My usual reflective end of year post is slightly late, but here is what I have learnt in 2015 on my fitness journey, and the lessons I am looking to take forward into 2016. My hope is that by writing about my experiences and learnings will help many other people out there who are equally passionate about fitness and in particular, running, but have or will end up at some point in their lives on the ‘bench’ due to setbacks.
If I could summarise my 2015 fitness journey in just one sentence, it would be something along the lines of:
Barely had I managed to fully put the memories of the PTT behind me and recover both physically AND mentally, I found myself on the bench again last September, following a disastrous Parkrun. This time my left knee let me down, completely out of the blue, without any prior warnings. Later on, it was established that my ITB was really unhappy, and in addition, the MRI scan I had showed that I had sustained some minor cartilage damage as well under the knee cap. (Whether during that particular run, or over a period of time, still remains an unresolved mystery).
I have been happily running and working out in the gym over the past 10 years or so, with only minor niggles along the way, therefore I am completely puzzled as to why these injuries keep happening to me within just one year. Of course, I could spend ages agonising over this whilst trying to figure out the reasons, but without finding an exact answer to the problem. So for now, I am just making some educated guesses, based on my own research and various consultations with my physiotherapists:-
Factors outside my control:
- Genetic makeup (traits I have to live with);
- Age (on the wrong side of 30…);
- Sheer misfortune (just because we can never overlook the ‘sh*t happens’ factor).
Factors (at least partly) within my control
- Natural wear and tear due to high levels of physical activity (I find it difficult to gauge what is the ‘right level‘ of training so I suspect I may have overtrained on occasions);
- Lifestyle factors such as sitting too much/being sedentary outside exercising (which is not great for the hips and glutes), coupled with generally high levels of stress – mainly due to the nature of my job;
- Failing to spot potential early warning signs that things were building up to an injury;
- Muscular imbalances, poor biomechanics and form (weak/not properly firing glutes, mild overpronation, inward rolling knees, pelvic instability manifesting itself in a hip drop whilst running or doing one leg squats etc.).
Those of you who have battled sports injuries like myself know that it is often not the physical pain or discomfort that is the worst part of it, but the mental and emotional side of things. And, let’s be honest here, the task of finding the right specialist who knows what they are doing and can truly help in an effective AND timely manner (without breaking the bank) will almost certainly also add to the hurdles you are facing.
Talking about the mental/emotional side of things, having two long term sports injuries in such short succession had really knocked off my confidence in my body’s ability to function the way it should. Nothing is more demoralising than when ‘the mind and spirit are willing, but the flesh is weak’. My turning point came when I had to pull out of the Oxford half mid-race, because the pain in my knee suddenly and unexpectedly came back only after 5km’s (I thought I had recovered by that time, but clearly, I had not). I went through different phases of trying to cope, and that included huge amounts of anger, shame and self-hatred as well. However, I quickly realised that it was not a good place to be. Whilst it was important not to suppress or deny the way I was truly feeling, but let these emotions wash over me and let them run their course, eventually I chose to rise, not fall. As a result, I started to feel better both physically and mentally/emotionally.
The key was to:-
- Focus on what I could do, rather than on what I could not do (i.e. I could do anything except running);
- Accept that with the level of running and exercising I was doing, it was almost inevitable to sustain some kind of injury (it was just very unfortunate that so little time passed between the two occurences). At the end of the day, no one is immune to injuries, but of course, this is not something that is widely advertised by fitness gurus, celebrity trainers and sports marvels, because it is not ‘trendy’ to talk about the injury risks and some unwanted consequences of constantly pushing one’s own limitations in the name of getting ripped or completing x number of ultras on x number of continents etc.
- Seek reliable and expert help as soon as I knew it was not just a passing niggle (after the Oxford half fiasco);
- Follow my physio’s advice and do any exercises/form fixes he prescribed me, RELIGIOUSLY – I found that these genuinely do work but I had to do them every day and at the right intensity;
- Apply ‘black box’ thinking – try to analyse and understand what were the most likely causes of my current and previous injury, in order to be able to attack the root cause as efficiently as possible (rather than just treating the symptoms), and to avoid re-occurrence of the same issues;
- Try and focus on other things that distracted me from feeling so sh*t about myself (Good job it was a particularly busy time at work so I barely had time to think about anything else).
- Not only notice but also celebrate the key milestones in my recovery journey, no matter how small, in order to win my confidence back in my body.
Extremely slowly, but steadily, I started to make progress and eventually came back to running again (although I am yet to build on the distance and am still under my physio’s orders to give my knee some break from doing squats and lunges for the time being etc.). I do not know what the future holds (there may be a time when I won’t even be able to walk), but for now, I am trying to look ahead more positively and incorporate some lessons into 2016 in the hope that I can not only fully heal but I can also progress even further. I am definitely stronger and wiser now, but I wish I had not have to go through all this hurdle.
So below are the things I will do differently in 2016 to keep rising:-
- Train smarter: Need to accept that the more seriously I am into running, it is no longer about how hard I train, but about how smartly I train. This may mean cutting back on doing certain things and focusing on different things. Or periodising training i.e. doing different things during certain periods in the year. I believe that this approach will give me that extra edge I need to become a better runner (and maybe even reach new PB’s in the future).
- Be a step ahead of the game: By incorporating a prehab routine into my regular training will help me be more proactive and keep my biomechanical weaknesses at bay (and who knows, maybe even turn them into strengths!) In particular, for me this means continuing to work on my running form (higher cadence, widening my stride, correct pelvic alignment, better core, glute and hip engagement), and keeping up with my strengthening/corrective exercises for my ITB, glutes and inner thighs. I have faith that these fixes and exercises work – my physio’s recent video analysis of my running form on the treadmill is the testament for this, which he conducted after 4 months of me following a set routine, religiously.
- Adopt a long term perspective: I would especially like to change my relationship with food. I am a helpless grazer and a sucker for comfort food, have very little self-control, and strong emotions (such as extreme stress or exuberant happiness) make me succumb to poor food choices. This may surprise those who know me, as on the outside I still look quite fit and slim, but I know I cannot get away with stuffing myself with junk long-term, without unwanted consequences. For me, working out is very easy (because I genuinely enjoy it and the benefits I get from it), but I am finding that eating clean is the extremely hard bit, and I am sure I am not alone with this. The key is to apply more self-discipline to say ‘no’ more often to short term gratification in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long-term.
- Take a holistic approach: In how I view my own fitness. Having immersed myself into the philosophy of yoga through reading Coleen Saidman Yee’s book ‘Yoga for Life’, one thing became quite clear: I cannot separate mind, body and spirit because they are so closely entwined and can only function properly when they are in harmony and are all ‘happy’ and cared for. If the mind suffers (e.g. through stress/emotional trauma), the body is likely to suffer, too (e.g. you are more prone to getting ill or experience a decrease in sports performance). I have found this to be true the other way around as well (e.g. If I am injured, then I start to feel depressed). The key thing is to be more self-aware and mindful in everything that I do; aim for balance; which hopefully will result in me being a better listener to what my body is trying to say to me.
So here is to a happy, healthy and fit 2016!