With the end of the school track season, I felt I finally had time to address and resolve the now-chronic pain in my right lower leg. For the first time in months, I had enough time to warm up properly before my runs and start gently. I was free to run every day on soft trails, if I liked. I was able to stretch, roll, and ice afterwards. There was nothing standing in the way of my recovery… except me, of course.
At first, as I returned to running daily, things seemed to be looking up. In general, the runs did get better. My breathing evened out. After several days, I could go a little farther and felt better doing it. But now that I was able to pay attention, I also noticed more: specifically, the pain in my ankle never really got better although after a couple of miles I was able to tune it out. I noticed, too, that there was considerable discomfort in the right calf, Achilles, and hamstring, as well as pain behind my right knee. This meant that I would start runs at a shambling pace until everything had a chance to stretch out, and then I would start running faster and more easily. Usually after a few miles, I felt almost OK. But then the next day, everything would hurt more.
A week ago Tuesday I went to the track, craving the companionship of teammates and the routines of an honest-to-goodness workout. My plan was to run the first 400m of each of their (longer) reps. The pace wouldn’t be too hard, and the rest would be luxurious. After the usual warmup and strides, during which the pain in my ankle continued at exactly the same level it had been at for weeks, I began the workout. The first 400m (82) was a shock to the system, and I was breathing quite hard afterwards. But since I had so much more rest than everyone else, I started the second rep more or less recovered. The second 400m was another 82, but felt a little better. And so it went, until the last rep. By now, I felt like I had remembered how to run again, and with ample recovery, I just focused a little more on the last one and ran 76.
The next day, my ankle felt exactly the same, but my hamstring was terribly sore and balky. I dragged myself through one of the most unpleasant twenty-minute runs of my life. It was hard to pinpoint what was wrong. It just felt like nothing was working right. Once again, it seemed as though I had forgotten how to run. The charmed feeling that had come to me as I sped through my final 400 on the Harvard Track the previous evening seemed now to have been a mirage.
The track workout on Tuesday hadn’t made any beneficial difference to my physical state, but it was fortunate for a different reason. During the jog between two intervals, I asked Jonathan for a favor. I told him that since I seemed to be chronically incapable of asking for help, I needed him to tell me in no uncertain terms that I should reach out to Sam Peck, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach and Licensed Muscular Therapist that had treated Jonathan in the past. Jonathan obliged, and promised me that if I didn’t follow through he would nag me until I did. The “commitment strategy” worked. I sent an email to Sam he next day, and made an appointment for Friday.
Who was Sam? I had met him at the BU track while we were still indoors after Jonathan had asked Sam to come give a presentation. I liked what I heard about his approach and was reassured by Jonathan’s recommendation. Sam had worked with Jonathan and also with Tyler several years ago when Tyler was recovering from a back injury. I thought about scheduling time with Sam in March, but in the midst of coaching, it fell through the cracks. Now, wanting more than everything to enjoy a summer full of running, I finally put contacting Sam at the top of my to-do list.
As so often happens, the simple act of “giving up” on being able to solve the problem alone caused a shift in my perspective. For one thing, I began to think about the last three months in aggregate, and I began to consider the possibility that they might be part of a larger pattern. For the first time, I started to wonder whether the initial injury had just been bad luck. Why should I have gotten that particular injury in the first place? Why there? Was it really so simple as running in lighter spikes a few times?
Particularly revealing was filling out the medical history for Sam, including a history of my major running injuries over the years:
- Right calf muscle strain/tear
- Right knee meniscal tear and arthroscopic surgery
- Right iliopsoas strain (mis-diagnosed as right hamstring strain)
- Right peroneal tendon strain
In addition, I realized my right hamstring was always tighter than the left, and that on long runs my right hip flexors always fatigue before the left. As Sherlock Holmes might say, this was highly suggestive.
Sam’s assessment included various tests of functional strength and mobility. I was asked to balance on each leg, perform one-legged squats, push in various planes against resistance. The tests revealed weakness, as well as inhibition of key muscle groups. The areas of weakness — likely the result of old injuries and/or the activities of daily life — manifested themselves in movement patterns that shifted stress from one part of my body to another, from one side to the other. My whole body had adapted to those movement patterns. In some ways, this was what I had always feared and the realization was simultaneously a disappointment and a relief. I sat there thinking:
I don’t just have an injury; I have a body that has been programmed to produce injuries.