Legs, Stomach, Heart and Head – The Injured Runner’s Checklist

injury

Any runner that’s been through a prolonged period of injury and no running will know just how hard it is to get back into the routine. Your fitness disappears down the toilet and the everyday monotony that you’d made a habit in your life, is harder to get back than holding onto the Prime Minister’s position in Australia!

As I eagerly embarked back on my own training regime after a period of six weeks of zero running, something big really struck me and that was just how, as ultrarunners, we become conditioned to the rigours of what we do. For me, the massive lesson that hit home was the role our legs play in getting us through big ultras with massive vertical.

When we're fit, it's easy to forget how quickly we can move up these things compared to 'normal' folk
When we’re fit, it’s easy to forget how quickly we can move up these things compared to ‘normal’ folk

I rather naively thought that because I’d kept up a pretty strict regime of using the rowing machine and hard bike drills, that my fitness would be OK and I could get straight back into running. I was fairly right on the first bit, I had maintained an OK level of fitness, but with regards to the getting straight back into running bit, my legs certainly made sure I knew about it. The heart was fine, but the legs were in ‘lead’ mode for nearly two weeks. Quite simply, my legs had forgotten what it was like to run (not literally), and the pounding that they get was a distant memory. So on starting running again, I’d completely underestimated the rigours of giving the legs a good going over.

This got me thinking about the role our legs play, but not just that, the vital components of ultrarunning, hence the title of legs, stomach, heart and head. In my period of injury, all I was concerned about was my fitness and keeping that up, which to some extent, I did. But I didn’t really focus on the other three, so in line with Hanny’s post about the diet of an injured runner, I decided to take this a step further and look at the other aspects I should have focused on too when injured.

The Legs

As mentioned above, conditioning to what we do is hugely important – I think they call this muscle memory 🙂 and the ability of the legs to remember what you used to put them through. As ultra runners we probably take this part massively for granted. Right now I’m personally in a period of massive frustration as I get the legs used to running up hills again. There was a time, just nine weeks ago where smashing the local hills was just for fun and the feeling of the strength in them was amazing. Now, my legs ache like no tomorrow and they’ve forgotten what its like to function up hills properly.

Nothing beat the pounding on the legs that running gives
Nothing beat the pounding on the legs that running gives

So if you’re injured what can you do about it? Firstly, it depends upon the type of injury you have. For me, I had fractured the top of my tibia, so all running and weight-bearing was out of the question. Instead I took to the bike, whacked it on the highest setting and imitated hills climbs that way. But it was no substitute for the pounding the legs get on the ground. If you’re able to hit the stairs while injured, I’d suggest you do as much as you’re physically able to, keeping up some semblance of impact on the legs. If you can’t do that, get on the bike like I did, but be prepared for a tough journey back.

Stomach

What we eat as ultrarunners is a huge part of our racing strategy. It also plays a huge part when we’re injured too. Unluckily for me, my injury hit right over Christmas and the season of much food and drink. And eat and drink I did, and so the weight started to creep on. This is a tough one because someone’s diet is such a personal thing to them and I’m a big advocate of balance in life. I also detest all of these ‘fad’ diets you see idiots trying out and proclaiming as the next big thing on Facebook.

The good stuff
The good stuff

My rule in life is keep it fresh (with fruit and veg), keep it out of a box, (if it’s in a box, it’s manufactured and likely to contain shit), keep out the added sugar, but keep the balance too. None of this 5/2 thing, paleo / atkins bollocks or too much of one thing. If you want to lose weight, eat less than you do already and run moderately each day. I’ve done that for the last two weeks and shifted 5kegs… simple. As a guide I was whacking 1,500 calories of fresh fish, fruit and veg down my throat a day and running a moderate 10kms (with an odd meat feast pizza thrown in one a week)… freaking easy peasy. OK, so it doesn’t work like that for everyone, I’m being obtuse, but find your way and stick to it.

Heart

Now when I’m referring to the heart, I don’t mean how much heart you’ve got, I’m talking in terms of fitness. One of the things I was not very good at while injured was maintaining any form of fitness. I’m not a big fan of the gym, I think it’s populated in the main by douchebags. But this time round, I though I’d give it a shot and join the chicken-legged brigade down at my local tin box.

In short, it’s been a massive help flogging myself to death on the indoor rower for up to an hour at a time. When I got back into running again I could maintain sub five-minute kms and the heart rate wasn’t going through the roof. The legs wouldn’t have it, but I knew that some of my fitness had been retained. Two weeks back into training and I’m starting to feel comfortable. Had I not kept up that aerobic activity, I’d have been starting back at 5:30min kms as I normally do and probably twice the amount of ‘getting back into it time’.

Head

This is the big one when you’re injured. This one impacts all three of the above as it dictates when you do with your legs, what type of fitness you choose to maintain and what you place in your stomach. The head also makes up about 80% of an ultra I’d say. Trying to keep the discipline when you’re not running is incredibly hard, but if you can maintain some form of routine that you would have normally done had you not been injured, then you’re well on the way to getting back to form quickly.

Apply the mind
Apply the mind

The thing is, it’s just as easy to drop a habit as it is to form it. In fact, I’d say it’s easier. It’s easier to find an excuse to not head to the gym or hop on the bike, particularly if like me, you’re no fan of the lycra brigade. It’s also a case of finding your poison and sticking to it. For me that was driving myself into arse numbing oblivion on the rowing machine for an hour. The sadistic nature of it appealed to me, not so much the sore arse of sitting on the damn thing so much I must admit – we’ll leave that to the kiwis 🙂

But in all seriousness, a period of injury can really help to make think about the different components that make up our sport and what we need to maintain. I was very naive in focusing on just one aspect, which was fitness. There’s far more to it than that.

Dan on Twitter
Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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