Five stages of a running injury, and what I learned.

In my running year it is typical for me to struggle in the latter half of the year. This is often the autumn of my discontent. For some reason my spring training blocks are always smooth, but it is attempts at autumn goals that are littered with illness and injury. This year I chose to to target a 10K, the Leeds Abbey Dash, to put less pressure on myself. I would be working towards an event that hurts less (or hurts for less time), and is also a distance that I personally consider to have less prestige within my running achievements.

That said, I still went in with the same attitude and approach to training – the same workload, the same intensity, the same volume. So it’s no surprise that this post is all about the injury that happened, how I dealt with it, and what I learned.

1. The injury

I’ve written before about my love of the canal, the quiet straight path, the simple out and back. The out and back that simply forces you to complete the long run that you just don’t want to do. However I’ve now found a new problem with the out and back canal – and that problem comes when you break yourself half way through.

To be honest the warning signs were there and I should have paid attention to them. I’d had a tight back at work before I headed out on the run, and I wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be. The run was 10 miles at a hard race pace, and I was working hard to stick to that pace, kidding myself that I was fitter than I was. The further I went and the harder I pushed, the pain in my back continued to aggravate and steadily got worse.

Then it worsened, and the pain changed and the tightness was all down my lower back and right leg. My running style became choppy and painful.  I stopped to rest my back, thinking this would help, but trying to get going again and back into a running rhythm was incredibly painful. Worse still, there were still 5 miles to go just to get home.

When I did, I could barely clamber into the shower. I could barely move from the living room to the kitchen. It was then that I realised I was broken.

2. The denial.

Well, not really, because no runner ever wants to give up. I was in denial.

So I tried again. I stopped running, but didn’t try to replace it with anything or do anything to improve the injury, I just stopped and rested. A week after the date of the injury, on a Thursday, I tried again. I headed up to the track for a session with some friends, planning on running at my own pace and as few reps as I wanted to. Needless to say, what I actually managed to do left in me in actual physical pain.

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Current injury status:

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So I should have given up at this point, but I had some races coming up that weekend. The first was a points scoring race in our club championship where I thought, even in my knackered state, I might be able to beat some rivals over one mile around the track. The second was a 5K in my home town, and I’d already bought train tickets for this. Without stressing the details – both were awful. I just about made it round the track mile (though I handicapped myself down too many heats and won easily) – but I didn’t beat any of my rivals for the championship. The 5K proved that my running limit was a predictable flat mile, and the embarrassment of limping round a twisty town centre 5K in my hometown was intense.

The denial stage was well and truly over. There was no point not admitting it any more – I was broken.

3. The diagnosis

I needed help. I had no idea what was wrong, I had no idea what to do, and the prospect of not being able to run for a good while was getting me pretty down. Any half-way decent performance at the Abbey Dash was already out of the window. I needed help, so I leaped at the chance to pop along to a free physio consult session organised by my running club.

I was pretty nervous going in. You start to anticipate the worst, predicting months out rather than weeks, but the reality of most running injuries is that they’re pretty dull. Within 10 minutes David from The West Point Practice had diagnosed my problem – I had a medial gluteal muscle injury. This is the muscle down the side of – well, basically your bum – which is the main weight bearing muscle when you are standing. This meant for those 5 miles back when I first injured myself, and for those races – for all of that whenever my right foot hit the ground my body was collapsing under it’s own weight, and I had to push myself back off again with my left leg, which was why my running style was so shuffling and painful.

The good news was that I wasn’t completely broken. I faced around 4 weeks out – which brings us on to….

4. The work

West Point gave me a recovery plan, but the thing that I had never realised – never having had a serious injury before – is how much work recovering from an injury is. I was given various exercises to do focussing on strengthening the muscle that I had injured – lying on my side and elevating the leg and holding it there, lying on my back with a resistance band around them looking like I was giving birth, and rolling my bum over a spiky rubber ball.

The biggest thing that I learned is that you have to put the same amount of work into the recovery as you do into the running. Get home, get into some running short, hit the yoga mat and start your exercises. Rather than a sub 34 minute 10K, I was just training my body to be able to run again, but it was the same approach – focussed, day in, day out work.

The good news was that I had been told that by running again I wouldn’t hurt myself further – so I was free to try out a little 10 minute run when I felt like it to see how much progress I had made.

5. The comeback

After working on the exercises for two weeks, I felt ready to have a go again. Well, not 100% ready – I still felt nervous that I hadn’t recovered properly, that even though I could no longer feel it when I walked that I would start running and the whole thing would flare up again – that all the work that I’d done would have proved to have been pretty useless.

I’d been keeping up going down and seeing people at my running club before the Tuesday session, just so that I didn’t feel out of the loop. Being injured was hard – the immediate removal of something that you are constantly doing for fun hurt, and then add in being cut off from your social circle – you can start to get frustrated and isolated pretty quick.

So my first run back was just two miles down to the meet point for our club, a chat and then the run back. This wasn’t too bad – sure, I could still kind of feel it, and sure I felt as though the area stiffened up again a bit after the run, but I was kind of back – I was probably ‘not injured’, but not yet able to ‘run run’ without it coming back.

So it took a while for me to step it up and make a proper comeback. Just under four weeks later it was the fabled Abbey Dash 10K – I hadn’t run four miles yet, and I went out harder than I should, struggling towards the end to finish in 38:20. At least I was only struggling because I was unfit after not being able to train properly for over a month, and now I was able to run properly.

The third stage of the comeback was just putting in a proper training week. After the Dash I was able to get in a proper six day running week. But despite this I was still thinking about it, felt as though the injured area was weak, and I didn’t want to push myself hard in training.

The final comeback is done when you are no longer afraid to push yourself. So it wasn’t until the first cross country race of the season (a knackering slow effort) that I ran a full hard effort without having my mind on the site of the old injury, and it wasn’t until this week that I felt comfortable getting back up into the fastest training group at club, and pushing hard. And that’s a great feeling.

Believe it or not, but I’m pretty happy at this point.

What I learned…

  • I don’t want to have to do that again. It was not fun.
  • Wise up to the fact you’ve got a problem early, and get some proper advice.
  • Work hard on what you need to do to get fixed. Don’t skimp on your recovery or endanger it by training again too soon.
  • The best way to recover from an injury in the first place is not to get one. If there’s something sneaking up on you, listen to your body and change a hard session to an easy one, or rest.
  • The world will not end if you have to drop out of a race or don’t do as well as you wanted to.

Philip Goose

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