Big Pain

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I am thinking my way to recovery.

I just finished my first marathon in May. Certain that I would not be able to run this distance after the age of fifty I attacked the training program as if working toward the pinnacle of my running career. Each training run brought me one step closer to crossing this event off the bucket-list. I was convinced that after fifty my muscles would fossilize to the point of immobility. Essentially from the beginning I had earmarked this event as my first and last marathon. WRONG!

Tuesday of race week, I strained my back. Not from running, but from bending over to pick up my daughter’s soccer cleats. I could hardly walk. I insisted that my son stuff me into my car so that I could go off to work. I returned home defeated in a few hours and crawled into bed. Wednesday I was bedridden, alternating between heat and ice. Midday Thursday, I decided if I was going to run on Sunday I had better start behaving like I was going to run. So I got out of bed and started hobbling around. I was still uncertain if I was going to be able to run. But my children, who had just been elected to chair my fan club, were watching. My performance was either going to be a lesson in how to handle disappointment, or how to endure pain.

Friday of race week I drove for five hours–stopping to stand and stretch when I could. Saturday I slipped on running shoes and ran around the block twice—once with a back brace and once without, so that I could see which felt more “comfortable.”

The morning of the event, I could not bend over to put on my socks. My running partner/ fiancé helped put my shoes on and tie them. I swallowed a self-concocted mixture of over-the-counter painkillers. As we walked across the bridge over the Ohio River to the starting corralls, I could feel my muscles begin to loosen.

I still was uncertain if I was going to make it across the starting line. So I needed to behave as if I was going to run. To complete this event I had to convince my mind through my behavior. So I acted like all the other runners at the gate.

The gun fired and we moved forward. Just before the starting line, I told my partner that I was not going to call him if I had to drop out. I did not want his concern for me to interrupt his mojo. We kissed goodbye and each set out on our own journey. I ran 26.2 in my back brace. He pulled off an amazing time. And we celebrated at the finish line together.

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Two weeks after the race I still was having horrible back pain. I had weaned myself from the pain medication but I was concerned that I had done long-term damage. I finally went to the doctor. Fortunately, the doctor advised me to get back out there as long as I: 1) promised to start behaving as if my body was middle-aged and 2) stopped when it hurt. She slapped me into a non-negotiable twelve weeks of physical therapy. Now I am in an intensive post-marathon recovery program (M.A.?) that includes PT twice a week and private Pilates at least once a week, daily flexibility and strength work at home, and at least 3 runs a week.

Straining my lower back is what my body does to stop me in my tracks when I am overdoing it. Back strains started several years ago and re-occur during times of stress. The last few weeks before the marathon demands of work were amped up and my schedule was overtaxed with huge blocks of time required for running. I ignored a couple of relatively benign signals that I was under duress including bleeding gums and digestive problems. The morning that I pulled my back, I woke with a raging canker sore on my lower lip. But still I did not heed the warnings.

What I have learned in my recovery regime is that my lower back has been weakened by habitual poor posture, lack of core strength, and running. As a runner I tend to overuse superficial muscles. First I plant my foot, then I tighten my glutes in an effort to stabilize my stride, and finally push off while I “grip.” According to the theory of “stability and mobility,” efforts to stabilize with superficial muscles, causes these mobile muscles systems to become inflexible and underutilizes essential core muscles that are actually meant to stabilize. In my case these overworked superficial muscles and increased inflexibility led to spinal compression and back strain.

The first time physical therapist worked to loosen these superficial muscles in my glutes with deep muscular massage she dug into my muscles (oooh it hurt so good) and there was tingling up through my back, up and over through my scalp to the front of my forehead. I thought I had seen the eyes of God. My Pilates instructor showed me ways that muscle systems connect and that for example, a compressed spine in the lower back can manifest itself through calf pain. She is teaching me how to “turn down” my superficial muscles and “turn up” my core muscles. Unfortunately this requires much more than just powering through hundreds of crunches. The most effective way to reform these systems is cognitively. So I am essentially re-learning how to carry my middle-aged body, trying to build up strength by connecting core muscles systems in my body through my mind during focused exercise regime and routine activity.

For now, I am constantly thinking about how I move and I am practicing these skills during shorter distance runs. This diligence is exhausting but it is part of an effort to sustain my running life. If I can keep it up, this regime will help me power towards a healthier, stronger, more efficient marathon in the future.   Because, of course, I am already thinking about the next one . . . I just have to remember that sitting up straight will help me get there.

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Jen Adams is a mom, a teacher, a runner, and a marathoner who lives in Chicago.