By Cat Fitzgerald PT, DPT, CSCS
This is what everyone wants to know! Can I still run _____ race with this injury? How do I treat an injury while running? Will I get MORE hurt? Will it set me back? What should I do?!
The key, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is to be prepared. Be overly prepared. And we achieve that with these strategies.
Before I go into the strategies, I must emphasize the need to consult a professional (professional = physical therapist specialized in runners) for your individual situation. I do not send every runner with an injury into a race as everyone is different and the number one priority is your health. These are general strategies that require specific application to each runner!
1. Adjust your expectations
Odds are you are going to have to reevaluate your goals for your upcoming race if you’ve developed an injury. The number one priority is always going to be your health: avoiding secondary injuries and not worsening a current injury. So often this means you can still run the race, but it might look different than you initially envisioned. You might not be able to race all-out, so a PR is out of the question. Or you might not be able to run up hills, so you’ll need to walk the hills. Once you’ve established what to expect on race day, you can enjoy the experience!
The adjustments needed are dependent on the individual and the specific injury! For example, a runner with a calf strain that is getting ready for the Boston Marathon might need to walk the hills to avoid overloading the calf. A different runner with a calf strain– also training for Boston– might need to utilize a run/walk method throughout the whole race to avoid overloading their calf.
2. Have a backup plan. Better yet, have MANY backup plans!
Injured or not, runners go into race day with many concerns. What if I trip? What if my calf starts acting up right at the start of the race? The anticipation of what might go wrong with your injury can be overwhelming.
Even if you’ve adjusted your expectations–let’s continue with the example of walking the hills at Boston– that doesn’t mean your injury will necessarily follow the plan. Annoying, right? This is why you need to know what to do if the injury “doesn’t behave” according to plan. If the runner with the calf strain starts to feel his/her calf early on during flat portions of the race, s/he will adjust to a run/walk, at a specific interval. We will also get very granular and define what “feel the calf” means– is it an annoyance? Is it painful? Is it bad enough that you feel like you’re changing your gait? All important factors to consider to decide the next step.
We will play this out in many scenarios because I want the runner to be fully confident no matter what happens on race day. It’s also WAY easier to have a plan ahead of time that only requires execution the day of. Have you ever tried to make an important decision at mile 17 of a marathon? Not easy!
3. Control the Controllables
There are so many things you can’t control on race day… and that’s part of what makes it so exciting! But when we’re managing an injury it’s important to do what you can to set yourself up for success. This includes getting adequate sleep, eating well and enough, and doing all of your rehab exercises and pre/post run work. You want to look back on the day knowing you did all of the right things to get to the start and finish lines!
4. Long Term Outlook
In the excitement of building up to race day, it’s easy to lose sight of your long term dreams and goals. There can be so, so many reasons you are personally committed to running your upcoming race, regardless of how much harder it might be than you originally thought. I’ve met runners that are running for causes close to their heart, for people they’ve loved and lost, for themselves during a tough period in life.
During the race, you must consider your long term health. If you are deciding to push regardless of how your injury behaves during the race, you could be sacrificing a lot down the line. It might result in another injury or in your current injury getting a lot worse. It might mean you can’t run for a long time. Or, on the back end, it shortens your running career later in life. This article is a little too simplified in terms of the information provided (about when you can/can’t run, general injury management), but the personal story up front about how pushing through an injury set the author back by over a year is a great example.
This is why you need to reevaluate your expectations and build many back up plans! You can cross that finish line in all your glory AND keep your long term health in check. Just remember to consult a professional!
By Cat Fitzgerald PT, DPT, CSCS