Right now, I am at the point where my foot is essentially 95% healed, and I’m ramping my running back up.
Cue music: “Highway to the Danger Zone”……
You see, this is the magical moment where the bones are healed enough to need adequate loading in order to reach full strength and function. This means running every other day (yippee!!), but crucially it also means having the discipline to not overdo it. And to listen to my body. And put my pride and perfectionism to the side.
This is, in many ways, the hardest part. It’s the part where I have to test my growth over the past 9 months. Have I really become more patient? Stronger? Less perfectionistic? More realistic? Hell, will my body even remember how to run, let alone with decent pace or technique?! And then the toxic seeds of doubt creep in: what will my fellow runners think of me now? What if I’m not good enough? What if I never get back to where I was before I broke my foot? Will I ever beat my husband in an Ironman again?
Of course, it’s highly likely I will come back stronger than before, will continue to kick my husband’s butt in many an Ironman to come, will have learnt a boatload about myself and my body and most importantly, learnt how to train more efficiently and with less risk (cue Britney Spears: Stronger. Yep, I went there). This is my “logical voice” talking. But we all know, that illogical voice is the one that dominates when we have been out of the loop for some time.
Two weeks ago, I readied myself to go to running squad for the first time in over a year. It’s a super friendly bunch of runners who I have trained with throughout all my Ironmans in the last 5 years. Saturday mornings are usually a sociable 8-12km group run, with coffee afterwards. There is a front pack, of which I’m usually a member, and then there’s everything back to a 5km jog/walk group. In all, we have about 50 people turn up, so it’s not like I would be lonely.
Only I chickened out. Why? Because according to my return to run program from my Ortho, I still have to walk 2 minutes for every 8 minutes of running. And, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop and have the discipline to walk when everyone else was still running. And my pride didn’t want the slower runners to catch up (there I said it. I may be the world’s most competitive person). A week later and I decided to try again. I took off at decent pace with a largish pack, and I did manage to stop and walk when I was supposed to. It was harder than getting through an airport on crutches, I’ll tell you that much. My heart and soul just wanted to keep on running!!
Whether you are getting back into training after an injury or after an eating disorder (or both), the hardest part is often sticking to the plan. I know from coaching beginner run groups that the three aspects of training that “normal” people struggle with most are 1) motivation; 2) fitness; and 3) being able to mentally push themselves. This is not the case for athletes or those of us with the ED birdy on our shoulder. These are some strategies that have helped me over the last couple of months:
1) Front and Centre: How Far You’ve Come (and how quickly it could go wrong). Its human nature to compare yourself to others, and even moreso for uber-competitive athletes like myself. There’s a bunch of people you used to be faster than lapping you around the park. But that’s OK, because they don’t have a metal plate in their reconstructed foot. They haven’t walked every step of that hard road to recovery. When the temptation to push yourself overwhelms you, it’s important to remember how broken you were and how quickly you could return there (ie another stress fracture or overuse injury). Sometimes fear can be a very good motivator! Write it on your hand, stick a photo in your wallet – whatever it takes, a not-so-subtle reminder is key.
2) Plan Ahead: The Insecurity Factor. As a flip side to point 1, remember that we are all humans and we do all have our own story and our own journey. When that little evil voice starts sprouting doubts in your mind, squash the insecurity by fighting back with basic logic. Those runners know what you’ve been through, know what kind of an athlete you are, and really couldn’t care less that you are running slower than you used to. They’re more than likely impressed by your motivation and determination, not judging you for your pace. They’re likely happy just to see you back at squad. Or they may not have even noticed that you’re not as fit as you were (you’d be surprised how remarkably un-observative “normal” people can be, really….you’d be shocked….not everyone can recite what the whole table ate at lunchtime and what times they ran on the track for the last 4 years….that’s a very unique trait!).
3) No Negotiations. Even if you feel like Paula Radcliffe today. Any changes to the plan MUST be pre-approved by your Physio/sports doc ahead of time. As with any rehab program, you have days where you just float like a butterfly….and days you feel like an elephant. Just enjoy the fact that you feel great, cherish every step, and know that if you stick to the plan, it’ll be that much sooner before you get to have another great training session. If that fails, revert to point 1.
4) Focus on how Amazing Your Achievements Are. And celebrate them. Who cares if your old training buddies smashed out 10km in sub-40min pace? YOU just did 36 minutes of quality running, and you had the discipline to stop and walk, and your technique was great, and you are coming back from major foot surgery, and you get to be outdoors in the fresh air running…you get the picture. Gratitude is the best emotion on the planet. Use it to your advantage. Write it in your training diary. You’re doing awesome. Repeat.
5) Enlist a Training Buddy who is on board. Does not have to be of the human breed. If you are going to squad, suss out who is about your pace at the moment or perhaps also coming back from injury. Or grab a friend who is willing to do walk breaks with you. My favourites for this are my husband and my dogs, the three of them are always whinging that I run too fast normally so they are happy for the walk breaks – much happier than I am!
6) Nutrition: ensure that you are adjusting your eating plan for the increased exercise load. You need to be eating for training, recovery AND healing – the triple threat. Bones have a lag time of about 3-4 weeks with increased load, so when increasing run kilometres it is best to have a training week that is about 50% of your normal current load for that week, to let your bones catch up and get stronger. Push over that and you may find another stress fracture. So if you are up to running say 40km a week, on the fourth week, stick to 20km and you can add some walking or cross training. It’s an annoying but foolproof investment, and any running coach on the planet worth their salt will stick to this plan for injury prevention. You’ll actually come out the other side feeling fitter, as your body will have “absorbed” your training up to that point and feel fresh again. Bonus!
7) Get a Hero or Two. Professional Triathlete Jesse Thomas actually broke his foot during Wildflower triathlon 2013 and subsequently had surgery about a month before I did the exact same thing. He has blogged about his rehab, the highs and lows, and I have found it hugely helpful following his progress along the way. His wife Lauren Fleshman is also a great role model and her blogs are highly entertaining for any athlete who has faced injury or childbirth and beyond. As a side note – be wary of Ironman athletes claiming to be recovered from their eating disorders. There are a lot of them around who hide behind “Ironman/triathlon” as their excuse to continue with disordered eating patterns. Chrissie Wellington’s book “A Life Without Limits” is probably one of the worst so don’t go there if you are still recovering. Same goes for any running or ultraendurance bio if you are recovering from a running injury – it’s like motivation on steroids to go do something really stupid!
I hope that helps! The journey back to health can be a long and lonely one, especially once you get towards the end and on the surface everything looks fine. Stay strong and remember how far you have come. Most importantly, reward your body for the amazing job it has done by nourishing it and letting it bloom into its full potential. It will serve you very well if you treat it right.
Happy Training xo