I’ve always been proud to be running completely injury free for over a decade. On my path to use running as a way to keep constantly improving my health, avoiding any injuries has always been a priority in my training.
But then summer 2018 came and it finally happened. I twisted my ankle. It was early August and I had a 63k mountain race coming up in mid October.
After my first DNF in July 2018 I wanted to have a great end to the 2018 running season. That’s why I desperately wanted to race in October.
But I now could barely walk having pain on every step I took. So I needed a plan.
As you might have guessed I was able to come back and race in October delivering one of my best performances and ending up in the 18th place overall.
In this article I wanna walk you through the steps I took from getting injured to racing a bit more than two months later.
Let’s get started.
It was early in the morning somewhere between 7 and 8am and I was sitting on a small rock on a local trail a few miles away from the next village. My ankle was hurting like hell and I was thinking about calling someone to pick me up. Running or even walking didn’t seem to be an option.
I waited a few minutes for the shock of the fall to pass. The pain did get a bit better but not much. I then got up and tried to walk a bit. It worked but it was painful. After a bit of walking I decided that I could go back home by myself.
On my way back home I was constantly thinking about what injury it might be. Just a bruise, overstretched tendons or even a rupture or a fracture? My mind was occupied trying to figure out what’s happening. And what that means for the coming weeks and months.
This thinking was the first step to deal with the situation and prepare mentally that I might be out of running for a certain time.
After returning back home the first thing I did was getting a cold pack and ice my foot and ankle. Also I tried to figure out the movements that hurt and what was still working.
In this first-care phase your body can mislead you to a wrong judgement. Short after running, your blood might be still flooded with endorphins that work like a painkiller. I knew that and waited a couple of hours to verify the damage.
And indeed a few hours later the pain was much worse. In the hours and days to come I kept icing my ankle and checking out if there were any improvements in movement, swelling and pain.
Of course I stopped running and tried to rest my foot and ankle as much as possible.
To fully assess what the injury is and what you should do to recover, it’s of course best to see a doctor. If the pain isn’t showing any improvements after a week, go see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
If you know your injury and what you can or should do to recover, it’s time to check out what you can still do as far as activities.
For most injuries you have to either stop running completely or cut your training volume and intensity so you only do short and easy recovery runs.
But you could do many other sports. For some injuries cycling is still possible. Or even hiking might be doable. Also swimming is something that still can be done for most running related injuries.
Of course it’s best if you can maintain an activity that helps keeping a decent endurance and fitness level while you’re injured. But don’t stop there. Maybe you could at least do some strength exercises and stretching.
This will help you build a strong base and increase your mobility. Something very helpful and it might make you come back stronger than before.
When I twisted my ankle last year, running was painful and certainly not helpful for a fast recovery. But cycling was still an option. And since I got injured in warm summer, I just adapted my outside training.
When you know your injury and what you can still do, it’s time to adapt your training to the situation.
Depending on the seriousness of the injury, running needs to be cut completely from your training. You might do an easy walk-run workout once a week to see how the recovery is going. But you need to stop immediately in case of increasing pain!
If you’re able to do endurance training, you can replace your workouts quite easily. Instead of a weekly long run, you could do a cycling tour for a few hours in medium intensity.
Your speed sessions could be replaced by fast swim intervals in the pool or other high intense cardio exercises (rope skipping, burpees, jumping jacks) if the injury allows you to do so.
Injuries are not all negative. Take the break from running as a chance to give your body time to recover from the many miles of running you do. Focus on flexibility with extended stretching and prepare your body for future running by strength training and building a strong base.
The tricky thing with injuries is, that it happens easily to go back to your normal training too soon. You can then make the injury worse again. So it’s key to have a slow and easy transition from your adapted training to your regular regimen.
First thing if you have any running injury is that you need to be able to walk pain free. If you can, you should start with very short test runs. Jog slowly for a mile and see if there’s any pain. If there is, it’s too soon to go running regularly. If there isn’t any pain, wait and check if you can still walk pain free the next day.
Slowly increase your running again and always check if the injury keeps getting better or if recovery stagnates or the situation even gets worse again. Don’t run two days in a row but give yourself enough time between your test runs.
Start by replacing your short and moderate workouts you did in another sport with running. The last workouts you wanna switch back to running are the very intense speed sessions and long runs.
The transition from your adapted training to regular running can go on for several weeks. I know you feel like running but you have to resist even if race day is getting closer.
If you are able to cross train during the injury then you’re just fine. When I sprained my ankle, I was scared that I lose too much of my (running) fitness during the period I was only cycling and strength training.
But the exact opposite was the case!
I took my cross training very seriously and for example replaced my 3-4h long runs with 5-6 hours cycling. The speed sessions were replaced by sprinting up a 1500 foot climb with my road bike.
I actually gained fitness even faster than with the regular running training I did. So in retrospect the injury was quite a fitness boost for me. Paradox, but that’s what can happen!
Where you stand as far as fitness and endurance can be seen pretty fast when you get back to running. That’s also the time where you constantly have to check in what condition you are.
Remember that taking a rain check and skip the race is always an option. Of course the one that you try to avoid. But as always, health should come first.
Even if you haven’t lost any fitness and endurance you still should have two decent weeks of running before the race. Just to adapt your body again to the motion and burden of running.
In these two or more weeks you should also consider adapting your goals for the race. Always reevaluate your situation and your level of performance. And be conservative with what you want to achieve on race day.
If you can run pain free before race day and you can despite your injury toe the starting line, that alone is a success.
Remember the moment you realized that you’re injured and need to stop running for a while. Being able to participate in the race you signed up and planned your training for, means that you’ve dealt in the right manner with your injury.
So what does that mean for the race itself?
I would recommend that you start things slowly and don’t focus on your finish time. From the very beginning focus on the injured body part and constantly check if you have any discomfort or pain. If so, slow down.
Chances are that you still finish with a decent time. If you’ve done a great job with cross training and have a bit of luck, you can even perform better than you planned. Just as I did last year!
If you finished the race then enjoy your achievement to the fullest. However don’t think you’re super(wo)man now. Learn from your injury and the path you took after getting injured up to race day.
Most running injuries come from asking too much of your body too soon. So even you could still race despite getting injured, focus on injury prevention even more in the future.
And reflect on your adapted training while you were injured. I certainly realized the importance and benefits of cross training.
This is what constant and healthy improvement looks like. Learn from your mistakes, try new things and always be flexible in your training planning. Nobody is a perfect runner, but the clever ones get closer to perfection year after year!