Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How soon is now?

This is one of my favorite songs ever.

In my clubbing days, it would come on, and my friends and I would migrate onto the dance floor to glide and swirl to the rhythms.  The track had a timelessness, and I'd lose myself in it.  No urgency, just a moment preserved, shimmering like the chords of the track.

Running's not like that, alas.


I've been injured before, and come back, though this winter was definitely my longest time off ever.  When discussing how to emotionally handle taking time off due to injury, most people focus on how to preserve one's sanity and mental balance at the time of the injury, or during cross-training.   In my opinion, those are the easy times.   Getting injured is like having a bandaid ripped off of your running dreams.   It hurts, but pain and denial are quickly replaced by acceptance and determination.

Cross-training and rehabilitation require diligence, but are balanced by the constant affirmation you get from others, the sympathy (especially if you get to wear an aircast), and fantasies of the progress you'll make once on the road again.

The initial return to running is scary in some ways.  But it's also freeing in others.  You're running, but without expectations and with gratitude and in the moment, appreciative of each step.  Quite possibly the closest you'll ever get to twirling on the dance floor.   The first workout is like that as well.  You step onto the track, uncertain of what to expect.  When you have no expectations, then it's easy to exceed them.  For the first week or two.


And then, if you're like me, your expectations make a leap.  From appreciation for what you have, to frustration with what you lack.  There's a logical, continuous progression when coming back; times will drop over the weeks of training, and gradually approach (and hopefully eventually surpass) where you were before.   And yet, we type A personalities tend to be all-or-nothing types, and so if it's not nothing (no running) than it surely must be all (same fitness pre-injury).

A big training mistake for any runner is running workouts at a level above your present fitness.  It works the wrong physiological systems, and it places additional stress on your body without any additional benefit.  At no time is this mistake easier to make than when coming back. 

You remember your pre-injury fitness and corresponding race paces, but fudge over the effort levels.  The thought process is: "well, if this is the time I raced  when I did those workouts, then if I can do those workouts now, then I can race those times...."   And so you sprint towards the paces you feel entitled to, through a minefield of injury and overtraining.


So now I'm in the danger zone -- the hardest part of the recovery for any formerly injured runner.  I'm not only "TRYING to run," but "TRYING to run smart."   I comprehend the need to run workouts within myself ("start slow, finish fast," "don't be afraid to adjust," "train, don't strain"), but when I succeed at this, I still feel that I've failed.   Every split that doesn't hit or surpass an impractical standard becomes an insult.   Did I maybe not work hard enough in the pool?  Am I maybe not tough enough anymore

I have discovered that part of the key to this issue is re-aiming my perfectionist nature.  I can't eliminate that personality quirk, but I can play mental games like setting pace ceilings on workouts (first mile or interval must be no faster than "#.##"), and then trying to hit those on the nose.  It's working to some extent (especially if I make sure to verbally commit to it beforehand, so I can't back out -- which I'm sure will rapidly annoy those I run with).  But there's still the wondering -- isn't this supposed to hurt more? You remind yourself that you're returning from an injury, but then... maybe I'm just a slacker.

The progress is there.  But you don't want the journey. You want the destination.  And so you keep asking:

When you say it's gonna happen "now"
Well when exactly do you mean?
See I've already waited too long...

Morrissey and Johnny Marr, "How Soon is Now?Performed by The Smiths on Meat is Murder, 1985.  


  1. Wonderful post-- which is quite timely and relevant for me. Yes, I feel "entitled" to running my speedwork at the same pace I did pre-injury. Having to run slower would mean admitting that the injury robbed me of my well-earned fitness.

    And I knew that the hardest part about the injury wouldn't be the weeks of not running, but coming back and realizing everything I've lost. Anyway- it's awesome that you are able to identify your perfectionist tendencies and temper them with sound training advice, like maximum speeds for certain workouts.

    Another challenge I am facing is that I perform miserably in the heat and by the time I am able to race at the level I used to be, it will be June and so the heat will be a factor.

  2. Yes. Amen. I can relate. You just wrote exactly what I am thinking/feeling. Perfect Post.

  3. You're so right, when I've come back (long vacation or injury) and expected things to be ultra slow and a long road back, I was amazed how quickly I came back. But when I've come back and expected to be at the same level, the returns been difficult. There's something to be said for taking a tiny step back, which propel you further faster, then the tiny step forward too fast.

    I always love how you can look at yourself from outside.

    BTW, I've been feeling so bad this week, that I was going to skip my pool run this morning and then I thought of your post from your pool intervals after St. Patrick's Day 8k and how much better you felt. It pushed me out the door in hopes of the same response. I feel sooooo much better now. Thanks for the motivation!

  4. Thanks, y'all. Dash -- I'm glad it worked. It's amazing, isn't it? Combination massage/ice bath/gentle stretching.

  5. Just found this Blog...and it is great. I'm in the middle of 6-8 weeks of not running due to stress fracture in 5th metatarsal of foot. I have been doing tons of swimming and pool running (the pool running for the first time) for the last 3 weeks, trying to keep some of my hard earned fitness. I have found that I really like the pool running and 50-55 minutes of hard running with a flotation belt really does the trick. Thanks for all your words of wisdom, that really helps as I try to be patient.