Things Fall Apart: Five Steps for Handling Setbacks

Three weeks ago while many were surrounding themselves with shamrocks and green beer I was enjoying a little celebration of my own. A 15-mile hill run served as the capstone to the hardest week of running I had ever attempted and amidst comfortable spring temperatures I ran through the green golf courses and backyards that line one of my favorite running trails in Northeast Ohio. When I stopped my watch, recording the near-record time I had just completed for this course, I paused to take inventory before walking to my car and changing out of my sweat-soaked running shirt.

The hard week of training was over. I had smashed through all three of my quality workouts, the hilly long run, a tempo-hill combo run, and a set of Yasso 800’s that indicated that, yes, the sub-3 hour marathon I was gunning for was within reach. The new strength training regimen I had adopted seemed to have infused my body with improved recovery capacity. I was running as hard as ever and, though the familiar wear and tear and fatigue of marathon training remained, I often felt fresh when I headed out the door to begin my hardest workouts. Nine weeks down, nine weeks to go until Cleveland.

That confidence made the injury I sustained two days later that much harder to bear. The pain I felt deep in my calf at the end of my interval session, another workout that had gone well, came out of nowhere. This was not the sort of acute injury that comes with landing wrong on a rock. I had run through my intervals fast but in control only to find during my final recovery that I suddenly could not land without a deep aching pain rolling up my left calf. I went through a range of emotions, first dreading the worst, that I would be laid up for months, my year was over, then calming down and making contingency plans for all sorts of timelines. The pain became manageable and for two weeks I slowly built myself back up, massaging the tender areas, carefully adding mileage, attempting a first and then second hard workout, coasting through both. I dared to believe that I could still reach my Cleveland Marathon goals: a new PR, another BQ, breaking three hours. Truly, I believe those goals were all within reach. But then a new pain developed, in my right leg, up front and to the outside of my shin. This pain was worse. Walking was a chore. Swelling developed just above my ankle and if I bumped that area I thought I’d see stars. Where this pain had come from was just as mysterious to me as the initial calf pain that had laid me up. The conclusion it led me to, though, was more obvious. It was time to let go, take real time off, and heal.

Steps for Handling a Setback

1. Put the setback in perspective

In the moment any setback takes on an outsized appearance. Take mine: a race I was gearing up for has been taken from me. The chance at earning another BQ before the Boston qualifying window opens in September is at risk if my injury lingers. Certainly there was no guarantee my race in Cleveland was going to go well, but I had not considered the possibility that I could, conceivably, spend much of 2019 trying to get to a start line health. However, despite the largely emotional nature of this setback, and the uncertainty of when I can get back to full training, it has been helpful to measure this setback against others.

I missed almost all of 2013 with IT band syndrome, complicated by my relative inexperience as a runner and the life-consuming experience that was being a first-year high school English teacher. My inauspicious marathon debut was marred by a string of injuries that plagued me for a year. This setback is relatively, for the time being anyway, minor. My initial calf strain was mild. After three weeks it largely feels like it is back to full health, and I will be diligent in how I treat it going forward. My right leg pain is almost gone too, though the sore/tired feeling that accompanies mild strains remains. But just four days off of running has made a major difference. I feel, I hope, that in two weeks I will be ready to resume relatively hard running. That will cost me a race, but it is a small price to pay for putting myself back into a position to run healthy the rest of the year.

2. Perform an honest assessment of what went wrong AND what you were doing right

After every training cycle I enjoy sitting down and reflecting on what went well (hopefully after running a successful race) and on what went wrong. Even after the best races there is going to be a facet of my training that I could have done better or performed with more consistency. With training on hold, I have had time to sit down to figure out what led to my injury. Just as important, I have noted what went well. I am, after all, less than a month removed from feeling like I was in the best shape of my life.

First, I know that I reverted at times to an old bad habit of overstriding, which can place excessive stress on certain tissues, including the calf muscles. There were also times in recent months where a run or even just a day on my feet would leave me with pain on the inside of my left leg. I try to be mindful of my stride, be it walking or running, and that attention to form led me to realize that my left leg seemed to whip around in a circle rather than smoothly flowing from back to front. This is an issue of hip control, largely a weakness of the gluteus medius which helps stabilize the hips. While it is important to continue to rehab my calf, I also need to make sure I am working on strengthening my gluteus medius so that when I begin running again, my stride is more fluid.

As for what went well in training, I can point to my aerobic fitness which was as strong as it has ever been — my times were a solid 10 seconds per mile faster than last year — and the new strength training program I adopted which was helping my body recover faster than ever from hard efforts. To be honest, it feels like I have a roadmap toward breaking through to a new level when I get back to running. I just need to heal up so I can begin.

3. Reframe the setback into a comeback story

Positive energy beats negative energy. This is not a new age, feel good philosophy. There is science behind how enhanced mood promotes improved performance and output.

Setbacks introduce negativity where there was once so much positivity. A shift in mindset is needed to change that and the shift is well worth it. I am being kept from training, there’s no sense in denying that. However, I can recognize that the injuries provide me the opportunity to shore up my weaknesses so my training is not interrupted next time. I get to work hard so I can return to running as soon as possible. Being denied the opportunity to run and to race now means I will appreciate it more when I am able to do both in the near future.

Comebacks are energizing. They provide an opportunity to leave behind a difficult time and return to the business of trying to reach your full potential. They provide the opportunity for catharsis. There have been times over the last three weeks where I have felt like I’m stuck in a hole. I can dwell on that, or accept it is where I am at and that any climb has to begin with stepping off the ground onto a first rung.

4. Be realistic

I cannot wait to be back in the thick of marathon training. Sixty mile weeks and a constant state of fatigue? Bring it on! However, I am not looking to jump into the deep end immediately when I return to running. I’m still hurt, I have muscular imbalances to deal with, and I have identified my form as a culprit in my injury. I need to give myself time to build back up before I up the intensity or I risk turning something minor into something major. Really, it may have been me pushing too hard to strengthen the calf that led to the second injury to the front of my right leg.

Returning from injuries takes time and the path will likely not be a linear one. I remember almost ten years ago reading about Meb’s comeback from his 2007 hip fracture, an injury that almost ended his career. An important part of his comeback was knowing when not to run. Niggling pain he may have run through in years past he learned to take a day of rest for. You don’t want to be the fittest person not able to make it to the starting line.

Make sure you prep psychologically for being realistic. Acknowledge that the road back will be bumpy. That prep will make it easier to bear when things take a small step backward during your comeback.

5. Plan a few fun things for your downtime and for your comeback

As much as I want to be in the middle of training I do have to acknowledge that having some extra, unplanned time for myself is nice. Spring is finally here in Northeast Ohio and I am blessed to live near a bevy of gorgeous places to hike. I plan to take advantage of my downtime to treat myself to a few hikes when I would have otherwise been slugging out ten-mile tempo runs or 16-mile hill runs. I may go see a movie. I may day drink once or twice with my dad. Time is a non-renewable resource. I am crazy not to use some of my time off of training for a few activities that recharge my batteries and take my mind off my disappointment.

My mind is also on the future, however. With the weather turning nice, hundreds of miles of nearby nature trails to run on, and another marathon build up awaiting me, I am listing out several runs I am looking forward to completing in the near future. The trees are still bare here in Northeast Ohio but soon enough the foliage will fill out, the weather will warm, and the terrain I last ran through will look and smell and feel different. There is something special about running through the Cuyahoga Valley early on the summer day before the heat sets in. Often there is a mist off the Cuyahoga River, the sun ripples through trees, the day is just beginning. Ten miles can fly by on days like those. Those days are waiting for me. I’ll be back soon.

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