Gain From Pain

10 ways to stay positive, and fit, when you're out of action

Posted: 30 July 2002
by Bob Wischnia

Let me clarify something right away. This article isn't going to be a sympathetic, touchy-feely treatise on getting in tune with the five stages of grief when you're injured and unable to run. If you're looking for compassion, don't come to me.

Don't get me wrong – being hurt stinks. I've been injured many times (once for about two years) and I've been forced to learn how to deal with it.

The easiest thing to do when you're hurt is to get bogged down in funereal gloom and the unfairness of it all. Which, of course, does you no good at all – just the opposite, in fact. Recovery is your goal, and what you need is an effective way to bridge that depressing gap between the day you're forced to stop running and the day you can start again.

It's your choice. Wallow in self-pity, lose your aerobic base, put on weight and make yourself and everyone around you miserable – or get a life. Here's the plan...

1. No whining

If you love to run, there's no denying that injury downtime can be a major pain. But try to keep it in perspective. Most running injuries are relatively minor and will heal in due time. It may seem catastrophic when you can't run, but a bad case of shin splints is nothing when you compare it to friends who have real problems, real illnesses and real pain. Some of those friends may not recover; you will. Don't complain, because no one wants to hear it. Not your partner, not your kids, not even your running friends. Besides, complaining is counterproductive to getting healthy again.

The gain: You'll stay positive during the lay-off, thus speeding your recovery.

2. Be patient

Every runner I've known has been injured at one time or another. And every one of those runners – even a 72-year-old friend who broke his hip – was able to run again. There's a cure for practically every running injury, and most injuries heal with time. Unfortunately, no magic pill will cure you instantly. Nor is a simple change of shoes the right answer. Instead, be confident that regardless of how bad your injury may seem, it's only temporary. You will run again, if you're patient enough to allow the healing process the time it needs.

The gain: You'll give the injury adequate time to heal.

3. If you have a routine, stick to it

That is, if you normally run at lunchtime, continue to get some sort of exercise at lunchtime. If you're an early morning runner, go for a walk early in the morning.

I'm so anal about my routine that I try to maintain the same daily pattern even when I can't run. Particularly on Sundays. No one enjoys a long run more than I do. I love getting up early, hitting the trail and cruising for a couple of hours.

When I'm injured, I still head to the same trail and walk for a couple of hours (being more attentive to the wildlife). I follow this with my post run ritual: some stretching, a session with the ice pack, a shower, warm bagels and the Sunday papers. From a psychological standpoint, this ritual is almost as important to me as the run itself. Is this walk as satisfying as my long run? No way. But maintaining my routine is a whole lot better for my mind and body than doing nothing.

The gain: By sticking with some semblance of your exercise ritual, you'll reap many of its mood-boosting benefits.

4. Do it outdoors

Especially when you're injured, you need fresh air. You can scoop up a lot of it on a bike ride. If it's winter, or if the weather is too foul to cycle, I just walk. Processing lungfuls of oxygen is one of the things that make you feel good when running, and you'll get a similar effect by doing just about any other vigorous outdoor activity.

The gain: Checking out the world around you will take your mind off your injury, and you'll get your accustomed dose of fresh air and sunlight.

5. Sweat

If you normally run 45 minutes a day, make sure you do some activity vigorous enough to keep you aerobic for 45 minutes. This is critical for hanging on to your sanity, not to mention your aerobic fitness. It doesn't matter too much what you do, as long as it doesn't aggravate the existing injury.

The only problem with things like fast-paced walking is that I don't sweat. Working up a big sweat is so ingrained in me that I desperately need the feel of a wet T-shirt after a workout. If only from an emotional standpoint, I must do something to jack up my heart rate and work up a lather every day. If I do I've accomplished something. If I don't, I can feel myself slipping into that dark, gloomy abyss of worthlessness. Swimming doesn't do it for me. Neither does running in a pool. In-line skating looks too dangerous. If I could play tennis without aggravating my strained hamstring, I'd do that. But I can't. So I'll hit the exercise bike or, better still, use a new device called a Skywalker. An indoor exercise machine, the Skywalker is something of a hybrid: part cross-country ski machine, part treadmill, part stairclimber. There's virtually no technique involved in using it properly, and it simulates the running motion to some degree, without any jarring. Therefore, it doesn't seem to aggravate any of the common injuries associated with running.

I guarantee that if you put in 45 minutes on a Skywalker, exercise bike, stairclimber or rowing machine, you will be drenched with sweat. More important, several studies suggest that if you do these aerobic alternatives properly and with enough intensity, they can maintain and even increase your fitness level.

Even so, it's mindless, boring stuff, so treat your cross-training activity the same way you treat your running. For instance I know every flat section, hill and pebble on my favourite 6-mile loop, so I try to simulate each section of this run on whatever machine I am using. I start with an easy 10 minutes on the ‘flats', then pick it up over a series of three ‘hills'. I'll recover for a bit then go really hard at the point when I'd be hitting that steep hill on my run. You get the idea.

The gain: You'll end up with a puddle of sweat and a saturated T-shirt – tangible evidence that you've done something to burn calories and maintain your aerobic base.

6. Lift weights

I don't know about you, but when I'm gearing up for a marathon, the last thing I want to do is throw lead around in the gym. I barely have enough time to do all the running and stretching I need, much less mix in weightlifting.

But when I'm hurt, weights can be a godsend. Since I'm often at the gym anyway, riding a stationary bike or the Skywalker, it's not a big deal to spend another 20 minutes with weights. And, because I'm not running, I'm doing more legwork than usual, along with some abdominal and upper body stuff.

The gain: You'll burn calories and maintain overall fitness and muscle tone.

7. Stay connected

For me, one of the worst aspects of being injured is not being able to run with my friends. The only time I see some of them is when we run together. So when I'm out of action, I make an effort to stay in touch and at least feel like I'm part of the running scene. A good way to do this is to volunteer to help out at races.

I also try to spend more of the dreaded ‘quality time' with my family. Normally, they make all sorts of concessions to my running idiosyncrasies, so when I'm injured I do the activities they want to do. During lay-offs, I don't have convenient running excuses (“I'm too tired”, “I'm resting for a big run tomorrow”) for dropping out of things like playing football with the kids or going to a late-night party.

The gain: Instead of becoming too self-absorbed, you'll keep lines of communication open with your friends, family and the running community.

8. Do something every day to get your health back

While injuries can be markedly different, most of them respond extremely well to rest and self-treatment. If there are things I can do – see a chiropractor or podiatrist, have a massage – I do them, even if they seem like a lot of hassle.

If all I need to do is ice the injury or take anti-inflammatories, I do it religiously. If muscle inflexibility or imbalance may have contributed to the problem, I make a point of stretching carefully twice a day.

The gain: By taking action, you'll speed recovery and achieve peace of mind.

9. Eat properly

When I'm running, I tend to eat large quantities of anything that gets in the way of my face. When I'm not running, I can gain an extra 10 pounds in a hurry. A lay-off calls for exerting a little more control over what I eat.

That's not to say that I recommend going on a crash diet; reduced nutrition lessens the body's ability to repair itself. It's inevitable that I'm going to gain weight during an enforced lay-off, but by focusing more on low-fat goodies and fruits and reducing my intake of a few staples (beer, crisps and Dairylea triangles), I can exercise some control and avoid porking out. When I start running again, the few pounds I put on will come off quickly.

The gain: Staying lean will keep your self-confidence up.

10. Focus on today

Don't set an arbitrary deadline for when you'll be ready and then start, whether you're healthy or not. With any luck, you'll only be out of action for a few weeks, but you never know how quickly you'll heal. Just because an injury took four days to heal last time doesn't mean that the same injury will take four days to heal this time. The older you get, the longer it takes for your body to heal.

You may also have to forget about that upcoming race (especially if it's a marathon) you'd planned on running, Just because you signed up for it doesn't mean you'll recover by then. And if your injury does. heal before the race, be prepared to lower your expectations on race day. Be happy you're on the starting line and in one piece, and enjoy the race.

The gain: By not setting strict deadlines, you won't get frustrated when you miss them. More important, you won't start running before you're ready.

Back In Action
Keep the following in mind when you're ready to start running again:
  • If a serious injury prevented you from running for more than a few weeks, start like a beginner. That is, intersperse slow running and walking, and, as weeks go by, gradually reduce the walking breaks. Run every other day for the first two weeks.
  • If the injured area hurts or you are limping then stop. You're doing further damage and are not ready to resume running.
  • Avoid downhill runs. If that's not possible, then walk down them, since they pound the legs more than level or uphill surfaces.
  • Be careful when you run with your friends. After your lay-off, they're probably much fitter than you and may pull you along faster or further than you should go.
  • Try to run on soft surfaces, such as dirt trails or flat, grassy fields. A treadmill works well, too; the surface is relatively easy on your legs, and if it starts to hurt, you aren't miles from home. Avoid pavements and cambered roads.
  • Wear your heaviest, most protective training shoes. (Make certain you aren't wearing a worn-out pair. If your shoes are falling to bits, buy new ones.)
  • If you're returning from an overuse or muscle inflammation injury (shin splints, Achilles tendinitis or plantar fasciitis, for example), ice the trouble spot after every run.
  • Stretch gently but thoroughly after each run.
  • Troubleshoot the injury you just suffered.Why were you injured in the first place? Did you run too much? Too fast? Was it a change of shoes? Check your training log for clues. Whatever caused the injury, avoid it next time.

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injury general, cross-training, rehabilitation

Discuss this article

Hi,I am not a serious runner but having run the 2001 Great North Run I would like to run another race soon.The problem is I develop a soreness around my hip after a vigorous run of about 2 to 3 miles.The same thing happened about 1 year ago but this time it was the other hip that became soor.Has anyone got any ideas what the problem may be
Posted: 01/03/2003 at 16:36

Ilio Tibial Band Syndrome? It's on the injury site somewhere.
Posted: 01/03/2003 at 16:53

It can be tightness of the muscles around your bum. I have been treated for this problem with physio ( as it can be related to the pelvis) and sports massage.
See someone. Good luck
Posted: 01/03/2003 at 17:18


I'm getting treated for this very problem now. In my case, it's a tightness of the muscles above the hip joint. Get yourself to a good sports physio - they're not cheap but the one I go to is brilliant. I'm virtually pain free after just two visits.
Posted: 01/03/2003 at 20:08

I had a similar injury a few years ago - cause was my hamstrings too tight (not stretching them enough) which pulled my pelvic bone out of place, impinging on sciatic nerve and causing pain

See a sports physio asap before it gets worse
Posted: 02/03/2003 at 15:35

I have had pain in the calf area for the last 3 weeks. I was gently running after back injury (nothing to do with running) and felt as if the achilles area just below the calf was stiif but always eased off. The following day the area was again stiff. Anyway on the last run the stiffness eased off and a few minutes later the whole calf area became sore. The pain has eased off very slightly.Achilles appears to be ok,but, I still have a lot of discomfort in the calf and it seems to originate from the lower part of the muscle.Does anyone know what this could be and treatment apart from rest.Is this Tendonitis or a pull /tear.
Posted: 12/03/2004 at 14:01

I've had a myriad of problems but all linkes to tight hamstrings/buttocks , and a weak back/abs (core) . At the momnet I have a pain in the shin about 4" up from the ankle bone - this leg was broken at the thigh 18yrs ago and is slighly shorter , I pronate badly on that foot as well. My leg seems to "twist " at that point , I've found if I stretch enough the pain I get in it is alleviated , it doesn't hurt to run once its warm but after it can be quite painful and I want to really get this sorted before I press my miles out.

Its all to do with the tension permanently in my thighs it appears - I'm having a few weeks off running after racing regularly since March. I want to get these hamstring really loose - I seem to be touching toes all day all the time !! . I can't see what else to do other than to keep up my core fitness and do some cycling as well.
Posted: 05/07/2006 at 20:06

I have Trochanteric bursitis. Does anyone have any excersises that I can do to speed up my recovery. The doc says I could be out of action for 6-8 weeks !!!!!
Posted: 20/09/2006 at 15:30

Started running only 6wks ago, and thought it would be ok to do around 4ks, felt really good doing it. went out at least three times a week, i then developed awful Ankle pain and shin pain in my left leg, which i did not feel when i was running it was once i had finished so i iced the joints and made a doctors appt, to which he said take painkillers and strap your ankle, neither which has help, iv'e now not run for 8 days. and this has helped, today i decided to go for a bike ride and now i keep getting stinging spasms on the middle part of my left shin, any ideas?? off to a sports practioner for a massage this week, also iv'e had my gait annalysed i' m a neutral runner and have purchased the assics gel nimbus trainers. its so frustrating i finnally at the age of 46 find a sport  i love to do and i'm haunted with injuries, i was wanting to enter a 10k race for Help4Heros charity. any advice would be very much appreciated.. Running Baz

Posted: 28/09/2009 at 22:43

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