Monday, May 4, 2009

Remember...It's About the Journey when Injuries Happen

For the past week I have been dealing with an injury to my calf muscle that has kept me from running. In fact, I had to pass on running an 8K race yesterday and that was really hard...and frustrating. The injury is what they call a Chronic Muscle Tear, which is something that may happen to runners of all levels including elites and the experts say it has nothing to do with running form, pronation, etc.

The "tears" are micro tears that happen when the muscle is under great stress. For me, I can pinpoint the cause of stress as the long 20 mile run I did a little over a week ago that had two relatively long, steep hills. These tears are normal and all runners get them when pushing their body hard. It's just that some people like me are blessed with a botched repair process that leaves scar tissue between the muscle fibers. It's "chronic" because it happens over and over...and for some strange reason, it typically only happens in the same area. For me, it's my calf muscles.

If you think of spaghetti pasta, our muscle fibers are like all the individual pieces of pasta. When we run, our muscle fibers fire independently. As such, one fiber may be contracting while the one next to it is relaxed. When you cook the pasta, you have to stir it because there is starch in there that binds the pasta together if you don't. Scar tissue that forms with Chronic Muscle Tears is like the starch that makes the pasta stick together. With scar tissue in your muscle, the relaxed fiber screams out in pain when the fiber next to it fires and scar tissue drags it along.

In my experience, I'll take few days off after a hard workout so the body can repair. Then I'll go out for a run. Everything feels fine for the first 1/2 mile, but then it starts to hurt. Not stabbing, but sort of like a stiff muscle or cramp. I learned the hard way that you try to run through it, you'll eventually get a stabbing pain, which is some of the muscle fibers tearing as the scar tissue pulls on them...not good.

If you experience this a couple days after a hard workout, the best thing to do is stop and stretch...and use fingers to locate the knot or point of pain, then use firm pressure to massage back and forth against the grain. You need to roll the muscle fibers to break up the scar tissue. This technique is called cross friction massage. It can be quite painful, but it is the only thing I have found that works. If you take it easy for a week with only bike riding and walking plus a lot of stretching and cross friction massage, you should be back to running in a week. Trick is to force yourself to not run until you can walk without pain and keep doing cross friction in the affected area regardless of if you feel pain or need to make sure that as the muscle heals it does not form more scar tissue.

All that said, today is the first day I have been able to walk without pain so I'm excited to get back out running. Dealing with injuries is humbling. When they happen it is easy to get depressed and worried you are losing out. Somewhere along the way I learned that what I love about running is the way it makes me feel. Race day is exciting, but it's just one day and it goes by way too fast. What really matters is the journey. The ups and downs. The little triumphs when you reach a new level of fitness as well as the trials and tribulations you must endure such as the injury I described above.

We have a sign on our wall that my wife put up that sums it up perfectly. I read it every day. It says "Happiness is in the Journey....Not at the Destination". Whether you are training for a marathon or just working towards your career goals, that quote helps you stay present and enjoy the process. All for now. Enjoy the ride!

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