Heading off injuries
Running is much like walking a tightrope. We start with awkward and uncertain steps and hopefully progress to a point where each step comes as second nature, allowing us to traverse the wire as quickly or as slowly as we wish, always in control. When our steps do come naturally and when we no longer have to worry about them, we have become a runner.
Like the tightrope walker, though, the runner faces the prospect of falling off the wire with the slightest miscue. The fall usually comes when the tightrope walker or the runner becomes overconfident in his new-found talent. (The veteran tightrope walker and runner have already taken the falls and learned the lessons of excess. And the falls and mistakes take a much firmer hold on the consciousness than do the occasional instances where the tightrope walk or the run is done perfectly. Perfection seems to be merely an accident; the lesson from a fall or a bruise stays like a tattoo on the sensitive skin of the memory.)
The runner’s fall come when, new to the sport, but well past the 42-day getting-in-shape phase, the world seems to open before him, beckoning his steps to carry him where he wishes. There is a tremendous sense of power and exhilaration that comes to the new runner gone into his second wind, that fabled overdrive gear.
Where before his body was a stranger to him (perhaps even an enemy), now it is in concert with his dreams of running farther than he had ever imagined possible. The runner’s body becomes a marvelous machine that pleasantly surprises him and that lulls him into a sense of invulnerability. He becomes a show-off. Not necessarily to the general public. But to himself. When a tightrope walker begins to show off, he would do well to have a net under him. For each chance taken without embarrassing results instigates taking the next chance until it becomes inevitable that the odds are going to go against him.
With a runner, the urge to push harder when the body is responding favorably results in pushing for greater speed and doing runs a mile beyond the original plan. The five seconds knocked off the runner’s time for the mile may offer instant gratification; that extra mile tacked onto a run may increase a runner’s self-esteem. But ultimately, a price must be paid for showing off.
It often takes a week, sometimes two weeks, until the unnecessary strain surfaces in the form of an injury. The muscles in the lower leg may feel tight and each step may feel as though the lower leg is going to be shattered as though it were made of glass. Each impact of the heel on the ground may now be noticeable, where before you never even noticed your lower body once you got rolling. Now it may be impossible to even get warmed to the point where you feel as though you are rolling. Where last week the legs seemed to be moving on well-oiled ball bearings, this week they seem to be going in every direction but where you want them.
Your breathing is becoming ragged because your body is working harder this week to cover a mile that it did last week. There is a tender spot on your shin that makes its presence known with each step. After a mile or so there is a sharp, ice-pick-like pain stabbing into your arch. It takes tremendous concentration to make sure your feet fall true; they seem to have a tendency to want to flop in, depositing you on the ground with a turned ankle. It seems as though someone has slipped a hot rod down your Achilles tendon and when you wake up in the morning your legs are reluctant to bend and you walk like a man wearing casts.
You’ve managed to do the easy part. You’ve fallen off the tightrope. The hard part is yet to come: Mustering self-control to back off and allow your legs or feet to heel.
When an injury presents itself, it can often cure itself if given a chance. Do not be afraid to take a day or two off to see if it helps the situation. Back down on your mileage and your speed. Baby yourself, realizing that if you push it, what might have been a minor injury (and one that would have healed in less than a week) could turn into a major, disabling injury that might keep you off your feet and off the roads for enough weeks to force you to start your running program all over again.
Running does not make its practitioners supermen. On the contrary, it makes them tightrope walkers. It makes them people who are moving closer and closer to the edge. Life at the edge is more exciting, more fulfilling, yes. But runners must never forget what lies at either side of the wire. There is a long drop there. A drop that the runner who grows his wings cautiously need never know.