Preparing for a Marathon can be likened to climbing a giant mountain – one of those rugged and beautiful snow-capped sorts that I admired in St. Moritz in Switzerland a few years ago. Getting it right is a fine art. You start by mapping out a route with your team, which you hope will have you arrive at the mountain’s peak at the ‘perfect’ time. As you stand at its base, you acknowledge the challenge ahead, feeling a little daunted but excited. With your equipment in tow and support crew nearby, you take your first steps towards your destination. You have made a commitment - there is no turning back!
Throughout the journey your energy and emotions swing up and down like your heart rate graph. There are times when you feel overwhelmed, fatigued and unsure as to whether you can continue. You lean on your support crew and have to TRUST that your body and mind will pull you through. At other points you feel strong, energised and empowered to achieve great things. Weather changes, niggles, sleepless nights and unplanned obstacles along the way may require tweaks to your plan. If you do find yourself deviating from the path you had mapped out, BELIEVE that you will find a new way to reach the top. Challenges are character-building and make the final view more spectacular. When you finally reach the peak, you fill your lungs with fresh air and offer your well-trained legs the rest they have been waiting for. During the taper you feel antsy but you know that overdoing it at this point could send you rolling downhill. Yes, the climb to the start line was tough but your reward for the hard work awaits – it is time to race.
WHAT IF I DON’T MAKE IT TO THE TOP IN TIME?
Unfortunately, some obstacles can prevent us from reaching the mountain's peak in time for the starter’s gun. Injuries tend to be the main culprits. As much as we would love to block them out, injuries but must be respected if we want to continue moving forwards.
When I was diagnosed with a bone stress injury in my leg over two months ago, my initial feelings were disappointment and fear. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to race my goal Marathon a fortnight later, disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to hit the trails or enjoy the company of my training squad for at least a month and fearful of the unknowns….“How long would it take to be pain-free? When would I feel normal running again and when would I be able to race?”
At the same time I was relieved to have a diagnosis that explained my pain and furthermore that we had caught the injury relatively early. Deep down I hoped that I hadn’t slipped too far backwards and that I would be able to navigate to another mountain peak nearby. With appropriate management, I was confident that my injury would make a full recovery. Hope and belief in the plan are powerful motivators.
Injuries are one of our body’s ways of signalling that something needs to change. Below are some strategies that I have followed over the past few months to identify what needed to change and to give myself the best opportunity to heal. For anyone working through injury challenges at present, I hope these are of benefit. If you have any strategies to add, please let me know!
DETERMINE THE CAUSE & CONTRIBUTING FACTORS
Being curious and seeking information can be overwhelming but if you use trusted sources it can also be very empowering. One of most important steps is to communicate with your coach and health care providers to work out the most likely cause of your injury. Below are some of the questions I ask myself.
Have there been any recent changes to my overall training load or environment? Has work / life been busier or more stressful lately? Have I been running in different shoes or on different surfaces? Has my dietary intake been meeting my energy needs? Have I been allowing myself to recover adequately between sessions? Have I been nursing a niggle which may have changed my movement patterns?
Since 2008 I have recorded all of my training and a few quick notes about recovery, footwear, how I felt etc. in a diary. I love the process of writing down goals, documenting my training, reflecting on my races and summarising my week. My training data is also uploaded automatically from my watch to the Garmin Connect and Final Surge phone Apps, which my coach and health care providers can check. These methods of monitoring come in particularly handy when I have an injury, as I am able to easily look back at my training and recovery patterns.
CREATE A COMPREHENSIVE BUT ADAPTABLE REHAB PLAN
Once you have determined the contributing factors it is time to address them. Whilst you may be able to pin your injury down to one main cause, your plan should consider all potential players. The more puzzle pieces you can find and fit together, the more likely you are to make a complete and sustainable recovery. Your rehabilitation goals should be specific but it is vital to listen to and respond to your body throughout. If your program says to start walk/jogging on a particular day and you don’t feel ready, let your coach/team know and adjust accordingly. If a healthcare professional has recommended a particular exercise that doesn’t seem to be working for you, it is important to speak up – the more information they can get, the better.
DOING NOTHING AT ALL CAN BE VERY PRODUCTIVE
Rest is described by Merriam-Webster as “freedom from activity or labour”. I used to try and fill every waking minute with some form of stimulus, whether it was training, working, learning, socialising, creating, playing…. the list goes on. I wanted to make the most of every day and every opportunity (as I still do) and rest seemed like poor use of my time. Over the years I have come to realise that keeping busy isn’t necessarily the way to make gains. In fact, being still and calm can be incredibly productive. Recovery Physiologist, Dr Shona Halson’s statement, “you only benefit from the training you recover from” reinforces this point. Understanding that rest allows me to absorb my training, whilst also helping to prevent burnout has motivated me to incorporate it into key training and work days. Since becoming a Mum I have had less control over my time and fewer opportunities to sit still. My recent injury reminded me to cut back on non-essential actions and to make the most of every opportunity to rest my legs, clear my mind and take a few deep breaths. Whilst my moment of relaxation may only last for a couple of minutes before an energetic toddler starts tugging on my arm, I always feel brighter afterwards.
SLEEP LIKE BETTER THAN A BABY
I have never been one to nap during the day but I certainly appreciate a quality sleep at night. After one poor sleep I notice a change in my mood and motivation. When a few bad sleeps are grouped together, I find myself catching colds and picking up niggles or injuries more easily.
Prior to becoming a Mum I would consistently give myself the opportunity to sleep for about 8-9 hours at night. My coach Adam said that consistent quality sleep was one of my strengths as an athlete, suggesting it helped me to absorb high volumes of training. Parenthood and quality sleep don’t tend to go hand in hand so in recent months I have been monitoring my sleep with a wearable device (Oura ring) which tracks my heart rate, movement and temperature during the night. Checking the results can be daunting but the information I receive helps me to decide when I should prioritise rest or conversely, can push myself a bit harder. The act of monitoring my sleep has also motivated me to improve my sleep habits, for example going to bed a bit earlier to account for toddler disruptions.
NUTRITION AS MEDICINE
I am a big believer in the power of nutrition for not only performance but immune function, general health and wellbeing. I find that when it comes to diet there is often an emphasis on what to avoid. I like to think about how much of the good stuff can I get in. When I am injured, unwell or placing additional stress on my body i.e. altitude training, breastfeeding or a heavy workload, I pay extra attention to my dietary intake. Ensuring I get enough fuel in to meet my needs is one component but the quality of this fuel is also vital. I aim for variety and the simple target of creating a colourful plate full of food works well. I have also learnt to carry nutrient-dense (Eat for You) bars and snacks in my training bag, nappy bag and glove box for post-training and desperate hanger moments! I am grateful for the ongoing support of the SA Sports Institute’s Dietitian Olivia Warnes and I recommend checking in with a professional if you think nutrition could be a contributing factor to injury, illness or performance challenges.
QUALITY OR QUANTITY?
You have a one hour window of opportunity to train....Do you go for a run or do some strengthening exercises in the gym? I admit that I often sway towards option A because I enjoy it more, however injuries can serve as a strong reminder and motivator to make gym work a priority. If imbalances, weaknesses and / or dysfunctional movement patterns have been identified, strength, mobility and corrective exercises may be necessary to handle your desired running load. I have been more motivated than ever in my return to running from this injury to prioritise at least one focused gym session per week and to squeeze in a few home exercises where I can - even if it means performing bridges with Billy sitting on my front or calf raises with him in my arms!
THEN VS NOW
I used to worry if I missed a session or jog, fearing I had lost an opportunity to get fitter. My desire to complete what was in my program overrode the feedback I received from my body. These days I feel regret if I complete a session but don’t give myself the chance to recover and absorb it. The harder it is to get out the door, the more you want to make every session count! It is difficult to nail the training / recovery balance but getting it right most of the time will pay dividends.
In short, train well and give yourself the opportunity to absorb your hard work. Learn from your mistakes, focus on progress and trust that one day you will reach that mountain peak at the perfect time.
All the best!
Bone Stress Injury Infographic credit - Brad Beer (Pogo Physio) on Instagram
Halson, Shona 2020, "The Physical Performance Show: Recovery Science Q&A" Podcast, ep. 245.