Don’t Call It A Comeback

Listening to podcasts has been an effective way to get through a pool running session. If you’ve never pool run, imagine the lack of scenery and fresh air of treadmill running combined with the absence of a runner’s high, and you get the idea of the unique mental challenge that agua jogging presents. One podcast I’ve enjoyed listening to is “High Performance Mindset” hosted by Dr. Cindra Kamphoff, especially one recent episode in which she interviewed Dr. Mustafa Sarkar about his concept of resilience. Dr. Sarkar has done extensive research in this field and worked with many elite athletes, and it’s his position that resilience is not the ability to bounce back from a setback; rather, it is a proactive — rather than reactive — skill. More specifically, Dr. Sarkar’s work posits that resilience is the ability to use personal qualities to withstand stress and to maintain functioning under pressure, thus, there is no setback to come back from. This definition of resilience resonated strongly with me as tomorrow I finally return to running after being sidelined almost five weeks due to a freak injury.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After reaching my ultimate goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon last November, Trainer and I had decided to concentrate on running track and shorter distances for the first half of 2017. This was partly for a change of pace, but most importantly, in Trainer’s view, to stay healthy since I wouldn’t be running Boston until 2018. I was mostly on board with this plan, but like a true distance runner addict, I struggled to not run more than the prescribed max of 3-miles per run. I soon found myself defying Trainer’s instructions, and at our Friday morning session on December 30, I finally stated that I would not be running less and that the idea of staying healthy was not a good enough goal since it felt like a participation medal…

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Pre-run. So confident. Little did I know what await me.

Approximately 8 hours later, I found myself face down on Sunset Boulevard with my left knee in agonizing pain. On what was supposed to be a fun 6-mile run, I had tripped on a wire left out on the sidewalk and landed squarely on my left knee cap. However, having fallen before a few times, I dusted myself off and ran four more miles to finish my mileage. Because runner.

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Not so confident anymore.

Although the pain was worse than my other falls, it wasn’t until the following Monday that I felt the need to have it checked out. I went to the ER, and one hour, one X-ray, and one set of crutches later, I hobbled out with the news that the X-ray indicated an avulsion fracture, meaning a fraction of the bone had been torn away from the patella. Yikes. It was at about this time that I would have given anything for that participation medal of good health.

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This diagnosis meant no running or even any cardio involving my legs for six weeks. In my twenty years of running, this was unchartered territory. Through any injury, I was able to at least do spinning or elliptical or the above-mentioned pool running to maintain cardiovascular conditioning and some muscle tone. Now, instead of going full-press into track season and running dreaded 600s, I found myself on crutches with six long weeks stretching ahead. And this is where Dr. Sarkar’s definition of resilience came into play.

One of my strongest character traits is being proactive. This quality manifests itself in my having put in place a solid foundation and structure through which I have navigated not only this and other physical tests, but also general life situations. Naturally, as in this case, I was not pleased with this occurrence. Of course there were moments of fear, doubt, and anger; however, through years of experience, and trial and error, I defaulted to a system that works.

The first building block is a spiritual practice. For almost twenty-five years, I’ve spent almost every morning with some quiet time. I usually spend a half hour in prayer, contemplation, reading, and writing, and this practice gets my head (mostly) straight and sets the intention for the day. It is not a guarantee that I’m not going to have hard times, but like any muscle, working this spiritual muscle provides a solid baseline, so that when difficult times do come down, I am in a better position to handle them. I am certain that the mostly positive mindset I maintained was the result of my faith and the purposeful attention I paid it.

Second, I have good people in place. Listen, as smart as I like to think I am, I only have so much headspace and expertise, so I outsource when necessary. For example, I have an awesome CPA, who advises me on what to do with my investments; OK, full disclosure, he is also my husband. Ha. And, in this case, I was aggressive in seeking the right people for my knee. I went to the best orthopedic doctors in Los Angeles, which meant that I could accept their diagnosis and prescription with full confidence, and thereby not have to waste time getting a second opinion.

Further, I had the right person to get me through the next six weeks. Not only did Trainer have expertise in rehabbing knee injuries, he had already instilled a system of prehab that I knew would hold some of my conditioning and possibly even accelerate my recovery. In emphasizing prehab in our sessions, we had been proactive so that in situations like these, we would not lose too much ground. Trainer and I hardly missed a beat in our training. I didn’t take any days off. When I couldn’t use my legs, he improvised, and I did my upper body work while sitting on an exercise ball. We did more core. Like a lot more core. Too much core. No really, I was over it.

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Too many planks.
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No wheels; no problem.

Ultimately, the MRI results determined that there was no fracture (the floating piece may have been an old injury), and that instead my issue was a strained quad tendon. Although I no longer needed crutches, I still could not resume running until three more weeks, which would bring the total to five. However, just as Dr. Sarkar proposed, resiliency does not have to imply a marked setback. Below are some photos of the type of work I’ve been able to do while injured; except for not being able to run track or road running, I am functioning at a high level despite my knee not being at 100%.

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And tomorrow morning I will run for the first time in five weeks. Trainer says if this active running “hiatus” works, then we’ll do this every year*, further adding to the veracity of Dr. Sarkar’s argument. I mean, can it really be a comeback if a five-week running break is built into the training plan? Regardless, it is comforting to know that despite not having my running legs under me, the learning curve will be much shorter due to the solid foundation and training structure that I had put into place prior to this injury, and now instead of trying to catch up, I can look forward. In fact, my new training journal arrived today to commemorate this new chapter. Here’s to picking up where I left off.

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Hope everyone has a great running week!

*He is just kidding. I hope. There is no way I’m doing this. Just saying.

Attacking from the Flank: Part 1 of 2

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” – Archimedes

If you want to run faster, then you have to run faster. Or, to get better at running, you have to run more. Seems like this is patently obvious. I mean, practice makes perfect, right?

Yes and no. There have been other life areas when attacking the problem head-on has seemingly made sense, but then my experience has shown that sometimes, instead of going at It more and harder, The Problem will sort itself out (or die of neglect) by backing off or turning my attention elsewhere. Now that doesn’t mean to say that I’ve ignored these problems or the tasks that were necessary to address them minimally, but focusing on more indirect aspects has also solved problems and without so much stress on the brain.

Well, in an attempt to get faster race times, I have indeed run more and run faster. Only I may have hit the tipping point where to attempt to do more of either at my current fitness level leads to my body breaking down. The latest injury is a piriformis issue, and on a broader scale begins with the tensor fascia lata (TFL) muscle; however, like the IT band issues I had, it stems from my weak ass glutes. It would seem that running more at this point will not only not get me faster, but will simply continue to cause me nagging injuries. So how the heck am I supposed to get faster?!?

While I had already planned to bulk up the other areas of my training, this latest injury has given me no choice but to do so, and for the past four weeks I have been doing little else but cross-training. I know that I mentioned some cross-training in former blog posts, but I clearly wasn’t doing it with any type of intensity. I mean, I thought I was, but I think I was just really giving myself a participation trophy for getting to the gym. Not to say that it doesn’t count for something, but in comparison, well, I’ve been doing one hour sessions with Trainer, and each time I pretty much sweat like I’ve gone a few rounds of sparring. I’m no longer given the luxury of using a lighter weight or doing an easier exercise, and I am generally sore for 1-2 days afterwards. I never used to get sore – not even when I did 20-mile long runs!

Pre-workout. Smiling and not such a hot mess.
Pre-workout. Smiling and not such a hot mess.
On some level I wonder if in an effort to be responsible and mindful about being in my late 40s and that “Hey, let’s not do anything too crazy” voice, I’ve been babying myself. There’ve been a couple times when Trainer has had me do exercises that I would NEVER do. Like those back extensions on that contraption where you hang upside down for a second. While holding a weight. I never got on that thing because I have a bad lower back, and I’d just do easy stretching for that area and stay away from that shit. As I was hanging upside down holding that weight, I thought “Well, that’s it. Now my lower back is going to be ruined.” It was super hard…but surprise. I wasn’t ruined at all.

Some days we do upper body and core, and the other days it’s legs and core. In both cases, we rarely use weights. For legs, we do drills – some could be called “running” – that address balance, quickness, and strength. I hesitate to call it running because it’s more footwork and the longest distance I’ll run is 10 yards.

Turns out I'm very good at running backwards.
Turns out I’m very good at running backwards.
Anyway, I’ve been doing this for about three weeks now, and last week I finally tried running three miles. I committed to myself that I’d do my best to stay light and on the midfoot for as long as I could. Up until now, the longest my body would hold up in this form was .5 miles at a time, and generally after 1-2 days of this, my calves would be exploding, leading me to quit and go back to my usual form. Friends, I did all three miles on my midfoot! In fact, I did 3-mile runs three days in a row with no serious calf issue. Now, these are not easy runs. I can’t zone out, and I definitely have to think about it. I feel my running. But it wasn’t that bad, and my body was up for it…So I guess that inadvertently I got stronger as a runner. Even though I’m not running!

Frustratingly, the butt problem is lingering, even after one week completely off and two weeks of relative rest. It’s the most random thing. Whether running or post-glute workout, the annoyance can feel like a “2,” but it can also completely disappear or be a “1.” (I guess it never truly disappears because I know something is there.) I’m not sure if this is a get stronger in other areas and this goes away type of problem. It’s quite unlike the IT band problem where I just couldn’t run because it was too painful. If it really is sticking I may have to take off a couple weeks completely (I’m going to Europe next month so that won’t be a problem.)

Anyway, since the rear is still problematic, my mileage (ha!) is staying low. But I’m not really minding because I can feel my entire body getting stronger, and I feel like ultimately this will benefit my running. And it’s not like I just “feel” this way. Being able to run those nine miles on the midfoot was a real surprise and triumph. I never thought I’d be strong enough to do that. Also…see below. Trainer and I went out to the track again after I got the green light from ART guy, and I have to say, even I think my form and speed look better. OK, it might just be that Trainer is a terrible cameraman and took a blurry video, so that I look like a Brown Flash, but I don’t think I look as hobbity as I did in the first video.

So basically, by doing cross-training and not running for two weeks, I may be getting stronger as a runner while NOT running?! This seems crazy, but it kind of feels that way. I have now gotten used to being sore, because I know I’m pushing myself. And I like not being soooo careful with my body and treating it like it could break at any minute. So, for now, I’ll keep addressing my running via non-running means and hoping it will eventually translate into faster times. Or my Trainer will kill me. I’m still not sure how this will go. Stay tuned.

So You Think You Can Run

It should be natural. Put one foot in front of the other and go. It’s not that complicated, right?

I guess for most people this is true. And honestly, my form probably wouldn’t matter too much if I was running shorter distances, but the marathon distance has been humbling for me in many respects, and this may be the latest lesson. Upon reviewing my most recent marathon photos, it’s easily noted that they reveal more than just the unlikely occurrence of a hobbit shuffling down the streets of Ventura, they also highlight a few issues. But I jump ahead. Let’s dial it back.

“You should be like a deer skipping across a frozen pond.”

Back in the mid-90s, my track coach gave our running group this imagery in response to questions regarding our running form. The aspiration to be this graceful creature has always stuck with me, even though my form consistently shouted that I was more likely to bust through the ice and drown. One can dream, right?

After my fourth marathon in 2012, I saw my race photo and what jumped out at me — in addition to my ginormous head — was my inefficient arm swing and how I pulled my arms across my body. Alas, it would turn out to be a problem much lower that was hindering me.

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Post-marathon I went to see someone that my FMC had used for gait analysis. He filmed me on the treadmill in my regular easy running form, and then we watched the video together. He then pointed out the adjustments to be made and watched me run in the better running form to make sure that I understood his instructions. Honestly, the evaluator didn’t have to tell me– much less show me – what needed improvement. You could hear it. “THUMP, THUMP, THUMP.” Yup, I’m more like a Clydesdale lumbering across the plains than that light-footed deer my track coach mentioned. Surprisingly, though, he did say my form was mostly fine and that it was just a minor adjustment that needed to be made: shifting more to a midfoot strike. I guess I’m a heel striker, and sure enough, when we did some practice running employing the midfoot strike, I sounded more like that elegant deer.

I totally thought this would be an easy thing to do, especially since I planned to do it incrementally, but every time I tried to switch my foot strike, my calves would get jacked up. This was a big issue in 2012 as this was my first year of really committing to training for the marathon distance, and I suffered many calf strains even before this attempt at form adjustment. In fact, later that year I had to take six weeks off due to Achilles tendonitis. So even though every now and again I’d make an attempt at changing my footstrike, I pretty much put it on the backburner. All I wanted was to not have tight calves and stop wearing compression socks all the time.

Fast forward to this year’s Mountains 2 Beach Marathon. During the marathon, our pace leader Tammy turned back to me and told me that my stride was too heavy, and that if I didn’t lighten it up, I’d pay for it later. Now keep in mind, there were about twenty people in our pace group, along with a hundred or so marathoners in our near vicinity as we’re charging down the road at a good clip, and she could hear my footstrike! You guys, I don’t weight that much – how am I making so much noise?!?

So once again, during the first week of the Ventura Marathon training cycle this summer, I attempted to change to a midfoot strike at like intervals of .10 of a mile for each, or every other, mile. My calves immediately tightened up, and I got scared and stopped asap. I did not want to stop the momentum of a marathon PR and no post-marathon injury. I just wanted to keep training. Later, midfoot strike.

Now we’re here.

On my second session with Trainer – before I got the no-run directive from ART doctor – we met at the track, so he could watch me run for a bit. He asked me to do a warm-up jog around the football field…he later told me that he thought I was going to fall over. I mean, he’s not totally out-of-bounds for thinking that. After all, I did fall on a training run and during the M2B marathon and still have a nasty little scar to bear witness to it.


So at the track we did a lot of warm-up drills, which were basically to get me focused on being light on my feet and driving my knees upwards. In addition, in most drills we do, Trainer reminds me to keep my arms in tight, moving front and back, and at 90 degree angles. I guess the hope is to avoid this.

The smile stays, but the arm swing needs some work.
The smile stays, but the arm swing needs some work.

Finally after all this foreplay, we got to the main event. We took all the technique I worked on during our warm-up drills out onto the track: proper arm swing, knees up, and light feet. In fact, he wanted me to exaggerate lifting my knees up, so I could get used to it. The actual track workout was a brief 8 x 200 with him shouting out any corrections. Here’s a video of one of the later 200s. Remember, the form is a little exaggerated.

I had hoped to see a video of my initial warm-up jog (i.e., the “before” my form adjustment), but it was missing from his phone. I suspect his phone rejected it: “WTF is that?!” Despite the correction, it’s obvious I’m still not a deer skipping across the pond. In fact, my husband saw the video and said I looked injured…I am – are you happy?! However, believe it or not, it is an improvement. Since I don’t have a “before” video, this photo from the Ventura Marathon will have to do. Knees not as high, a little more of a heel strike, and a forward lean that hints at the possibility of the runner falling down.

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During the later stages of the marathon so it’s not always this bad.

During one of the later 200s, Trainer said I could relax my form a little and not drive my knees up as high. When I finished that 200, he told me I wasn’t ready yet and that I had slipped back into some bad habits when I relaxed. Here’s the interesting thing: He didn’t have to tell me. My butt had immediately started to hurt when I went back into bad form. On all the 200s that I ran with good – albeit exaggerated – form, my butt never hurt. Upon more research, I read some articles that stated that one way of preventing/treating piriformis syndrome is to shift to a midfoot strike. Now, Trainer never actually uses these words, and maybe that’s good because my previous attempts at switching to a midfoot strike have freaked me out. He just focuses on lightness and keeping my knees up. For some reason, my brain can process this easier.

Of course my calves were jacked up afterwards, but I think the overall strengthening work we’re doing will help address that. Ultimately, he said I just have to work through it. “Luckily” I don’t have an upcoming race, much less a marathon, so I have the time and willingness to focus on this. For now.

I’m not sure where this leaves me. The idea of adjusting my form at the age of 48 is a bit daunting. The idea of trying to run like this for 26.2 miles is fucking overwhelming. For now, I’m just taking it a workout at a time and going along with the process. I feel stronger despite the fact that I’m injured, and even if I take away only a fraction of what I’ve been learning, I think it will benefit my overall training.

So that’s the running update.

Hope everyone has a great running week!