An Athlete’s Perspective on Injury: Balancing Work and Self-Care (By Traci Nigg)
Setbacks happen; oftentimes when we least expect them. Training sends us on this high where we feel invincible because we know we are putting in the time and effort to take on any work out that lies ahead. Then one day, that sharp pain starts resonating down your leg or an annoying singe start tingling every step of your run, what’s happening?
While training for two marathons this spring I felt so alive and strong. As I felt comfortable with my training, I wanted more. Saturday, April 23rd, 2016, I threw in a speed workout by doing four 1 mile repeats at my top speed. I ran my first one in 6:12. Feeling amazing, I pushed for another under 7 minutes. I completed the next two under 7 minutes and thought, okay, if I could shave roughly 10 seconds off this last one, I could run my first mile ever under 6 minutes. I never thought even shooting for this would be possible, but I couldn’t help but think, what if? I told myself to stay present. It’s only 6 minutes. Make it happen. So I went for it and absolutely gave it all I had left in the tank. I finished in 6:10. Exhausted, drained, cashed, I took myself home. I had mixed feelings. It was an excellent workout. I needed to feel that rush again. Mentally, I was a little bummed that I was so close but not quite there.
Sunday, I set out for my long run which was scheduled to be 15 miles. About a mile in I felt a sharp pain down my leg that settled in my knee. It wasn’t terrible but it was definitely uncomfortable. Knowing I needed this run to stay on schedule for my upcoming 50k, I pressed on. The wind was gusting in my face but I made it to my turn around point. Then I rode the wind back home and made it, slowly but surely. The rest of the day I had this strong pain in my knee. I iced and foam rolled which didn’t provide much relief.
Monday, I got up for work nearly incapable of walking. What had I done? Overuse, I thought. It must be overuse. I’ll go light a couple days and this will work itself out. A midfielder at heart, I ended up playing goalie for my soccer team that evening because I couldn’t run, let alone put pressure on my left leg. One of my teammates is an athletic trainer and she suggested foam rolling as she believed I had developed ITBS, Iliotibial band syndrome. After a few days of this pain and following through with her suggestions, I couldn’t handle not knowing what was going on anymore. I maintained my running streak by completing daily, dreadfully slow 1 mile runs and pushing the pain while not overdoing it.
I scheduled an appointment with my physical therapist who has seen me through 4 knee surgeries since my first at 16 years old. If anyone knows my legs, stubbornness, and competitiveness, it’s him. He advised against running and told me to become a biker and swimmer for the next 10 days. He showed me some exercises and tested my hip strength. I was definitely weak through my hips and he confirmed the IT band syndrome. This is more common than I thought. He advised me to only sign up for two marathons a year and become a half marathoner or do triathlons. In the back of my mind I knew I had an upcoming 50k in May, a marathon in San Francisco in July, and a marathon in Wichita, KS in October. I agreed to not sign up for any more.
I began the exercises and continued to have pain while walking. Days went by without running and I felt my mind slowly slipping into a negative space. As a school social worker my job became even more demanding as we were 6 weeks away from the end of the school year. This meant that there were deadlines to meet and end of the year activities to try and fit into an already stressful schedule. Along with school obligations were my coaching responsibilities. This pain was keeping me from jumping into soccer drills with the girls and letting loose during practice to escape the stresses of the day. I began to feel more on edge, sad, more emotional, short in my relationship, and less tolerant of the most random things. I realized I needed another outlet or coping mechanism until running could be reintegrated into my routine. It was time for my mindfulness practices to take over.
I started regularly attending Yoga at the local YMCA whenever my favorite teacher had a class. This stretching helped give me some relief and is an exercise that let me feel like I was doing something positive for my body. It allowed me to surround myself with like-minded people who valued the mindfulness and exercise of yoga practice.
My significant other took me to a new fresh pressed, juicing company in town. We visited Songbird Juice Company and met some progressive minded employees who are just as excited about nutrition, health, and well-being as we are. This outing helped me reconnect with my relationship and find another community of like-minded, friendly people.
I made time for reading about my interests. I got lost in the stories of others’ running trials and triumphs which allowed me to not feel alone but also escape my reality. I hadn’t had time to read in a while with work, coaching, and training. This down time was not only relaxing, but it was very enjoyable! People have amazing stories that deserve to be read.
In my efforts to continue taking care of my body while my exercise intensity was low, I focused on the art of cooking. I absolutely love cooking healthy, beautiful meals. I am a nerd about presentation so I like experimenting with different fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins to add color and flavor. Again, this was something I didn’t have much time for but was revitalizing to my pallet and nutrition.
Meditation has been my go to practice when I am not feeling quite right or out of balance. I had been running on my lunch breaks to help manage the stress of my days so instead, I shut my door and took quiet time to myself to meditate. This greatly helped with my tolerance of the random crises and additional tasks that continued to present themselves late in the school year.
As my physical therapist suggested I went on a few bike rides and I was able to lead a pool workout for my soccer girls. This allowed me to feel like an active participant in their practice again. It not only was part of my rehab, but they really seemed to enjoy mixing up their workout.
With all of these mindful efforts in place, I was nearing a very hard decision time. About a week into my rehab I made the choice to contact the race director of the Lake Perry Trail 50k. I asked to drop to the half marathon due to injury. It was not a logistical problem for him, but rather an emotional battle within myself. My goal of running a 30 mile race before I turn 30 in December would now be put on hold. My plan became to enjoy this race with my group of friends and take in the scenery and experience. Miraculously, this took a lot of pressure off of me both mentally and physically. I had heard on the Marathon Training Academy podcast that it takes two weeks to start to lose fitness. The race was two weeks away when my injury reared it’s nasty head.
After this decision I took so much pressure off of myself and quit focusing so much on my pain. I continued to focus on what I could do in this moment to help my recovery because, in reality, I had no control of any other point in time. My mood ameliorated and my positivity increased. I found purpose in coaching soccer and seeing my girls be successful while I soaked up the last few weeks of their season with them. By taking so much focus and energy off of myself I was able to be more present for them. We joked, cheered, and competed our way to the end of a successful season.
What did I learn while being injured?
1. Don’t be stubborn. Seek professional advice, listen to their suggestions, and do the exercises. Remember, the exercises don’t stop when the pain starts to go away. Rehab is like taking antibiotics. Once you start the packet, you don’t stop taking the meds when you begin feeling better. You finish the recommended dosage because that is your first step of prevention from future illness or injury.
2. Focus on other fulfillments in your life. Take some time to ask yourself, what else makes you happy? Take this opportunity to put your time and energy there while your body heals. This may be a good time to check in on your relationship, family, and friends. They’re typically the ones who sacrifice quality time with you while you’re training so showing them some thanks. Offering some of yourself back to them will not only be rewarding to you but also much appreciated by them.
3. Reconnect with your intentions and goals. Why are you running, training or doing this sport? What does it mean to you? When we can’t do something we realize how important it is in our lives.
4. Learn from it. Personally, I realized that I didn’t incorporate enough stretching and core strength training into my schedule. I will now add Yoga and cross training onto my calendar as well as adopt core exercises that I’ve learned as a part of my daily running routine.
5. Ease back in. Just because you’re feeling well, you don’t want to over do it and fall right back to where you started. Make reasonable goals and incorporate prevention strategies into your workouts. Remind yourself to do the little tedious things so this injury, hopefully, doesn’t happen again.
I did finish the half marathon race at Lake Perry on May 14th, 2016. Without the added stress of attempting an uncharted distance, I was able to take in the scenery and time with my friends. To my pleasant surprise, my college roommate and soccer teammate had signed up to run this race as well. It reiterated that this race was meant to be an experience with friends where we all came together to overcome our personal challenges while having a team for support.