For years Julia had some kind of running-related injury.
It began as a soreness in her right foot that then moved up to the knee. After changing her shoes and running form, she experienced some relief. Then while training for a half marathon, the pain flared, this time in her right hip.
But she kept running, managing the pain with post-run icing, stretching and deep-tissue massage.
She did everything her doctor and physical therapist told her to do, and yet, her body wasn’t healing. Only when she took time off from running did the pain fully abate.
But just shortly after she resumed training, the pain reappeared.
Discouraged, Julia wondered if she should be running at all. Maybe her body simply wasn’t cut out for running.
Julia’s conclusion was understandable, though tragic, because I believe the human body is beautifully built for running. Running is truly one of the most natural things we can do.
Which begs the question: Why are so many runners like Julia injured so frequently?
By “injured” I mean any kind of pain, big or small, that’s making running uncomfortable, difficult or downright impossible. The conventional course of action involves using direct treatments (such as R.I.C.E., physical therapy, medical treatments, etc) to address each injury as it occurs.
While these treatments can effectively alleviate acute symptoms, they can’t address the larger systemic issue. Julia’s injuries for example, were not isolated, but rather, reflected a system-wide issue that was preventing her from running healthy.
Once Julia started viewing and treating her injuries from a whole-body perspective was she able to finally end the frustrating cycle of run—injury—treatment—run—injury—treatment (and so on) in which she’d been for years.
Her healing journey began with viewing her injuries as an opportunity to learn more about her body and use that knowledge to deepen and evolve her training and recovery habits.
“Acknowledging that something is off is a sign of maturity. Recognizing that pain is an opportunity to grow gives us the power to see how to correct the imbalance and move forward, taking on the pain as a journey. Then we see pain as an opportunity.”
–Sakyong Mipham, Running With the Mind of Meditation
This, I believe, is one of the most beautiful aspects of the running lifestyle: the limitless potential for deepening self-knowledge and the endless path of self-improvement, either as a runner or as a person.
Your body sends you daily signals about whether it’s primed for more training, desperate for rest or somewhere in between.
Are you listening?
When you recognize that pain or soreness as part of your body’s natural biofeedback system designed to keep you from doing further damage, then you can know to back off from training and prioritize restorative and healing practices.
It sounds straightforward, and yet, it’s so incredibly hard for many runners to do, myself included. For years I ran with hip pain that flared every time I bumped up my mileage or ran more on roads than trails. I put up with the pain because I expected running to hurt somewhat which justified my ignoring the problem instead of seeking a solution.
Well, I was sort of right, but not really.
The pain of pushing your body to new levels of athletic performance will hurt. That’s a good kind of pain, and is associated with what I call productive stress. It indicates that you’ve incurred just enough damage to your muscles and joints that the tissue can heal and become stronger before your next run.
What’s not so acceptable is the kind of pain that indicates severe damage. This is the kind of hurt from which you don’t easily recover before your next run. This kind of stress on the body is what I call unproductive stress.
The pain I had in my piriformis (hip muscle) was a result of too much unproductive stress. My body was breaking down.
Julia and I were doing all we could to treat the symptoms, and yet, the injuries kept coming back. What causing all that damaging stress?
Certainly, running form plays a very important role in the chronic-injury cycle (that could be a whole other blog post!), but suffice it to say that poor running posture or form creates a great deal of mechanical stress on the body and contributes to the unproductive stress load we’re talking about.
Other sources of unproductive stress come from running to much mileage, running too fast or not getting enough rest between workouts. As a result, the unproductive stress accumulates until the body breaks down.
So how do you end the chronic injury cycle once and for all?
The key is to lower your stress load so that the body has the capacity to fully heal.
Healing only occurs when the body is in a state of relaxation. This state, known as the relaxation response, creates the biological and hormonal shifts that are essential to the healing process.
These shifts reduce inflammation, support tissue repair, support restorative sleep and a myriad of other circumstances involved with healing.
Here are four ways you can lower your stress load and support the healing/recovery process:
1. Eat to recover.
During your cool down, or the final 10 minutes of your run, start preparing your recovery. Drink water and/or an electrolyte drink to rehydrate so that it’s easier for your stomach to digest the food you eat immediately after the run. The first 30 minutes after a run is the best time to take in a carbohydrate and protein snack, which will fuel the body’s repair processes.
2. Get more sleep.
Most of the body’s repair and healing processes take place while you sleep, so even small skimps on sleep really add up and have a significant impact on your daily energy and run quality. Set a reasonable, consistent bedtime and make your bedroom a sanctuary of sleep.
3. Mind your life stress.
Stressful situations, difficulties at work or in your personal life, fears and worries trigger the same kind of stress response in the body as does a hard workout. Actively managing how those stressful feelings affect you will reduce the inflammation and biochemical (hormonal) reactions that interfere with healing.
4. Reduce the mechanical stress of running.
Improve your posture in order to reduce running’s physical stress on the body aligning the joints and using natural running form to land with less force.
Find out more about how to apply these principles to your running with the quick start guide to Mindful Running below.
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