Fuel: Lessons From a Year Not Running, The Physical

June 6, 2017

A year is a long time to be separated from something you love. However, time away can offer a perspective that’s not otherwise accessible. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

December, 2015

Stephanie pre-surgery with her doctor, Dr. Alfredson / Photo: Zach Violett

A nagging pain in my left Achilles prompted me to seek out surgery to once and for all rid myself of the pain that had plagued me for over a year. I was so tired of it. Tired of limping everywhere, not being able to run and most of all, tired of hurting all the time. Time off did nothing. With high hopes I tried various conservative treatments, only to have my hopes shattered. It was an emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows. Ironically, the only time I felt some relief was when I was running. After a year of trying to bargain with my body, I made the decision to start healing. Meaning, getting to the root of the problem and undergoing surgery. It was one of the most freeing decisions I’ve ever made, followed by one of the most frustrating, emotional, and challenging years of my life.

Learning the Hard Way

I had goals for 2016. I was not going to let this little hiccup impact my entire year. Nope, I was going to stay focused and work hard so I could hit the ground running once my foot healed. Literally. But sometimes even the best laid plans don’t translate into application. Sometimes the universe has a different plan, and despite our greatest intentions, healing takes time. And patience. And resilience.

The first lesson I learned is that healing happens on its own time. Independent of any dates, events, or goals you have planned. My foot really didn’t care that I had a big race planned for June. And no matter how much I tried to keep “mind-over-matter” during the healing process, it just didn’t work. Every sense in my body wanted to race. I could literally see it, feel it and taste it. I willed my foot to heal in time, but the tighter my grip, the further it slipped away from me. It culminated in an emotional and teary pandemonium, as realization set in and my racing goals came crashing down.

Crutching around Sweden post-surgery with new found hope of recovery. / Photo: Zach Violett

It was in the aftermath when I picked myself up from rock bottom, that I realized how trivial it had been to pigeon hole myself into such a narrow goal. Why had I been so dead set on a timeframe for healing, and over-confidently committed to a race? Looking back, it seemed like such a juvenile thing to do. I had expected my body to follow a very scientific way of healing that would allow me to be healed by a certain time. Our bodies, although very scientific, are also an art. They do not work like a mathematical equation, and are more like a symphony where many instruments are involved to make a beautiful piece of music flow together. Healing is individual, and expectations should not be set in stone. As with art, the image starts to reveal itself as the artist works. Sometimes it follows the original plan, and other times it becomes something totally different.

The second lesson that I learned is the importance of rest. The first thing most athletes seek out is how to stay fit while injured. Instead of embracing some down time, we often try to maintain our current fitness by shifting to a different mode. Although cross training is better than training through an injury, rest is even better. During the first part of my recovery I was determined to stay in shape. I spent countless hours going through the motions of mindless cross training in the gym. I literally burned myself out mentally. And you know what the worst part was? It set me back. Yes, I maintained my fitness but when I was able to try running, I was too fit for my own good. Instead of slowly building up, I was able to run faster and farther than my body was ready for. And as a result, I injured myself. Again. It was like running into a brick wall. And once again, it crushed me. I had to pick myself up from rock bottom and re-examine what went wrong. I was not going to get stuck in this cycle. Change was imminent.

Letting Go

I believe the two biggest problems were, 1) my expectation of how and when my body should heal, and 2) cross training to stay in shape rather than focus on recovery. So, I let go.

I actually relaxed and allowed my body and mind to have a break. The first week or so was tough. I was restless, irritable and cranky. But it got better. Each day was better than the last, and none were worse. In fact, after a week I was starting to feel happier than I’d felt months. I wasn’t forcing myself to swim laps or complete mind numbing workouts in the gym. I started to actually enjoy a slower pace of life. I traveled to Colorado to spend time with my best friend from high school, spent a week in northern Minnesota canoeing with my parents, completed art projects, watched the entire series of Gilmore Girls, enjoyed sitting outside on warm summer evenings and read books. If you know me, this is not normal. Pushing my limits, in all areas of my life drives me to be my best. But now I was taking time to stop and smell the flowers – to gaze at them and appreciate the beauty. And I found that this slower pace of life really suited me. It felt good. For once my focus was not on pushing my limits, but appreciating what each day had to offer.

Stephanie back in her groove with a win at Elk-Kings 50K this past Fall. / Photo: Paul Nelson

 

I didn’t totally cut activity out of my life, I just kept a better balance. I only swam when I felt like it, and I stopped when I got tired. I allowed myself to really approach activity intuitively, and it felt really good. Miraculously, my body started to heal.

And once I was fully healed I didn’t revert back to my old ways. I continued to take an intuitive approach to training. I’ve been kind to my body and in return, it’s been kind to me. No one wishes for an injury, but I can honestly say that I am grateful for the experience. There are so many things I learned from a year off of running that I never would have otherwise experienced. There is always a silver lining.

 

About the Author

Stephanie Howe, Ph.D., is a nordic skier turned trail runner, and enjoys racing distances from 50K up to 100 miles. Stephanie splits her time between racing as an elite runner on The North Face team, and working as a coach and sports nutritionist. She recently completed a doctoral program in Nutrition & Exercise Physiology at Oregon State University. You can learn more about Stephanie on her blog at www.stephaniemariehowe.blogspot.com and about her coaching and nutrition at www.endurancebystephanie.com.

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