How to Avoid Injury: Know Your Limitations When You’re Making Bad Decisions

In April of 2009 I started running again after about 6  months of inactivity.  I had a very bad illiotibial (IT) band injury that flared up about a week after the 2008 NY Marathon.  Since resurrecting my running career and learning so much about injury prevention and how to structure a high-quality training program, I started to think I was invincible.

How to Avoid Injury: Don't Dance on Tired Legs

Man, I was wrong.

I think I needed a good kick in the ass to realize that I’m mortal.  I am not Wolverine.  If I make stupid decisions then I will get hurt if I don’t back off.  Luckily, I think I’ve pulled some great lessons from this experience.

My Near-Injury Experience

On March 27th I decided to run a time trial.  My training had been going very well since January and I had nearly three months of 60+ miles per week.  I decided my time trial distance would be 3,000 meters run on an outdoor track.

I had no goals for my overall time except to start at my PR 3k pace (about 72 seconds per 400m – my PR is 9:04 from 2006).  My first risky decision was to wear my Nike Ventulus spikes.  They are my favorite distance racers ever made and I feel fast every time I put them on.

Running the time trial in spikes was too aggressive because I haven’t run in them in years.  I also have not been doing enough barefoot work.  I should have known my limitations concerning my lower leg and foot strength and opted for my trainers.  It’s just a time trial, after all.

The 3k went awful: I went out in 71 for the first quarter and almost immediately settled into 77 and 78 second 400’s.  I felt frustrated because I wasn’t tired aerobically, I just didn’t have that extra gear to push the pace.  I finished in 9:38, changed my shoes, and went off for my 20 minute warm-down in my Speedstars.

Mistake number two was not doing any preventative maintenance work after this hard effort.  Sure, I ran for 20 minutes to warm-down but I knew that I needed flexibility and some light strength work to help my legs recover.  I didn’t ice or use a foam roller either.

I also happened to have a wedding the night of my time trial.  After the ceremony, the reception started…with an open bar.  I’m a sucker for free drinks (who’s not?) and after a few too many I found myself dancing like a madman for three hours.  Dress shoes + booze + dancing = not a good idea for tired legs.

The next day I had no intention to shorten my distance run.  Bad idea. After about 39 minutes, my left arch started to get increasingly painful.  I turned around and went home, cutting my 15 mile scheduled run down to nine miles.

After five minutes on the treadmill the next day, my arch was still sore.  I made the decision to take the rest of the week off.  I had been planning a recovery week anyways and this seemed like a good idea.

Lessons Learned

I should know better at this point that you can’t burn the candle at both ends and expect to be healthy.  Hindsight is 20/20 and as I look back on that weekend, I see disaster coming a mile away.  What if I wore my trainers for the 3k and then iced?  What if danced for two hours instead of three?  What if I cut my Sunday run to 35 minutes?

These variables could have kept me healthy.  I need to see the warning signs as they’re hitting me in the face rather than a week later.  It’s important to learn from your mistakes instead of blindly repeating them training cycle after training cycle.

While I wanted to train for another week before taking some time off, this mini-injury came at a good time.  I was planning time off anyways and I had no important races lined up.  It also reinforced some good practices and habits that I think we all need reminding of from time to time:

  1. Ease into racing in spikes.  They are aggressive and can make you really sore.
  2. Preventative or “prehab” work is vital especially after hard workouts, including use of a foam roller.
  3. Easy on the booze!
  4. Dancing is another stress on your legs.  Too much stress can injure you.
  5. Dancing in dress shoes with an elevated heel and a stiff sole is even worse.
  6. Inflexibility with your training when you know you’re tired is asking for an injury.

I know that moving forward, I am going to be more aware of how my workouts and social life are affecting my body.  I have a good test this weekend: a two day bachelor party.  I’m hoping to complete my scheduled workouts if I’m feeling good but if not then no big deal.  How many bachelor parties do you attend in your life?

What about you – what kind of training mistakes have you made?  Do you burn the candle at both ends?

Photo credit: Jim Reeves

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  1. Thank you for this post! I fell off a roof about one year ago and shattered my wrist, broke my nose and face. Since I fell I’ve had six operations to repair the damage. As someone who doesn’t own a TV and has chosen a long run or a yoga class over a bar on a Friday night, I’ve been struggling with my desire to stay in shape, and my need to take it easy on my body. I could tell you a bunch of stories about how I ignored the warning signs of injury just because I didn’t want to stop running.

    After this last, unexpected surgery on March 31st, I’ve realized that by burning the candle at both ends, I’m only prolonging my own recovery process. Sure, I want to train for a marathon and dance three hours at my friend’s wedding, but for now I’ve decided to stick to meditation (mental exercise haha) until my body is ready to be pushed again.

    Hope all is well!

    • Hi Jackie – Glad to hear that you’re now on your way to recovering fully and getting in great shape. It’s difficult to balance staying in shape and having a social life, they’re often at polar opposites of how you should be treating your body. Good luck recovering from your injury! Cheers, – Fitz.

  2. I’m 48, and was in reasonably decent shape before I began running in January.
    Because I always got shin splints in the past when I tried to run, I did the couch to 5k program.
    I was very careful and followed the program to the T. I never missed a day and completed the 9 week program with no injury.
    I was upping my mileage 1/4 mile every other week and was up to 5.5 mile runs when I pulled my left hamstring.
    It wasn’t too bad. I iced and stretched and was fine in about 10 days.
    I decided to stay at the 5.5 mile level for a while, thinking that my body needed to get used to that for a while.
    I read “Born to Run” and have been trying to run on my forefoot, keeping my hips forward, feet under me and keeping my posture up tall.
    Then I decided to start running trails, thinking that would be less impact and more fun.
    I felt a little soreness in my ankles an calves at first, which I treated with ice, Motrin and stretching.
    Over 2 weeks, 6 runs in the woods, it was feeling great. I was loving it.
    After running around 5 miles on a combination of paths and single track with quite a few hills on Monday, I began feeling a more acute pain in my lateral right lower leg sort of radiating almost under my calf to the medial side.
    I went to the gym an did an hour on the bike Tuesday night and did some stretching. I rested it on Wednesday because it still felt sore.
    It’s not too bad walking on it, but when I tried to run this morning coming down on it was too painful, so I stopped.
    It almost feels like shin splints on the back side of the shin, under the calf, instead of the front.
    I don’t recall twisting an ankle, tripping or any acute potentially traumatic movement.
    Any ideas, recommendations. My insurance stinks so I would really like to avoid a doctor’s visit.

    • Hi Tim,

      I think you’re taking a good approach – gradual increases in volume, cross-training when you’re feeling fatigued or hurt, and fixing your form. Sometimes, small injuries are part of the job. You need to aggressively treat them with ice, extra rest, and prevention techniques also. I’d recommend continuing to refine your form, cross-training when you must, trying a foam roller or other type of massage for your calf area, and resting. Make sure you’re also doing a solid strengthening/core program to hep with your running form and recovery. Best – Fitz.


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