Month: September 2020

When a Runner Can’t Run

When a Runner Can’t Run

I was just looking at my blog stats and noticed someone had recently clicked on my post Ghost in the Shell. I couldn’t remember what the post was about (which I guess happens when you have a three-year-old blog) so I opened it. It’s from February 2018 – several lifetimes ago. At the time, I couldn’t run for a week because the ball of my foot was acting up, so I went to a podiatrist who recommended I didn’t run for a week. I was very sad that I couldn’t run for a week.

One week.

I sat down to write this post because I just spent four months not running. As someone who had gotten used to running 40-50 miles a week, 5-6 days a week, I wanted to write about what this experience has been like, as well as some things that have helped get me through it – while not losing all my fitness.

To recap, I was running just fine until last September, when I woke up one morning, the day after a particularly hard tempo workout, and found that my heels hurt when I walked. And then I discovered they hurt when I ran. They kept hurting over the next seven months while I trained for and ran (well, hobbled) a marathon, rested, started marathon training again, ran upstate after that marathon had been cancelled, and tried everything from acupuncture to massage to stretching to anti-inflammatory drugs to essential oils to prayer to fix my feet.

In April, I decided to take a break.

It made sense. The pandemic was in full swing, especially here in New York City. There were no races on the horizon. My running club had stopped in-person workouts. What was I even training for?

I was nervous about not running. I remember one of the last runs I did in April – a 6-mile run up to Riverbank State Park and back during which every single step hurt – thinking, “Why am I doing this? This isn’t enjoyable.” Still, I debated the idea of not running for a while. “If I can’t run, what am I going to do?” I thought.

Well, here’s what I did.

WALKING

For the first few weeks I didn’t run, my heels still hurt when I walked – but not that much. I wasn’t limping or anything. It wasn’t like hobbling after a marathon. More like a dull ache I could ignore here and there.

I needed to walk. I have a dog who needs to use the bathroom outside (still have not potty-trained him and, folks, it doesn’t look like I ever will). I need to walk him three times a day, ideally, for a total of an hour and a half to two hours. I also didn’t want to turn into a couch potato. I need to move.

My goal was to walk 5 to 8 miles a day, and that’s pretty much what I’ve done in the months since, with a few sub-5-mile days and a few in the 9-mile range.

As I got used to not running, my feet hurt less and less until I rarely noticed them. Looking back at my notes, the first week I didn’t feel any major soreness while walking was week 4 of this non-running period, the week of May 18th.

Speaking of which…

KEEPING A LOG

This is HUGE. I cannot express how important this has been to me – not just for this time period, but throughout the past few years. I’ve even thought of writing a whole separate post about my training log, what I put on it, why it works, and how you can make your own. It’s been so helpful and I don’t know what I would do without it.

My training log is a spreadsheet I made in Excel, initially stealing the idea from elite runner Allie Kieffer. I forget when I first saw it, but she tweeted an excerpt from her training plan a few years ago and I thought, “YES. THAT IS WHAT I MUST DO.” I created a spreadsheet for my first marathon training period, in 2018, and have kept it up ever since.

I won’t get into all the details of my spreadsheet here, but I will offer you a look at what it has looked like over the past few months.

The details of my workouts don’t really matter, which is good because this is impossible to read. Don’t worry about the details. I’ll just point out a few things:

  • It’s both a log and a schedule. Having this calendar helps me not only have a log of my past workouts, it offers me a look at my future workouts. In other words, it is as much for the future as it is for the past. Having this “thing” right in front of me, as something I can see with my own eyes, creates a sort of non-negotiable feeling surrounding workouts. If it’s on my calendar, as long as I am not sick (which, knock very hard on wood, I have not been since last December), I will do the workout. This helps me stick to a plan, and before I know it, working out is just one part of my morning routine. It’s also worth noting that I do not 1) have a job right now 2) have children 3) have a spouse 4) have anyone other than my dog who needs my attention. So, I have time for this.
  • I decide what to schedule and what to play by ear. I rotate through a series of six different upper body workouts, assigning those workouts different cell colors to make it easier to order them. The lower body workouts are not color-coded because I choose those based on how I feel that day – there’s no set order. I like the upper body to have a set schedule while playing the lower body by ear. Obviously, you can do this however you want. That’s the nice thing about creating your own training calendar – it’s yours. Use it however it works best for you.
  • I track walking miles. This is based off of my Garmin and includes all the walking I do while my watch is on my wrist (which is most of the day and every time I go outside). This includes purposeful walks, dog walks, walks to the store, walks across my apartment, and really anytime I swing my left arm. I’ve also added up each week’s mileage. I haven’t necessarily tried to hit any specific numbers, but sometimes seeing that I walked more than the previous week gives me a little motivation to try and beat that number the following week. It’s a nice metric to have when I don’t have running mileage.
  • I write weekly summaries. The column is chopped off because the details don’t matter (and would be hard to read anyway) but to the right of each row, I write a short paragraph about how I felt that week. This has been really helpful. I’ve made dietary tweaks here and there and it’s nice to look back and see things like, for instance, after a week or so of feeling sluggish I upped my carbs in Week 8 – and immediately started feeling better. I make note of how my feet feel, what shoes I wore, and anything else I can think of.

STRENGTH TRAINING

I can’t stress how important this has been for me, both in general and lately, and how important some kind of strength training is for everyone, runners or not.

I’ll summarize my advice.

  • Have a plan. My goal was to up my strength workouts from four times a week to six and have one day of dedicated stretching. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday are for upper body. Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday are for lower body. Monday – my usual day off from running – is a half hour of dedicated stretching. This may seem like a lot, but I don’t lift heavy, nor do I work out for very long. I just want to keep my muscles active and I like doing something every day. As redundant as it sounds, having a schedule helps me stick to a schedule. It’s a lot easier to keep doing something when there’s a clear plan in front of you every morning.
  • Find routines you like. I do free workouts from Fitness Blender because there are so many of them, they’re easy to access, I’m used to them, and did I mention they’re free? (Fun fact: my most popular post on this blog is the one I wrote in March 2018 about my favorite Fitness Blender workouts!) But I want to make the point that it doesn’t matter which workouts you do or from which website, as long as you do some kind of routine involving resistance. This could be bodyweight resistance, or workouts with bands. There are so many free videos out there. Look around and find something that fits.
  • Lift what you can lift. This isn’t the time to copy anyone else’s exact routine. If you can only lift 3 and 5-lb. weights, that’s fine. As you get stronger, you can buy heavier weights. That’s what I have done. Just do what you can.
  • Remember that it makes running again easier. A couple of years ago, I didn’t run for a whole month because I had a weird thing with my leg that turned out to be nothing. I did strength, cardio, and HIIT workouts that whole month. When I finally ran again, I felt so strong, like I hadn’t taken any time off. I am positive this is because I kept my muscles active that month. The more you move around and stay active, the easier it will be when you return to running.
  • It’s just good for you. Keeping your muscles strong is one of the best ways to stay healthy, especially as we age and lose muscle mass. And, no, it will NOT make you bulk up to look like a body builder. Case in point: I have been lifting consistently with very few breaks for about six years, and I am trying to get bigger muscles and I can’t. I probably need to lift heavier, as I lift weights between 8 and 15 lbs. I promise, if you stay in that range, you will not bulk up. Of course, if you want to bulk up, please do!

RUNNING MAINTENANCE

I consider “running maintenance” to be any the above, but there are a few additional things I’ve been doing that I hope will make it easy for me as I transition back into running.

  • Foam rolling. I used to do this all the time back when I was running, then I did not do it at all for two months, then I started doing it again, and when I did, IT HURT SO MUCH. But that initial pain only lasted a few days and I was back to my usual self. I do it for 12 minutes three times a week, before each upper body workout, focusing on my quads and calves. I still have very little understanding of why foam rolling helps, but it does.
  • IT band exercises. When I was having some IT band pain last year, I started doing extra warm-ups before my runs. I got them from Outside Online – scroll to the end of that article to see them. I still do them, three times a week, before my lower body routines. I skip the jump squats but do the five others: single leg squats, regular/side planks, glute bridges, leg lifts, and clam shells. Even though I’m not running, I’m trying to keep my running legs strong and prevent injury.
  • Nutrition. This is a really broad category that I can’t delve into as much as I probably should, but my general advice for anyone whose movement has suddenly diminished is to pay attention to what your body needs. You may need fewer calories now, fewer carbohydrates or protein or more of either – it all depends, and there isn’t one right answer for everybody. I know I need fewer calories when I’m not running, but I need to make sure it’s not too little. You still need to eat! It’s good to play around with different foods and see how your digestion may be affected by not running. I know mine is typically worse. Just pay attention to what you’re eating and see what works for you.

THE MENTAL PART

This might be the most important part.

Earlier in this post, I’d mentioned that when I was thinking about taking a break from running, I thought, “If I can’t run, what am I going to do?”

I didn’t mean, “What am I going to do with my time?” Rather, “What is going to happen to my brain?”

This has been a struggle. Everyone needs some kind of outlet for their stress and anxiety, some more than others. For me, walking has helped a lot. Just having my dog to walk gets me moving at least 5 miles a day. If not for him, I would absolutely need to get outside and take purposeful walks every day (which I still sometimes do anyway). I need to move.

During our afternoon walks this summer, my dog and I have been sitting down in the park anywhere from 20-60 minutes a day. I try to read during this time – another nice way to get my brain out of itself. My dog loves it. It’s nice to get away from the computer for a bit. Fresh air is good.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the summer on a couple of creative outlets: a new food blog (to come!) and family tree research. Both of these projects have been welcome distractions during a time in my life when I’ve had quite a bit of down time.

Keeping in touch with friends and family has been, let’s say, a challenge for everyone these past few months. I don’t live with anyone (other than my dog) and mostly only talk to other dog walkers, most of whom I don’t know by name. I am lucky to have an aunt who lives nearby and I visit her, outside and socially distant, every so often. Each time I leave, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. And then I realize, “Oh, I think I just needed to talk to another human being.”

Whatever it is that helps you feel more relaxed, less anxious, more energetic, less stagnant – if you are able to make time for something each day, I recommend it. Running used to release a lot of tension for me. Now that I don’t have it, I need these other things in order to feel somewhat sane.

I hope this post has been helpful. If anything, it helped me to get this out. Oh right, writing. Writing is good. If you feel anxious, I recommend writing. It’s not a cure, but it helps.

Finally, I am happy to report that I ran two miles last Thursday. My feet felt okay during, but my heels, arches, and calves were incredibly sore later that day (to the point of limping) and for the next few days. Today, five days later, I feel normal again, so I am hoping to run again soon.

One day at a time. Little by little. Baby steps.