Injuries: a Gift & a Curse
Injuries can certantly be a setback, but you know what else they can be? A GIFT. A gift of adversity, challenging us to work harder and to be innovative in achieving our goals. In ultra running, adversity is something we had best familiarize ourselves with. We must see setbacks not only as a challenge but also as an opportunity to grow. Can you think back to an obstacle you’ve overcome that made you stronger? More courageous? More confident? Maybe it even led you to become the runner you are today. Every time we step outside of our comfort zone, growth is guaranteed. I think back to the many adversities I’ve overcome that have changed my running for the better, like running nauseous for the last 50 miles of a 100-mile ultra, which led to a radical all-natural shift in my diet. Or wiping out on several occasions, loosing all my fluids between aid stations, which lead me to train my body to run 30 miles with no food or water. Or being diagnosed with IT Band Syndrome and now being able to share my experience, potentially helping many other runners stuck in a similar situation. The point is that we learn from adversity. We learn to overcome it, we learn to do better, and we learn how to keep moving forward. Injuries are one of the toughest adversities athletes must face, both physically and mentally. Your body can stand just about anything–it’s your mind that you have to convince. We must convince ourselves to step outside of the norm and train differently, recover faster, and to be confident that it will all be worth the extra effort. It’s tough not being able to do the things that we love–trust me, I’ve been there. So that’s why I’m here, right now, explaining how I overcame an adversity that affects millions of runners each year. This is the story of how I conquered the infamous IT Band Syndrome, and trained for my next ultra marathon in the process.
Can you make a 100% recovery?
IT Band Syndrome, ITBS, Runner’s Knee, whatever name we use it still is one of the most common overuse injuries that we face as runners today. I’ve been there and I know how frustrating it can be. Endless Google searches, contradicting opinions, and the most common recommendation is to REST. The exact word that no runner ever wants to hear. Being an endurance athlete is about continuous training and pushing ourselves to new heights, but should we rest through injuries? Or should we push ourselves through them? I chose the latter and fortunately I was successful in doing so. Sometimes it can feel like you will never recover but I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to recover 100% because I have. Not only have I made a 100% recovery but I trained for my next ultra marathon while doing so. Please note, I am not a medical professional and this information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. I’m just sharing what worked for me from my own personal experience. Miles and miles of my own ultra running experience and maybe–just maybe–this is the kind of expertise you have been searching for all along.
What is Iliotibial Band Syndrome?
The definition found on Runner’s World website is “one of the most common overuse injuries among runners. It occurs when the iliotibial band, the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin, is tight or inflamed. The IT band attaches to the knee and helps stabilize and move the joint.”
They say somewhere in the neighborhood of 65-80% of runners each year get injured and overuse is the culprit for the majority. Furthermore, ITBS is the most common overuse injury there is. It’s been plaguing the running world as far back as we can remember. So let’s get into it. Before discussing the healing process, let’s talk about how my runner’s knee developed and see how it relates to your situation.
How I Developed ITBS
A few years ago, I picked up a brand new pair of Nike running shoes. I really prefer stability when I run ultra marathons over traction or speed. When they discontinued the shoe, I called Nike Corporation and purchased the last 15 pairs of size 13’s in the country. The shoes literally shipped from 5 different Nike outlets throughout the country. As my shoe supply began to dissipate, it was time to try a different type of shoe, a new trail running shoe. Naturally, most trail running shoes are neutral because of the adverse terrain. This was very different compared to the pronated support my body was acclimated to.
I was just coming off the Mountour 24 Hour Ultra Marathon, completing 107 miles and finishing in 3rd place. Immediately after this race, I began training for a local 12-hour race. I hit some nearby trails, putting my new shoes to the test. The speed and traction was relatively outstanding, but I quickly learned that a new style shoe should be gradually broken into. Your body needs time to adapt to the new design.
Trying to run conservatively during a 31 mile morning run, I caught a moment of inspiration and switched gears. It was one of those runs where you loose yourself in the moment and forget that you are running. Deciding to leverage the situation, I began running fast. I was PRing my 50K time in my new shoes! Starting at 3:00 am, I was running an out-and-back and made it to the turn-around a little over 15 miles away from home when I suddenly felt my knee tighten up. As I put on the brakes, my leg could not extend without severe pain. Hobbling down the street, I limped home the remaining 15 miles!
The Doctor Visit
After being stuck in denial for a week, I made peace with the injury and decided to go see a doctor. I was referred to a doctor who conveniently was assigned to the Philadelphia Marathon. Since the Philadelphia Marathon is one of the largest marathons in the U.S., I figured it would be my best option. Once the doctor was finished twisting and pulling my leg, he diagnosed me immediately with Iliotibial Band Syndrome or ITBS. I came to a realization that day. The doctor, along with most doctors, could diagnose the issue but could not help me. I only say this because when you visit a doctor and tell them your knee hurts after running a race of over 100 miles, we all know what their response is going to be. In their mind, if 1+1=2 then RUNNING + 100 MILES = INJURY. Certainly a reasonably logical conclusion. Not to mention, I was extremely grateful for the diagnosis. However, it’s difficult to rationalize the lifestyle of an ultra marathon runner. The last thing an endurance athlete wants to hear is “you need to take some time off” or “you shouldn’t push yourself so far.” Pushing past your limits is the exact essence of endurance sports. So instead of taking the recommended advice to REST, I decide to force my body to respond. When the doctor told me RICE I thought “RUN Ice Compression Elevation?”. I’m not saying his recommendation was incorrect or that my decision made the most logical sense. I didn’t even have a plan. What I’m saying is that when someone gives you advice, its your decision whether to accept it or not. We must be the guardians of our own minds. The decision was made and I went against the grain. I decided to see if I could recover while keeping my mileage up to naturally transition to my next ultra marathon. After weeks of frustration, innovation, and shear hopefulness I made it. Following my recovery, I ran 3 ultras 3 months in a row followed by a 100-mile ultra. I made it, and here’s how…
Please check out next week’s post where I outline exactly how I recovered from and trained with ITBS. I will lay out not just what I did to heal myself from ITBS but also how I continued to train for my next ultra marathon in the process. We can let injuries define use, we can let them tear us apart, or we can let them strengthen us. Either way, we are right. The choice is ours indefinitely. What will you decide?
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