in two just weekends’ time. I hope I’m recovered enough to attempt it. I’m thankful that I’ve got four meaty runs in already this year – three of 20 miles and one of 22 miles. I’m ahead of where I need to be. So a week or so out shouldn’t impact my marathon training too much.

That’s what training for a marathon is all about. It’s what it teaches you. It’s about taking the long view. It’s about recognising wellness and illness as part of the same continuum. You can’t know you are fighting fit without knowing what it means not to be – to be less than well, to be injured.

I’ll try to remember that this week as I swim my lengths. And I’ll treasure the sight of seeing Striders run so well at Bourton today.

All shall be well.