The Comeback Kid – Five Tips for the Road to Recovery

I don’t often write personal pieces, but just getting back on my feet running again has been a real victory for me these last few weeks. A period of reflection and regression is good for the soul, and with that a renewed vigour to get back into it. Around two months ago I thought that as far as running was concerned, I was pretty much done.

Just over five months ago, I destroyed my ankle. Two weekends on the trot actually. Firstly a nightmare roll 1km into Six Foot track saw me limp/hobble the remaining 44kms home. I had trained for and pencilled in a 100 miler at Northburn the weekend after and sitting in the mud near the bottom of Nellie’s Glen, ankle in pain, I contemplated pulling from Six Foot just 1km into the race for a bit of self-preservation.

The montanes in Otago as too good not to run in.
The montanes in Otago are too good not to run in

Ego got the better of me however and while I was however torn between having a DNF against my name and Northburn, I wanted to make my fifth finish, knowing that it would be an awful time, but a finish nonetheless. Carry on I did hoping for the best, finishing a shade under 6 hours in a personal worst. I thought my Northburn miler was done, even downgrading to 50kms seemed out of the option. But as I drove through the majestic High Plains of NZ and into Otago to the awe-inspiring mountains, I knew I had to run. I lined up for another 50kms and proceeded to roll the ankle numerous times, and in the process smashing the bugger to pieces.

The day after I could barely walk; an ultrasound back in Sydney confirmed a juicy 5cm tear in the peroneal tendon in the ankle and a diagnosis from the consultant that it was a case of grin and bear it.

The tendon won’t repair and he’s reluctant to put me under the knife unless the thing has completely snapped and as he put it, ‘that’s why you have two of them on each ankle. You’ll still be able to run, you’ll just need to ‘manage the discomfort’.

The ‘real job’ was also getting hugely busy, so I took the decision to have some real time off, chill out and spend Saturday mornings with my three kids instead of beasting another rep of Kedumba in the Blue Mountains. After eight years of near enough continuous ultra running, it was time for a break; five months to be precise. And for a while, as I ate and drank without thought, I honestly thought I was done in the running stakes.

But something clicked in my a few weeks ago, or more so it was the scales ticking over a little too far for my liking, so as I puffed my way up a pathetic 10 stair reps the other day on the road to recovery, I pondered about what I’d learned in terms of coming back after a big injury.

Here are my five tips for a ‘measured’ and successful comeback.

1.) Set (realistic) goals

When you finally get back on your feet, while the temptation might be to just drift along for a few weeks to see how your body deals with the rigours of training again, it’s still important to have a goal in mind. That might be to simply complete a certain number of kilometers in training or it could be a race. Make sure you have something to aim for and that its realistic. There’s no point thinking you can complete a 100 mile race within 3 months of coming back.

Build towards it and set incremental goals or races on your journey to your big race. I desperately want to get back to run a miler, but I know it’s going to be a good 12 months of hard graft to get there and to be vaguely competitive. Start smart and start precise to keep focus.

Watch your footing when you make your comeback
Watch your footing when you make your comeback

2.) Don’t take risks

If you’ve suffered from a pretty bad injury it makes no sense to take big risks if you may re-injure yourself. I know I’m one bad ankle roll away from a complete snap in the tendon, an operation and potentially no more proper running for a while if at all competitively again.

Take it easy on difficult terrain, or avoid it altogether for a few months until your injury is back up to dealing with uneven surfaces and feels strong again. Keep the ego under control and the body protected.

3.) Push yourself

This may seem very at odds with the last point, but the two are entirely different. If you’ve had a long period of time off, then you’re likely to be horrendously unfit unless you’ve done plenty of cross training. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy and was pretty much sedentary for five months.

My first run back was horrific and the only way to get back to fitness as quickly as possible is to push yourself and get that heart rate up once or twice a week. That’s not about taking risks, it’s about doing a few sessions that make you feel like for the want of a better phrase that you’re ‘hanging out of the back of your arse’.

That might be some steep stairs reps or an effort 5km run. Whatever it is, it’s important to push that heart rate even if you’re incredibly unfit. It will hurt like hell, but you’ll actually notice the improvements in a much bigger way.

4.) Keep it short and sweet and build gently

A really obvious one, but understand that you’re not going to hit those 100km+ weeks for a while. Start short with some 5km runs, building gradually to 10km and onwards during the week.

Don’t even contemplate those big 40km+ weekend long runs for months. Start small and build small, it’s your best chance of self-preservation and success.

Build nicely into your training block
Build nicely into your training block

5.) Accept your limits

One of the hardest things for ultra runners is an acceptance of where we are currently versus where we’ve been before. Being at a current state of fitness that’s worse than someone with a 40 cigarette a day smoking habit is tough to accept. We know where we were pre injury and where we know we want/should be. But we also have to understand that it will be many many months before we’re back at that level again.

It’s about self-acceptance and being able to succumb to our new reality of being in the present. Take comfort from the fact that you may be so far down the ladder in terms of fitness that you’ll notice big improvements, quickly.

Just enjoy the journey, safe in the knowledge that each run and session is one step close to that goal or state of being that we wish to attain.

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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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