Towards the end of a recent track workout, one of my athletes inquired if I had ever dealt with a serious injury due to running. The answer he received was somewhat convoluted. Outside of stepping in a hole and spraining my ankle, I have never had what I classify as a running induced injury. I have had a tweak here, an ache there—lately my left IT-band has been tender, perhaps I should foam roll it or use my e-stim on it a couple times, perhaps a bit extra area specific stretching might help me, or maybe an extra day off, taking it easy, all of the things discussed here. Yet I don’t consider this bother to be an injury. Once upon a time I did, once a sore calf muscle meant a day or more off, IT-band aggravation was a trip to the doctor, an excuse, an upset to my training plan, and thus a missed week, month, and race.
So I answered him in an odd way. I’m always hurt, so I’m never hurt. I understand my body, I have trained at mileage both high and low, fast and slow. This is not to say I am an amazing runner, but that I am a runner, one who aims to run four or more marathons a year. Such a goal has pushed me out onto the road with tired legs, with knots in my calf, and a litany of other, somewhat minor but inconvenient ailments.
Some people stop with this discomfort. I used to stop. I used to treat everything as something bigger. The IT-band problem would have been morphed into a knee issue because I feel the tightness down into the knee. Instead it is a form issue (video shows I’m bringing that leg a bit past center) and a strength issue (my hips need work to ensure that they work more efficiently). If I correct my biomechanics the irritation will subside, I will return to normal. The process will not occur overnight, thus I will log my runs, take notes, and pay attention to the problem. If it grows, I will become concerned, if it lingers and/or mitigates, I will not.
Discomfort, I told him, is part of running. If you focus on how much it hurts, you quit your workout early, sacrificing valuable training time. If you do less you won’t hit your goals. Want to break the five minute barrier in the mile? Then run your 400 meter repeats in 75 seconds or less and do at least 12. So what if it is hot, cold, or pouring rain: endure. Build strength, understand the annoyance, and go from there. The goal makes the little nuisances worth it, the race makes it fun and when you are done you will plaster it all over Facebook, Twitter, and the like because, well, that is what we now do.
So, I am always hurt. I have goals, my goals require effort and anguish, and thus chinks in the armor arise. I must diagnose them, treat them, and deal with them. Knowing that I will deal with pain allows said pain to be forgotten. Thus I am never hurt.
In the end, we all want everything to look easy, to feel easy, but we need to understand that running, like many athletic pursuits, is an arduous enterprise. The reason we run marathons (over 177,000 people finished one in the USA in 2012 according to Runner’s World) is not for the self induced torture, but for the accomplishment that it gives us. The reason my athlete runs is to beat his friends and achieve personal goals. He is going to have to endure to get there. He will hurt, he knows it. He closed our conversation, the length of a 200 meter jog with a smile and the reply, I am not hurt anymore. Then he ran another 200 meter sprint when he didn’t plan on it. Pain ceased to be the motive to quitting.
Steven Stam lives in Jacksonville, Florida where he teaches English and coaches track and cross country. He recently completed a stretch of 3 marathons and two half marathons in 8 weeks including the Jacksonville Bank Marathon and the Goofy Challenge at Disney.