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I’ve got some beef with my cankles. You know, my calf and ankle…though I’m not exactly sure which one, so…cankle. But per usual, before we get to that, I must preface this story with a very long intro.
At the gym, I frequently work with beginners. These are people of all ages who have generally not stuck to a regular workout or training routine at any point in their life, for whatever reason. These people not only need to be taught the ins and outs of working out such as form, programming, etc., but typically have little to no concept of what type of effort they need to be putting forth as well.
In my experience, I usually see one of two things in the people that do not stick with exercise:
a) A beginner who insists upon pushing themselves WAY too hard, way too fast. These people either get hurt or physically and mentally burnout, stop coming to the gym, and end up right back at square one.
b) A beginner who simply goes through the motions with little to no effort, either because they fear discomfort or they simply lack motivation. These people get bored and hardly see results, so they stop coming to the gym, and end up right back at square one.
They key is finding a happy medium between the two that will demonstrate to that newbie exactly what “feeling” and effort we are going for, without going overboard.
I almost always bring up my “pain vs. discomfort” mini lecture with these beginners. I describe to them that sometimes, exercise needs to be uncomfortable, because the discomfort is where we begin to see results. For example, if you are doing a set of 10 bicep curls, the last 3 or 4 reps should be a bit of a struggle. Not SO much of a struggle that your form goes to hell and you are throwing those elbows and hips forward (big dudes in the gym, I am talking to you), but enough that you think to yourself “Wow this kind of sucks, I really cannot wait until this set is over and I can stop doing this!”. That discomfort typically signals that we have pushed the muscle further than it is used to, thus on a microscopic level that I’ll spare you the long details of, the muscle is tearing down, will later heal and grow, and thus, become stronger.
And then I describe pain. Sharp pains that come out of the blue, dull aches that seem to get worse, or simply your body shouting at you “SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT HERE!”, those are the things that must not be ignored. Those are the signs that something is structurally wrong, or something is about to be wrong. Stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect your 10 reps. This is how injuries happen.
Beginners often mistake discomfort for pain, and understandably so. If you haven’t felt the burn of lactic acid or the feeling of approaching muscular failure since you were an 8 year old sprinting across the playground, then yeah, these sensations can be scary. But if you never push yourself even slightly out of the comfort zone, you are likely not going to see results. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people ask me why they haven’t lost weight or gotten stronger, only to find out they’ve been lifting the exact same weight for the last 6 months. They never push the barrier, they are simply going through the motions.
On the other hand, stubborn athletes often mistake pain for discomfort, and understandably so. As an athlete, you learn to push yourself WAY out of the comfort zone frequently, because this is where we get bigger/faster/stronger. For example: during times you are doing, say, 400 meter sprints or 800 meter tempo runs, of course your lungs and legs are yelling “whoa, hey now, this is pretty uncomfortable, should we really be doing this?”. It’s wildly uncomfortable and the effort is pretty hard, and you might even feel like you are going to barf everywhere. We learn to tell our body “YES, I know what I’m doing, this is going to make us faster, so shut up and suck it up for a little bit longer.”
There are some of us that have an end goal we feel so strongly about that the line between discomfort and pain becomes blurry because of a completely different fear…the fear of not reaching our goal. We have become so conditioned to telling ourselves to suck up the discomfort that we ignore our bodies cues…or even screaming alerts.
I found myself there today.
(And by today, I mean Monday. Sometimes I get sidetracked before finishing a post.)
I’ve mentioned here and there that I’ve had some pain in the lower leg/ankle area. It comes and goes. I attribute it partially to my weak hips, and have been actively trying to work on said weak/tight hips. But despite the stretching and massage, the pain has gotten worse. There are plenty of things it COULD be, most of which were likely caused by overuse, and will likely be healed with a decrease in volume…in other words, rest.
So for the most part, I rested last week. I behaved myself. Today, feeling fresh and ready to run, I headed out for a 20 miler. 7 miles in, my left leg started sounding the alarm. I ignored it. My desire to complete this training schedule and show up to my race adequately trained shouted louder than the pain. It was just uncomfortable. 24 hours is more uncomfortable. 50,70, 100 miles is more uncomfortable. Get used to it, Heather.
Push. Push. Push.
I stopped to fix my shoe lace. I took a few walking steps to ease into my run. And like a big slap in the face, I suddenly realized I was limping. And not the “holy crap my muscles are sore because I’ve been running for hours and hours” kind of limp. No, I was a mere 8 miles into my run at a leisurely pace, and I was in actual pain.
Reluctantly, and in the spirit of my #DTLAA mission (that’s “don’t train like an asshole“, if you are new here…) I stopped running. Thankfully I was only about a quarter of a mile from my car. I walked back and cut the workout short by 11.5 miles. I didn’t even make it half way.
So here I am, taking my frustration out on the keys of my computer’s keyboard.
I asked my Facebook friends to diagnose me, because, why the hell not. I’m 99% sure that regardless of what it is, the prescription is to lay off the running until it heals, so I figured it would pass the time and possibly alert me to something I might not have thought of. And they’ve diagnosed me with tears, tendonitis, and fractures of every single muscle, tendon, and bone in the lower leg and foot in some form or another. One great pal even suggested appendicitis, so the lesson here is to obviously ALWAYS trust the internet.
Thankfully, a private message session with a doctor friend helped narrow down the possibilities and pinpoint what I’ve suspected: a combination of the wrong gear (maybe) with a (relatively) sudden change in terrain (trail to mostly pavement) and mileage. I’ve been doing all of my long runs on pavement, out of convenience. I’m thinking the transition back to the harshness of the pavement (I ran trails 99% of the time in Vermont) is the culprit. The small but extremely variable terrain of the one trail we DO have is also likely a culprit. It’s technically a mountain bike trail, so it’s chock full of hairpin turns and pump track 2-4 foot high “hills”; those cause my joints to constantly switch directions far more than my rugged Vermont mountain terrain ever did.
And lastly, yes. While I spent the early part of this summer diving back into running and running only, I suppose perhaps my current training plan is still a bit aggressive.
And so I rest. I cut my mileage back to a mere fraction of what it was; I can’t stand to look at the training calendar on the wall because I know I’ve lost (and will continue to loose) nearly a hundred miles out of this training program. It’s frustrating because I am so determined to show up to this race prepared. But I’m also (finally?) smart enough to know that pushing a potential injury could not only compromise my preparedness…it could mean I don’t get to toe the start line at all.
And I’m going to that race, dammit.