The road back to running health and race fitness is not always a straight path. Sometimes it's not even paved. Not that an unpaved path is a bad thing...as long as there aren't too many bumps and rocks to bounce around. Mine, so I've learned, has a few blind curves and - apparently, from an experience at the beginning of this month - some obstacles which will need to be addressed, moved or just plain blown away.
A Tuesday track workout found Jim observing, as he put it, a "hitch in my giddy-up" during the warm-up. At first I put it down to a little bit of gamesmanship; while I'm the coach and he's the athlete, we're separated in age by only a couple of years. Some of the quicker efforts on the track can put us both on the verge of racing. At the tail end of the warm-up I made a brief "pause for the cause," which can sometimes improve the gait, or at least the outlook, toward a run workout. We slid into the workout and ran our 200-meter and 400-meter repeats.
The next morning I felt pretty much the same degree of tightness in my heels as in the past, so I didn't give the discomfort much thought. Until I went out for my mid-morning run on the wood chip trail outside my office. "Being flayed alive with a rusty straight razor", like John Parker Jr's. Quenton Cassidy, would have been most welcome. I literally had to shut down the run after the first minute.
I decided to go into Plan B, and do a little bit of run-walk.
Three minutes later, Plan B turned into Plan C: a nice walk along the trail in order to save my legs for a run later in the afternoon.
As I walked gamely around my office I realized this was no minor issue of delayed onset muscle soreness or something a little more disconcerting like inflamed achilles tendons. I'd done what appeared to be some stupid damage which was most likely going to take a few days to a week to straighten out.
So, I did what any smart guy would do in that situation. I slept on the issue, then talked to my dog about it during our morning walk. As Rubin and I walked we started to consider the possible root causes:
First, there was probably too much increase in stress for the body to handle (the classic "if this is good, then twice the amount is better" thing). While I increased the duration of each run by no more than ten percent, I also added additional workouts during the week; I had gone from from four hours to somewhere close to seven hours of running over a three-week period.
The second root cause might have to do with the pair of lightweight trainers I prefer for track workouts. They aren't the oldest pair of running shoes I have, and they don't have as many miles as the oldest pair, but 310 harder, more-sweaty miles, run through the heat of summer means faster midsole breakdown than running in more mild conditions.
When I've done too much speedwork or hard running on a crowned road the discomfort is usually limited to a single heel or ankle. But the pain this time was bilateral, in the heels, ankles, knees quadriceps and lower back...a sure sign shoes are a culprit.
So, the best course of action when the stupid damage is done is go "three steps forward, two steps back". Or at least two steps back:
First thing I would recommend is to scale back the run duration to the point before the discomfort and pain began. Those runners who feel compelled to do additional workouts might want to consider ones which will stress the cardiovascular system but place minimal impact stress on the musculoskeletal systems, like road cycling, stationary cycling, elliptical trainers, aqua jogging or swimming.
Second, find running routes which aren't going to place undue stress on the joints; preferably level ground. Dirt trails are great and more forgiving than asphalt or concrete, but be careful of wood chip or mulch surfaces, as they can be a little too forgiving or too unstable for the feet and ankles.
Third, once the body has adapted to a change in weekly run duration, distance, or terrain, resist the temptation to pile on MORE. Some runners can safely handle a distance or duration increase of up to 20 percent, but we are all an experiment of one - what works for you might put me back in the hurt locker. And whatever increases or changes are done, make certain to spread them out over the entire week.
Fourth, make certain to keep track of how long you've worn or run in a pair of training shoes. Six months, or 300-to-400 miles is a good gauge, but can be shorter based on weight and running conditions. Besides, good shoes are cheaper than good physical therapists.
Finally, make certain your training plan and your racing schedule are written in pencil. I'd rather be a happy 5K runner than an injured spectator. I've done that a few too many times this past year. It's not fun.
So, listen to your body throughout the training cycle. If you don't heed the first messages, it will eventually find a way to make you listen.