Running marathons every weekend is manageable until you have an injury. Then you freak out. I’ve been going through that this week. On Sunday, I ran a downhill race. During the race, my calves were getting tight, and I worried that it might be putting extra stress on my Achilles tendons. I made it through the race OK, but an hour after the race, I started feeling tightness in my left Achilles tendon. By the end of the day, I realized I was in the early stages of Achilles tendonitis. I had another race in six days. It was time to freak out.
It’s been 10 years since I last had an injury that sidelined me for more than a week. When I did, it was Achilles tendonitis. My next race is in Wisconsin, so I don’t have to fly. My only non-refundable expense was my entry fee. I could have skipped this race, but I never seriously entertained that idea. Instead of asking myself if I could be ready to race, I asked myself how I could be ready. Here’s how my week has progressed.
I’ve found that Achilles tendonitis responds well to stretching. I stretched periodically. Each time, it helped temporarily, but the tightness returned after an hour or two. By dinner time, I was concerned that walking on it too much could make it worse. I had two home-made heel lifts in my shoe bag, so I put them both in my left shoe. The lifts raised my left heel by about two millimeters. That reduced the tension on the tendon. I was able to walk comfortably going to dinner.
Before going to bed, I did more stretching, and it felt better. During the night, however, I needed to make a trip to the bathroom. Without shoes (and the lifts), there was more tension. It felt really tight, so I took small steps.
After stretching, my Achilles tendon felt much better than it did during the night. I flew home that day, so I was going to be on my feet a lot. You don’t realize how much walking you do in an airport until you’re injured. I continued to wear two heel lifts in my shoe. I felt fine until it was time to board. Going down the jet way, I had to walk slowly. When I got home it was worse. I not only took small steps, but I always put my left foot forward first. If my right foot ever went in front of my left foot, I could feel the tension.
So far, I was doing my best to keep it from getting worse, but I needed to reduce the inflammation and speed the healing. Then I remembered that I was in a similar situation a year ago. On that occasion, I had eight days to recover from Achilles tendonitis. Last year, I made a speedy recovery through repeated applications of ice and heat.
I have a whirlpool tub in my basement bathroom. I filled it with hot water. I also filled a five gallon pail with a combination of cold water and ice cubes. I placed the bucket right next to the tub, so I could move my leg from one to the other. I started by submerging my left foot and ankle in the ice water for five minutes. Then I moved it to the hot whirlpool bath for five minutes. I kept alternating for half an hour.
When I woke up, I was noticing my calves more than my Achilles tendon. I was finally experiencing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It was encouraging that my left calf didn’t feel any worse than my right calf. I wanted to do ice/heat treatments twice a day, but I was out of ice.
After lunch, I went grocery shopping and picked up enough bags of ice cubes to last me through the week. Because I felt a little bit better, I only wore one heel lift in my shoe. That was premature. With only one lift, I felt a little bit of tension as I walked. I took short steps while I was at the store.
Ordinarily, I would have gone running on Tuesday. Instead, I planned on doing a short workout on the stationary bike – nothing too strenuous – just enough to work the soreness out of my legs. I also had DOMS in my quads. By late afternoon, I started to wonder if even cycling would put too much strain on my Achilles tendon. I took a complete rest day. After dinner, I did an ice/heat treatment.
I felt a little bit better, but I knew it was still too soon to run. I started the day with the short bike workout that I had skipped on Tuesday. Then I did my first of two ice/heat treatments.
Any time you have an injury, you should ask yourself what went wrong. I was now doing that. Running downhill puts more stress on your Achilles tendons than running on level ground. I accepted that risk, but I could have done more to minimize it. I was worried about beating up my quads, so I told myself to relax. I didn’t want to resist the hill. “Putting on the brakes” while running downhill is not only inefficient, but it’s hard on your quads. Something I forgot about was the risk of over-striding. I tried to run naturally, but running downhill can cause you to lengthen your stride. A book I’m currently reading reminded me of the value of reducing your stride length on hills. Had I made a conscious effort to take shorter but more frequent strides, I probably could have reduced the stress on my Achilles tendons. This has been a painful reminder.
In the afternoon, I did weight training. Although I seemed to be improving, I went back to wearing two lifts in my left shoe. In the evening, I spent enough time on my feet to realize that even with two lifts, I still felt tension. Up to this point, I had not taken any ibuprofen. I used to take it any time I was recovering from an injury, but in recent years, I’ve been much more conservative about NSAIDs. It’s like I forgot they even existed. By now, I was getting a little desperate, so I started regularly taking ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation. Finally, I ended the day with another ice/heat treatment.
For most of the week, I was hoping I could go for a run by Thursday. Mostly, I just wanted to evaluate my ankle, so I wouldn’t go into my race without any idea how I felt while running.
I felt better when I woke up than I had the night before. I felt better still after stretching. Even still, it was obvious by now that running was still too risky. I only had two more days to heal, and I didn’t want to risk a setback. I did my morning ice/heat treatment, and I took some more ibuprofen.
I was a bit frustrated with myself. When I had one week to recover from the same injury last year, I was doing things that I forgot to do this year. Last year, I bought an Achilles tendon support that doesn’t raise my heel, but has a strap that goes around my ankle to compress the tendon. I bought it so I could continue running while I was recovering. Until now, I had forgotten about it. Since heel lifts alone didn’t seem to be enough, I decided to use the Achilles tendon support whenever I needed to be on my feet.
Either I was feeling much better or the support worked better than the lifts. Either way it was good news. I was cautiously optimistic that I could still race. I had been having doubts.
I didn’t do any workouts that day. It was my third rest day in four days, and I also planned to rest on Friday. I made peace with that. I finished the day with another ice/heat treatment and some stretching.
I woke up feeling optimistic. I did 10 minutes of core exercises. Other than that, it’s another rest day. After breakfast, I did my last ice/heat treatment.
Today I drive to Wisconsin for the Wausau Marathon. The race is tomorrow. I’m hopeful that I’ll be ready to race, but I won’t know for sure until tomorrow morning. I feel good now, but I haven’t run since Sunday. I really don’t know how I’ll feel when I start running. It won’t be the first time that I’ve traveled to a race without knowing if I’d be able to finish.
I may wear the Achilles tendon support. I may go with a heal lift instead. If I’m feeling good enough, I may race without any type of support. That will be a race morning decision. It’s possible that I’ll run one mile and stop. I don’t really know what to expect. I’ve recovered quickly from injuries before, but I can’t take that for granted.
Wish me luck … I’ll let you know how it goes.