While I was injured I had one focus: to get better as fast as possible. I tried everything: rest days, Arnicare gel, herbal oils, excessive amounts of turmeric ingestion, Bengay patches, Tiger Balm (which I love), Hot/Cold packs (still use), foam rolling, Thera bands, and researching the cause. I did the best I could, including going to physical therapy (3 sessions), but time is the ultimate healer and I couldn’t rush my body’s natural recovery.
Now that I am recovered, I have a different focus: prevention! My workouts have become intense in the past weeks and while I thrive on the ability to push myself to the limit, I have to cope with some running anxiety that I didn’t have before. Part of this anxiety stems from not knowing the cause of my injury. After all, if can’t determine how I got injured, then I don’t know what to fix. Another reason for my anxiety is that I feel unsure that my hamstring is 100% better. Lastly, I just don’t want to be injured again, ever! So what am I to do?
Learn from the Past:
The best way for me to soothe my anxiety of impending injury is to learn from the past and incorporate new self-care habits. There are several things that I do differently now, that I learned from talking to PT professionals and through my researching when it comes to taking care of my body before, during, and after a run.
- Warming up with dynamic stretching
- Foam rolling before and after a run
- Static Stretching afterward for longer
- Icing and heating a sore/tight spot
- Incorporating hip, glute, and hamstring strengthening exercises
Dynamic stretching: I used to just wake up, throw on my shoes and start running. No more! When I train hard my muscles are inevitably more sore and stiff the next morning, so it is important to allow my muscles to warm up gently and get my legs moving in all planes of motion. I start with leg swings, font and back and side to side, 20x per leg for each direction. Then I perform 20 skips, and 20 skips with an elongated leg extension (pick the knee up on the hop, kick the foot out, and bring foot down gently), and 20-30 butt kicks. The whole process takes 5 minutes and gets the blood flowing to my muscles so I don’t start cold.
Foam Rolling Before: This was suggested to me by a fitness trainer/running coach. She told me to consider lightly foam rolling before I went out for my run, I tried it, and I like it! The pressure of the roller on my muscles stimulates and wakes them up, similarly to a warm-up. I use this as a pre-cursor to my dynamic stretches and lightly foam roll before I head outside for my dynamic stretches. The keyword here is “light”, I do a quick pass or two of the foam roll on my quads, IT bands, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and adductors. It takes 3-5 minutes.
Foam Rolling After: I actually don’t do this until much later in the day, before dinner. After the bulk of my day is done before I veg on the couch for the rest of the night, foam roll all the above mentioned muscles, but this time I spend 10-15 minutes really rolling out each muscle nice and slowly and also include my upper back. This helps to smooth out my muscles, breaking up knots and tight spots that formed after my workout in the morning.
One tip that I picked up: If you have a particularly tight or painful spot, spend time working around the area first and avoid applying direct pressure to the point of pain.
Static Stretching: Pre-injury I did stretch after my run, but I learned that what I was doing before wasn’t enough. The general consensus among the PT professionals that I talked to (two different physical therapists) and the literature I read, was that a stretch needed to be held for 30 seconds to be effective. Now I spend 30 seconds per side for each stretch that I do, and I incorporate a lot more hamstring stretches and hip-openers. My routine takes appr. 25-30 minutes depending on how distracted I get!
Applying Ice or Heat: If my workout was hard enough to aggravate my hamstring so that it begins to feel sore and tight (as it often does since the injury), I pull out a bag of frozen veggies and sit my hamstring on it for 15-20 minutes after static stretching. After the ice which reduces inflammation, I apply a heat pack that promotes blood flow through the area to help flush lactic acid waste products from the muscle. Alternating ice and heat helps serve as a pump that gets the blood moving into the muscle.
Ice is for a newer injury or pull. Heat is for chronic aches or sore muscles. At the end of the day, I only use heat if I have not recently been working out or stretching.
Strengthening Exercises: I have concluded that I, like most runners, probably suffer from weak hips, glutes, and hamstrings. According to my research, about 80% of runners have muscular imbalances between their front and back muscles. For example, the quads are usually much stronger than the hamstrings, the abdominals usually get more attention than the lower back. So I began worrying less about crunches and focusing more on donkey kicks, clamshells (which are hard!), bridges, and eccentric hamstring curls.
The eccentric hamstring curls were an extremely effective tool. Eccentric means lengthening (opposite of concentric). I tied a loop in one end of the Thera band to loop around my ankle and tied a knot in the other to close in a doorjamb. By lying on my stomach with enough tension in the band to provide resistance I curl my leg by bending my knee and then slowly lower my leg. The purpose of this stretch is to feel a burn in the hamstring caused by slow, controlled lowering of the leg against resistance. In my particular case, this exercise was helpful because my injury was to my upper hamstring.
Tune in to the Present:
I pay better attention to my body now. I am hyper conscious of pain in my hamstrings and try not to ignore aches and pains. Most injuries can be caught and treated early. I was in denial for the first several days of my injury, which only served to cause further damage and elongate the recovery process. I will not push myself to the point of injury-type pain and will back off if my hamstrings start to protest too loudly. There is a difference between delicious fatigue and muscle soreness that accompanies a killer workout and the uneasy, sharp pains that accompany injuries.
All aches need to be monitored, a sore muscle can evolve into an overuse injury if one is not proactive in his or her recovery!
Get back on the horse (or the track!):
It’s hard to keep from being overly cautious to the point of being scared to push yourself at all. After all, no one wants to get injured (again). But to make any progress in running, you need to test your limits.
To assuage my own fears, I continue with my new self-care and recovery habits that I learned. It’s reassuring to know that I am doing everything I can to prevent future injuries. My body seems to be responding well to my workouts again, but I’ll still remain vigilant. I take a proactive role in my recovery, and I try to give my body all the tools it needs to recover optimally between hard efforts.
A little caution is appropriate in the beginning, but don’t let your fears become an obstacle on your journey!
What do you think? Did anyone suffer from an injury lately? I hope not, but if so, how did you treat it? Any new lessons (silver lining) that you learned? Let me know in the comments!