The Best Laid Plans

In racing, especially multi-sport, you can’t control everything, though you can try to be prepared for as much as you might anticipate. You could do the same race five years in a row and never have the same results, because of all of the variables involved — whether it’s injuries or illness, weather, mechanical failures, traffic, or other competitors in the field. That’s part of the challenge.

I started this race season with optimism.  My goal for the race schedule was to complete four races, with one at least an olympic or international distance. Sprint races range in length –run/bike/run combinations varying from 2/20/5 to 2/33/7 or whatever else shorter than the olympic distance, aka international distance, which is uniformly set at 5/40/10, or the reverse, 10/40/5.

While I’ve met many performance goals (for long and short run pace, bike pace, and placing in my age group), in three races so far this season, a spate of injuries have not only threatened my optimism, but also the international distance goal. I did accomplish the next best thing, a 5i50 distance (2/40/10) at Guelph Lake in June, but I’m facing down the international race on September 12 with no idea whether I can overcome injuries to get there.

While injury risk is a part of any athletic pursuit, I feel like I can’t catch a break this year. Just when I rebound from one injury, another one crops up. Some are minor issues, like a recent achilles strain, while others just won’t go away — namely my lower back/hip and the foot issue.

That is part of the challenge of sport. Put your body through vigorous training, especially in what’s classed as an endurance sport, sometimes it results in pain (stairs, the days after a race, seem ever so tall!), or worse, injury. The best you can do is prepare with training geared to maintain health throughout the year. Then you treat what crops up — not just the symptoms, of course, but the underlying problem.

With any injury, my first question is “should I stop doing [insert sport here]?” The second is, “what’s the treatment, and what can I do to speed up healing time?” I have found that I’m able to carry on through a fair amount of discomfort, so encountering injuries that actually make me stop in my tracks is, frankly, always a surprise.

In an effort to be prepared for duathlon, survive hockey and slow the downhill slide of my 40s, I train in more than two sports, mix up my distance and intensity, do strength training, get massage and physio, stretch fairly diligently, and always take at least 1 rest day per week. I have stepped up my protective equipment in hockey, investing in some key pieces of higher-grade gear to compensate for my Crash Bandicoot playing style, ie to help avoid injury.

With a lifetime of sports behind me, and of course with the Internet at my disposal, my training intelligence is fairly high. When the time came to add volume to my workouts this winter/spring (going from 4 hours a week of biking/running/skating up to 6) I did so slowly and wisely. When it’s time to add intensity for race prep or to break a plateau, I do it in a balanced way.

Ironically, while my offseason gym work and training over the winter last year was planned to prevent me from getting hurt, it ended up causing one of the injuries I’ve been dealing with all season.

Somehow in January I lost form on a deadlift and twinged my back. Combined with a couple of bad tumbles onto my hip on that side in hockey, it led to some pervasive lower back/hip pain that I couldn’t quite fully shake. So I’ve been dealing with an SI joint injury and related IT Band soreness since April, when I actually had to stop riding my bike for a couple of weeks due to the acute knee pain. Your back bone’s connected to your hip bone… your hip bone’s connected to your knee bone… they’re not lying.

While physiotherapy and exercises have helped, the SI joint and the related IT band soreness flare up occasionally, negatively affecting both running and cycling. With vigorous work from my awesome physiotherapist, I’ve been trying to unlock the SI joint, strengthen and lengthen my hip flexors, develop stronger glutes and pay full attention to my hamstrings. I know the instant I’ve been lax on this, as the IT band will get cranky.

The real doozy, though, is dropped metatarsals on my left foot.  Yes, metatarsals, as in toes.

I’ve been diligently protecting my arches ever since my wife got plantar fasciitis, and also since I learned that with proper arch support, my feet are a half size smaller than without. So for everything from casual footwear to skates to cycling and running shoes, I’ve invested in quality arch-support insoles. What I didn’t know was that my forefoot arches were in peril.

Honestly, I didn’t even know I had forefoot arches!

Last summer’s mid-foot/forefoot numbness on runs over 7k became more pronounced this spring, despite my choice of cushioned shoes. A not-helpful local running shop suggested last summer that it was a lacing issue, but I was using elastic “speed laces”, so I knew that wasn’t it. All I knew was that my longer runs resulted in feeling like my feet were falling asleep from the mid-foot up to the toes.

By April and early May this year, that numbness was becoming outright pain. I could run my 10 to 11km routes, but the pain in my toes was building. By mid-May, it was turning into agony — the feeling after about 7km of running was akin to running on freshly broken toes. When I had to stop running and hobble home at the tail end of a brick workout, I knew I needed more than cushioned shoes.

The diagnosis from both doc and physio was a dropped metatarsal. My doctor’s response to my query about continuing to train was “go ahead and run until you can’t stand to run.”  When I asked how this injury might have happened, she shrugged and said “it just happens.” What she meant, I think, was “welcome to life at 41, Buttercup.”

foot

The taped foot, ready for the first race of the year. Looks simple, but it certainly worked — I went from not being able to tolerate running 5km earlier in the week to running 2 + 10 on race day.

Thanks again to physio, I was taped up tightly for my first race of the season in June, the 5i50 including a 2k and 10k run; and for the second race, which had two 5km runs. For both, I wore metatarsal support pads glued onto my insoles.

This got me through the races, but caused blistering on my foot — a welcome distraction at the time from the pain in my toes, but not conducive to running comfortably. By mid-August, in my third race (this one with 2km/7km runs bookending a 33km cycle), I graduated to the metatarsal bump in my short run shoes, using orthotics in the long run shoes, and foregoing the tape altogether. By the end of that race I was in discomfort, but not in severe pain. And I had my gait back.

Still, though, long runs aren’t on the map. While I’m back to running further than 5km without acute pain, the limits are still around 8 to 9km.

While physio and orthotics are helping to support my foot, the dropped metatarsals aren’t going to go away. Discomfort, it seems, is here to stay. While I wait to talk to a specialist for a plan for dealing with or avoiding this discomfort longterm, I’ve been working at increasing my run distances.

In my season planning from in May, I had goals of running 13 to 15km per long run in August, preparing for my ‘A’ race in September — the Lakeside international duathlon.

Going to this du requires running the long run first: aka doing 10km, biking 40, and then running another 5km. From my 5i50 distance race in June, I know I can bike that distance, and then hop off to run 10km. What I don’t know is how well I’ll fare doing that 10km first, making my foot sore at the start of the race, as opposed to at the end, where the finish line promises relief. I’d prefer to do a shorter run to start, but this is the way the MultiSport Canada races are set up. And so the conundrum.

Last weekend’s brick workout was to be a preliminary test. It was a 7.5km run followed by a 32km bike ride. The run went well, with just a bit of foot discomfort, so I thought maybe I was doing okay. And the bike ride started out great. But by the 20km mark, I was feeling more than the usual bit of numbness — it was outright toe pain. By the 25km mark, I was in agony, dreading each hard push of the pedals.

So for the international du in September, who knows. I’ll know more what I can do after another brick this weekend. It’s not like powering through discomfort will cause further injury (unless I alter my gait to compensate). But when the pain is tremendous, there’s no way to finish. Sore toes might not seem like a big thing, but this pain can be unbearable, and even for a guy used to training and playing through pain, it’s too much to ignore.

Is it better to gun for it, and risk the DNF (Did Not Finish), or to amend the plan and do a sprint instead, saving the olympic race goal for a fresh start next year?

I don’t want to torment myself all winter with “I should have at least tried it”, but I also would rather end on a high note and complete my last race this year.

For the foot issue, I’ll try to see a specialist to talk long term. I’m not willing to give up running longer distances forever. I’d also like to be sure the same area on my other foot doesn’t become a problem.

For the hip/lower back/knee, a winter of diligent training will help rebuild these trouble spots and whatever else flares up. I know I need to strengthen some areas, increase flexibility, and compensate for weaknesses. Yoga is on the map, for sure.

There are six months ahead of “off season” in which to do this, which loom long and dark over winter, but will seem short and quick in hindsight come next May when the early season races start.

This off-season work, of course, only following a bit of rest. After the last race of the year, whether it’s at the sprint or olympic distance, I’ll try to take a couple of weeks to let my body — and mind — recover from this summer.

Just please remind me I said so — it’s going to be hardest to stick to that aspect of the plan, out of anything.

And then, we start setting goals and planning for next season.

PS: I do have perspective. I’ve raced three good races this year — okay, two good, one mediocre — despite the injuries. And even the injuries are a minor complaint. There are much worse things that people have to deal with in life than a few sport-related ouchies.

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