How to get back to your best following injury

I was flying at the start of the year. I’d clocked my fastest mile ever in training and had my sights set on beating my shorter distance PBs. I ran a 5 mile PB in challenging conditions and had a 10k round the corner. I was about to start training for a marathon PB in the summer.

Then I decided to take on a half marathon fell race. It seemed sensible to get some hill training ahead of a mountain race in France I was doing at the end of summer. I’d been going about 5 miles; some steady up followed by very uneven terrain across the top and a rapid descent.

It was misty and I’d lost sight of the runners ahead but at least I could hear the traffic on the road down below. I wasn’t far away but the grass was wet and slippery. I made a split second decision to move onto rocks and stones over to the right to avoid sliding down the slope.

As I landed on my right foot it rolled out too far to the right as the rocks gave way and I let out a howl. After a few moments I got back to my feet and although the pain wasn’t too bad I knew something was wrong. I hobbled down to the road and contemplated hobbling round to the finish.

Instead, I decided to take my shoe off to inspect the damage more closely. I could immediately see what the issue was. I had a bruise the size of a tennis ball on the side of my foot. There was no way I’d be able to get the shoe back on even if I’d wanted to. Moments later my clubmate caught up with me, took one look at my foot and told me to get to hospital. My race was over.

I was lucky, or so I thought. I hadn’t broken anything but I had damaged the ligaments in my foot. I was given crutches and prescribed a course of PRICE (Painkillers, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – actually compression wasn’t mentioned in this case so maybe it was RIPE!) I would get physio on it in a week’s time.

After a week I barely needed the crutches and I had my initial assessment with the physio. My rehabilitation was going well. However, I’d been warned that initial progress would be much faster than subsequent progress.

Days turned into weeks with my question at every physio session – “When can I get back running?”. At first he pretty much laughed my question off as if I was joking then after a while started to set my expectation that I was still a couple of weeks off.

About 4 weeks after my injury I went back out for my first run. I intended to run slow and only a mile or so but I ended up doing 4k at a decent pace. The following week I did 4 miles and ran a decent 5k. I still had 7 weeks until the marathon I should have been training for. Maybe I could still make it?

Six weeks later I’m a week out from the marathon. I’m going to do it but seriously wondering if that was sensible. My foot feels ok when running but I can feel it niggle the rest of the time. I know I haven’t dedicated enough time to strengthening it.

My training program has been ‘designed’ to build up my long miles with plenty of rest days to try and recover. The result is that a lot of the shorter faster and hillier stuff has been left out which means I can’t compete at the level I want to.

If I’d sacrificed the marathon I might have been further down the road to ironing out the problems in my foot. I might have been able to compete better over the shorter distances. The problem is that we as runners are stubborn. We don’t like to be told we can’t do something. I’m going to do this marathon. But what am I doing it for?

In my defense, if it had only been the marathon I would probably have pulled out of it. 5 weeks after the marathon I take on the Canigou race in the Pyrenees in France. It is race I am completely unprepared for but it holds sentimental value for me and I need to complete it in whatever fashion I can (which for me will probably be walking large sections of it).

The idea of training for the marathon first was to get some distance into my legs ahead of that race. I didn’t feel ready to do hill training (though I will start if I get through the marathon in one piece). I’m now petrified of steep downhills. And the marathon is fairly flat. At least I’ll have some distance in my legs I thought. There is method in the madness. Somewhere.

The problem is that I see everyone else in tip-top shape for the marathon and wonder what my aim is here. I honestly don’t know what is realistic. I should be happy just to complete it in any time. But it would be nice if it wasn’t my slowest ever. Or if it was faster than my first. The mind sets goals that the body may not be capable of.

I’ve been very lucky; this is the first time I’ve ever been injured and it’s not been too serious. But it has still impacted my training for nearly 3 months now. However, I can empathise better how it can hit you mentally. It is difficult to accept that it will take time to get back to where you were. It isn’t easy to see others breezing past you. And I now realise how hard the work is that will get you back to where you were.

7 tips to stay or get injury free

Don’t race something you are not ready for

When deciding this, consider not only the distance and your own fitness but the terrain, altitude, climate and your health on the day. In my case this applied to the fell race especially. I hadn’t practised enough steep hill routes in training and was not cautious enough coming downhill. More training may not have stopped the accident but it would have made it less likely.

If you have an injury get expert medical advice

We as runners never want to hear that we are injured from an expert. That would make it real. That would stop us running. However, this is a short-sighted view because nipping an injury in the bud early will save a lot of downtime later on. Even if you are not sure, get it seen to by a physio or doctor. Don’t rely on a self-diagnosis from the internet or anecdotal stories from unqualified runners.

Do what your physio tells you

Your physio is going to tell you do stretches in many cases to strengthen the injured area. These are not exciting. They are not setting PBs on Strava but they are what will get you there faster. I know that my progress was quicker on the weeks I did more of the stretches than others. They shouldn’t take long, you just need to block off 10-15 minute slots to do them. Get them done, get back faster.

Cross-training is key

If you are unable to run for more than a couple of weeks you will start to lose the fitness you had built up. This is when you need a non-impact activity to do such as swimming, cycling or yoga. The problem is, if like me you don’t do any of these regularly, then it can seem alien to start doing these once you are injured. Pick a cross-training activity that you like and start it when you are fit once a week so that you have something should you need it. In any case it is beneficial within your training to give your legs one non-impact training day in the week.

Manage your body after training and races

There are a few things you can do here. Firstly, you should stretch after every session. 15 second stretches for your calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors etc will restore the muscles to their normal length and reduce the likelihood of tightness. After long runs, I find a cold bath works wonders to get the legs to recover faster. They are not pleasant when you are getting in but you do get used to it after the initial shock! You could also get a sports massage from time to time which will help any tightness and get rid of the lactic acid in the muscles.

Rest – don’t overtrain!

Giving your body an extra day to recover from time to time is not going to adversely affect your overall training plan. Rest is important especially if you are feeling a potential problem area. You should also rest if you are ill. A head cold is usually ok to run with but you should rest with anything chesty or more serious. If in doubt, leave it out. Overtraining can happen if you are trying to build up your training, possibly when targeting a new distance. Rule of thumb is no more than a 10% increase in weekly running mileage or long run mileage otherwise you run a higher risk of injury as your body is not used to the extra strain.

Stay mentally focused

If you suddenly get an injury it is easy to switch off and let it get you down. You quickly need to refocus and build towards a new target. The new target may just be getting back to fitness or it may be a more realistic running target. If you’ve had a very long term injury, try and focus on seasons’ bests rather than personal best. Stay in contact with runners who will check how you are, have recovered from injuries themselves or just generally give you a mental boost.

Being injured is the worst thing for a runner. If you are not prepared for the possibility, it can knock you for six both physically and mentally. However, taking as many steps towards injury prevention as possible coupled with a strategy to get back to fitness if an injury does occur should stop injuries derailing your running completely.