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The injury journey: one year on

I had a conversation last week with someone who has recently been through a very tough time, both in life and with their running. They spoke about having had their running identity ripped away from them by life circumstances, and feeling an awful grief and loss of the person they were, someone whose running had helped them to an identity as a strong, confident, inspirational leader.


As we spoke about this, I was reminded of my own circumstances throughout 2021, which I wrote a lot about at the time, particularly my ‘injury’ blog last February. I remembered exactly that sense of loss and pain – mental pain, as well as the physical discomfort from the injury. Just as I felt I was really making progress and starting to achieve in my running, the rug was pulled from under me and I was bereft of the self I’d so painstakingly built. Readers of my blog may remember that the injury took a very long time to resolve; I ran only sporadically and painfully for most of 2021, and reached some very dark places mentally before I was able to reconstruct myself as a person separate from my running.


The conversation prompted me to reflect on where I am now. I said (and wrote) at the time that I would no longer take running for granted, and that I’d be newly appreciative and joyful in my running, if I ever managed to get back onto an even keel physically, and back into training. I wondered if this was now true, or if I’d slipped back into my old ways!


2022 continued to be a bit of an up and down year. The original injury gradually receded into the background (it’s permanent cartilage damage, but I have learned how to look after it it pretty well through strength training, rehab exercises and training load management) and I was able to put together a really effective six-month block of training from January to June in preparation for my A goal race for the year, the Lakeland 50. My performance in the race exceeded my expectations; I completed it in under 12 hours and was approximately in the top 25 women (vs 14.5 hours and top 100 women in 2019).


Annoyingly, I also somehow managed to cause two new injuries: one a freak sprained ankle during a session I was coaching, and the other a bad case of ITB syndrome following the hard race effort. In around November last year I finally felt I was ready to get back into structured training, and increase my load, and that’s going well so far. My first long race of the year (Grizedale 26 at the start of February) is coming up, and I feel well-prepared and in good condition. I have other long races in the calendar, and my hope is that this year I can manage the various ‘dodgy’ bits of my body well enough to feel that I can race all of them.


Something that has changed for me is that I am much more flexible in my training. Previously, I took great pride in being totally ‘compliant’ – a technical term used in sport to mean that you’ve completed the programme exactly as planned. Various coaches had tried to explain that this isn’t always a good thing; if you are sick, or niggly, it is probably better for your overall performance that you don’t complete the plan as originally scheduled. I struggled to understand this, and always wanted to stick to the original (and as I saw it) optimal plan.


Now, I understand that the best laid plans don’t take account of life, with added complications introduced by work, family, illness, and injury. In discussion with another athlete last week, we identified that just because a plan was the ‘original’ plan doesn’t always mean it is the ‘best’ one for you – particularly if the ‘you’ who is trying to complete it has some extra factors in the mix compared to when we designed the plan. It’s more important to try honestly to assess how you are each day, and what the best thing is to do; it might not be to stick rigidly to the plan.


Am I now more joyful, and appreciative of running? Honestly, I think so. I haven’t forgotten the awfulness of not being able to run, but worse was the pain of being so bound up in my running that the loss of it was so debilitating. I have tried to be careful to keep a wider range of things and people I enjoy in my life, so that I’m not dependent on one thing for satisfaction, joy, pride and achievement. And I definitely get some ‘wow’ moments – sometimes, on the top of a bleak, windswept fell (usually in clag!) I will suddenly stop and remember all the days when doing such a thing seemed impossible. I’m trying to keep having those thoughts!


Postscriptum: a few days after I wrote the first draft of this blog, I felt the tell-tale first niggling of my old hip pain. So…I’m having to put into action everything I wrote above! I cut short a training session last week because I judged that the best thing for my ongoing wellbeing and optimal performance was not to complete it. I’ve taken an extra rest day here and there, and I’m also trying to keep finding joy in other areas. So far, I think there’s a good chance that I’ll manage (mentally) any injury recurrence much better just by following these principles – and I hope that they might also stop the niggle from developing into a full-blown problem. Watch this space!

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