For the last five years, I haven’t had a serious running injury.
Until recently - when I injured my Achilles tendon by making a slew of poor training decisions…
This was a real injury. Not just the very beginning of an injury that a day off and an aggressive treatment approach will fix. Or a sore or tight muscle.
Nope, a full-blown repetitive stress injury. And it was completely preventable (if I had followed my own coaching advice!).
When I told one of my 1-on-1 runners, he offered some sage wisdom:
“Sometimes we all fail to follow our own advice, in a demented way it’s how we build trust in ourselves.” – Jim
I had an Achilles injury: a classic case of Achilles Tendinopathy in my left leg. I first experienced something a little “off” while warming up for an easy run the day after I ran long. During the lunge portion of the warm-up, my Achilles felt different. Not necessarily painful, but a strained feeling.
Of course, aches and pains are a normal part of running. Like one of my coaches once told me:
“During hard training, you’ll always feel something.”
But what separates those who are chronically injured from those who rarely get hurt is following a program that cuts your risk of serious injuries and manages the minor consequences of hard training. For the last five years, my training had been specifically focused on injury prevention and I had reaped the rewards of running more than every and improving my marathon best to 2:39.
I was invincible! Getting hurt is something that happens to other people…
So I didn’t think anything of my wonky Achilles. I finished my warm-up and went out for an easy 10 miler.
32 minutes later (and definitely short of 10 miles!), I was back at my apartment after hobbling through a tortured attempt at a distance run. Not one step felt normal and there were occasional bursts of sharp pain.
For the next week, it hurt to walk and there was a noticeable bump along the inner edge of my Achilles tendon. Not good.
So, what caused my Achilles injury? So many training errors that if I were one of my coached runners, I’d be furious.
How to Train Like an Idiot and Get an Achilles Injury
I was on my third 80+ mile week when I set out for a 20 mile long run. My previous two long runs had been 18 miles and while I normally don’t like to jump up by two miles at a time, I thought I could handle it (strike one).
The night before, Meaghan and I hosted a few friends for dinner and enjoyed some wine. Ok, a lot of wine. The next morning, the wine surprisingly caused a hangover and I wasn’t as recovered as I could have been (strike two).
Undeterred, I hydrated, fueled, caffeinated, and set out for my long run in Rock Creek Park. Anybody familiar with the park knows that it can be very hilly as the creek is located in a sort of valley. Run away from the creek and you’re climbing up steep, long, and sometimes technical trails.
With my head still fuzzy from my love of Cabernet Sauvignon, I ran up and down as many hills as I could find. I love them… so I ran all the hills (strike three).
And if running way more hills than I was used to wasn’t enough, the overall effort of the run was hard. I hammered the entire long run because for some reason, despite being hungover, I felt great. So why not run hard? (strike four)
Finally, I was wearing a pair of Adidas Adizero Tempos that were at the end of their life. Buying a new rotation of running shoes had been on my to-do list for weeks, but with the launch of Injury Prevention for Runners I had simply forgotten (strike five).
Five strikes later, I had an Achilles injury.
Check Your Ego at the Trailhead
I coach runners for a living – helping them run fast and stay healthy is my full-time job. And I’ll pat myself on the back: I’m damn good at it (see Brian, Deb, and Sarah). But how could I make so many mistakes myself?
For starters, I hadn’t been seriously injured in about five years. I was starting to think I was invincible after being chronically injured for nearly a decade. But nobody is immune to getting hurt – it affects beginners, elites, and everyone in between.
Moreover, each one of my “strikes” isn’t necessarily the cause of my Achilles injury. I often get frustrated when I get a question asking if a change of shoes caused an injury. Who knows? Probably not. Maybe?
The more likely culprit is a combination of factors like poor training decisions, bad form, and inconsistent strength exercises. The cause of any injury can be complex – and so can injury prevention. That’s why when I design training plans there’s significant thought put into the structure of the plan.
When you follow a sound training plan and have resources like runner-specific strength exercises, cues to help your form improve, and recovery built into that program you’re going to experience far fewer injuries (these principles form the foundation of my injury prevention program).
But even though I KNOW what to do doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll do the right thing. I take risks with my running just like everyone else.
Wore old shoes? Probably not a big deal for a few runs.
Ran harder than usual? I should be ok.
Oops, I ran all the hills? No worries.
Jumped the long run up by two miles (while hungover)? Risky, but not a huge deal.
But I did them all at once? Not smart!
So please, do as I say not as I do: don’t combine too many risks into one run (or even a week of training). Train smarter than I did and you’ll be much more likely to stay healthy.
How’s my Achilles Injury Now?
When I first experienced pain in my Achilles, I went into injury lock-down. My self-treatment protocol has been tested and refined over the years using the latest science, personal experience, and visits to several physical therapists. The same protocol that got me healthy is included in Injury Prevention for Runners.
I’m ecstatic to report that after nine days of time off, I’m back to running with zero pain. I’m also running faster workouts, long runs, and my overall mileage was at 75 last week.
Now I’m back to my pre-Achilles injury level and feeling good. My training was definitely modified after I got healthy to ensure I didn’t come back too quickly. If you’re interested in a personal case study on how I did this, let me know in the comments and I’ll write it up.
Soon I’ll be running the Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon in DC on March 15 as my tune-up for the Boston Marathon. If you’re going to be in the city that weekend, stay tuned for a meetup announcement coming soon. I’d love to have a brew with you and talk running!
Until then, don’t make as many “training strikes” as I did. Run smart and stay healthy!