The other night, I prepared my version of an egg muffin for dinner: two locally sourced eggs fried on a toasted, buttered whole-wheat English muffin (extra gluten, please), topped with Wisconsin pepper jack cheese and placed in the oven just long enough to make the cheese melt, with a little salt and pepper. (This is a go-to meal on days when I don’t want to use my brain to come up with a dinner plan.) It was great, and along with sliced apples, some citrus, and a salad, it was all we needed for a fulfilling meal.
An hour later, my lovely wife Jen found me eating a bowl of Cinnamon Life at the kitchen table. “Um, what are you doing?” she asked. “Eating cereal. I wasn’t full,” I said. She raised an eyebrow and said, “You do realize that you’re not training for a marathon now, right?”
For the first time in 3 years, I am not actively training for a big race because I am battling an injury. And by “battling an injury,” I mean “sitting on the couch watching Season 4 of ‘Portlandia.'” Jen noticed that I hadn’t cut down on my caloric intake since I stopped running (I noticed, too: my innie belly button is deeper and I’m having trouble buttoning some pairs of jeans). As with most of my running injuries, this one was self-inflicted. After my last marathon, I was so disappointed in my preparation and/or effort that I actually increased my mileage in the months after it. I’m a low-mileage guy anyway because of long-standing knee problems, and I knew that every time I increased my mileage in the past there were repercussions, but I thought I could be smart about it this time.
Not so much. I developed anterior tibial tendinitis. That’s a fancy medical term for constant throbbing pain on the top of my foot that also extends up past the ankle. Initially, I wouldn’t notice it until the middle of the night, when the pain woke me up and I could not find a comfortable position to put my right foot in. I tried resting for a few days, but it returned when I ran again. Then I took off a week and tried running; it showed up on both feet after that. Now it is sore even if I only wear laced shoes. So I decided to shut things down for a month to 6 weeks.
That’s the important thing to know about the vast majority of my running injuries: if I have pain, I stop running for a while and it will get better. Over the years, I’ve dealt with tons of different types of injuries that have all improved with rest. I have tried running through injuries, but that almost never works. The problem is that I picture myself as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride,” absorbing the six-fingered Count Rugen’s stabs only to get stronger and screaming ever louder, “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!”
If you’ve ever suffered through a conversation among runners, you’re familiar with how they try to one-up each other with their running-related injuries: Runner A: “I’m running a 5K this weekend with a broken toe.” Runner B: “Oh, is that all? I ripped my Achilles tendon in a 10K last week and still won the race.” Runner C: “You guys are lucky. My last marathon, my groin literally fell off at the halfway point, and I had to carry it to the finish line.” Runners A and B: “We have no idea what that means. But we are impressed.”
I don’t want to bore you with that type of litany of injuries that I have had over the years. Okay, actually I do. Here is an incomplete list: heel blisters, sprained toes, dead toenails (if you are thinking of marrying and/or sleeping with a runner, keep the lights off in the bedroom or make them wear socks), calf strains, glute strains, low back pain, iliotibial band syndrome, shoulder and neck soreness, bloody nipples (yes, bloody nipples), plantar fasciitis, and all sorts of knee pain (patellar tendinitis, loose cartilage, “runner’s knee,” bursitis, chondromalacia).
My collegiate running career ended prematurely because of a stress fracture in my left leg. Well, that and my idiotic plan to recover from it: I was so afraid to sit out practice and fall behind in my development as a freshman that I decided to run through the pain for a week, until I ended up on crutches for 2 months. I didn’t fully recover from the injury for a few years.
The plantar fasciitis and knee pain are like old friends. Old friends who I hate. I wear shoes all the time for the plantar fascia pain, and my knee soreness, although nearly always there, is not bad enough to warrant any sort of intervention.
A lot of these injuries, I have learned, have to do with a weak core. Strengthening my glutes, abs, low back muscles, and hips, along with cross training and reduced mileage, are a pathway to pain-free (or at least reduced-pain) running. Otherwise, I’m forced to take extended timeouts from running.
A few years ago, I ran into an older relative of mine at a wedding. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time because he was on the wrong side of a divorce. He asked me how my marathoning was going. I knew that he had been a runner and a more adventurous type than I was (think “running with the bulls in Pamplona” adventurous), and I asked him if he was still running marathons. “No,” he said, “I overtrained by running a half marathon daily for years and years, and now my knees can’t sustain any sort of exercise.” And then he added, as if he saw the gears turning in my brain, “And don’t you do the same thing as me. Protect your knees. Reduce your mileage. It’s too late for me, but not for you.”
Sage advice; I just wish I wasn’t sharing my “I crossed the finish line carrying my groin” story with him at the time.