I’m still a little surprised that I’m sitting here writing about my running journey, given that the assessment of several physical therapists from 2005-2009 was that I would probably never be able to run comfortably. And yet here I am, feeling better than ever, having run upwards of 450mi and raced my first half marathon just since the start of 2013.
I suffer from a chronic cartilage injury due to the misalignment of my knees. Known in the medical world as “chondromalacia patella,” quite literally “chronic knee pain,” it doesn’t really have an effective treatment. As I walk or run, my kneecap grinds over the soft tissues of my inner knee, including the meniscus, causing painful lesions and inflammation that can only be relieved by an arthroscopic surgery (which may not permanently fix the pain). Both knees are affected, but one hurts much worse. It stops me from going on long hikes, and even makes sitting in a chair uncomfortable. Sometimes I even get a sharp ache there when it’s about to rain or a cold front is coming in (no joke). It’s not fun.
Due to the onset and progression of this chronic injury I opted out of running at an early age – by 7th grade I was no longer able to run laps in PE class and would often wear a knee brace to school. When I joined competitive swim team in high school, we would do some runs for cross-training in the summer months, but nothing too heavy, and I’d wear the brace for support. By my junior year of high school, I was at my wits’ end with physical therapy that wasn’t working, and taking more days off due to the pain.
Combined with a back injury I sustained in late 2007, the constant pain finally became too debilitating to handle, and during senior year I made the impossible choice to quit my sport and say goodbye to my NCAA and scholarship dreams. By this point I was unable to walk without crutches and a heavy-duty hinged leg brace, and due to complete lack of use, the muscles around my knee began to atrophy, slowly decaying away and making it close to impossible to bear weight on my right leg. I quickly gained about 25lbs and had no way to work it off (working at a pizza shop didn’t help).
I was miserable, with no outlet for my physical energy and no end in sight to the limping and aching I had become so accustomed to.
So why the long sob story? Because learning to run is a big challenge – and if I can overcome physical and mental adversity to reach the level of fitness I’m at now, I truly believe that anyone can do it.
During college I found a pain management technique that worked for me (if you can’t figure it out by now, don’t worry, there will be a dedicated post later to explain) and since then there have been some bumps in the road, but my running has improved vastly, shaving time off of my mile while building endurance for future half marathon races (or more!). The best part? Practicing good running form and physical therapy exercises has helped me avoid irritation of my inflamed knee tissue.
My body has changed a lot already, and is continuing to change as I progress toward my goals. I’m nowhere close to the end of my journey, but would love to help any beginner dive in to the sport with some good advice.
Five basic tips for the beginning jogger:
- Quit running in your Converse or Vans. Seriously. These are just awful. I’ll do a shoe post later this week with all I’ve learned from my experiences with diverse types of athletic shoes – bottom line, if you don’t want to end up injured, your street shoes are never going to cut it.
- Set concrete, attainable goals. Just like with a tailored nutrition program, you’re not going to hit your targets with running until you know exactly what your targets are. I’m a long-term kind of person; I prefer yearly mileage goals to keep myself motivated (my goal for 2015 is 300mi total, up from a 2014 goal of 200mi). That breaks down into monthly and weekly mileage goals so I can stay on track, and makes for a great feeling of accomplishment at the end of the year. This year I also have a goal to get my mile down under 7 minutes – a tough, but attainable benchmark.
- Set minimums to ensure quality workouts. Right now a mile may seem like a lot, but a year from now, you’ll think a mile is chump change. The only way to make that happen is to ensure you run more than a mile, every time you run. Though I remember when I first started on the treadmill, I was downright huffing and puffing to finish a mile, now I can typically clean up a quick 5 miles in 45min or less on the treadmill, and still be breathing normally. It’s possible.
- Listen to your body. Self-aware athletes (even amateurs) know that there is a difference between “good pain” and “bad pain.” A steady leg burn during the run and jelly legs or soreness afterward are normal for runners, but a sharp joint or foot pain or a “tweaked” feeling in the leg or knee muscles is a sign you should rest and ice for awhile. Running is a high-impact sport for your legs, so it’s easy for injuries to intensify quickly, especially if you’re new and have less-than-perfect form.
- Do your homework. Running is a skill that takes a long time to master. Even if you’re already pretty fast, there’s always room for form improvement, and it gets exponentially more difficult to hold your form as you get more tired, say, around mile 10 of a half marathon in 95-degree summer heat. Even with two solid years of running experience under my belt, I still consider my form to be pretty sloppy. Read up on running form and function as much as possible, and I guarantee you’ll start noticing ways you can improve your own stride. I love Competitor and Active Network right now. If you don’t know what the heck these people are talking about right now, wait until you have a a few dozen more miles completed and you might start to catch their drift.
Hope this is at least somewhat insightful and inspires at least one person to get out and run today! **As long as it’s over a mile!