Injuries happen — as a runner, it’s almost inevitable that, at some point, you’ll be dealing with some kind of sprain, strain or even illness that grinds training to a halt. Whether it’s for a week or for a full season, being stuck on the couch instead of outside doing sprints can feel frustrating, but as pro racers Sarah Cotton and Kaci Lickteig can tell you, a few days or weeks of downtime still beats running through the pain and potentially making things a lot worse in the process. Here, the two top ultrarunners share their best advice for recovering like a boss, even when it’s tempting to get back on the trail too soon.
Lickteig’s injury came on slowly: First, it was a typical runner’s knee type of pain, and she kept training. Then, her knees swelled up to ‘grapefruit size.’ She kept running, until finally, a fractured pelvis, likely brought on by the pressure she put on her hips to cope with her knees, stopped her in her tracks. An injury that may have been dealt with by taking a week off caused her to take almost nine months away from running as she recovered.
Cotton’s injury was similar in that she knew it was coming but ignored the warning signs. “I have a nerve issue coming from the left side of my back that tends to flare up when I run a lot and don’t do enough strength and mobility to keep my body functioning correctly,” she says. It flared up after being ignored, and took her out of competition for the entire 2018 summer season.
IT’S OK TO NOT BE OK
Even as a physical therapist with plenty of experience shepherding others through injury recovery, Lickteig still struggled to convince herself it was OK to stop running for a while. But she knows that if she had listened to her body earlier and heard what it was telling her, she might have stopped running sooner and avoided fracturing her pelvis. “If you’re regularly feeling the same little niggle of pain, stop and address it while it’s still a niggle,” she urges. “You’ll save yourself a lot of pain, and a couple of days away from running won’t set you back as much as you’d think.”
LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS
Lickteig says she had to find another physical therapist to work with, rather than relying on her own expertise, and when she found the one she liked, she actually listened. That’s easier said than done: PT exercises can feel boring, monotonous and honestly, not quick-working enough but be patient. Your physical therapist knows how to treat your injury better than you — the runner dying to hit the trails — do.
DON’T DROP EVERYTHING
Being benched from running doesn’t mean you’re supposed to sit on the couch and binge-watch Netflix. In almost every runner injury, there may be a few days of true down-time where any exercise is banned, but check with your doctor or PT for a list of cross-training activities you can do. Often, swimming or cycling are allowed after the injury starts to heal.
“Injuries are always tough physically, because we’re so used to pushing our bodies to the nth degree through running, and when that’s stripped away, you can feel really lost — and kind of like you’re floundering,” says Cotton. “When I can’t run, I like to at least feel like I’m nourishing my body in some way physically, and working toward full health when possible. I like to do a lot of cycling, yoga and strength training when I can’t run.”
BUILD OTHER STRENGTH
Speaking of strength-training, while you may not be able to squat when recovering from an ankle sprain or an ACL tear, you can still build strength elsewhere. Lickteig also says she used her lower-body down-time to boost her upper body and core strength in the gym, which allowed her to still feel like she was making gains, and the core strength helped her come back stronger than ever. A personal trainer should be able to work with you to focus on the places you can strengthen in a safe way.
FIND A DISTRACTION
“I’ve had a long history of injuries, and I’ve essentially just learned that, while it means a lot to me, running isn’t everything,” says Cotton.
“Aside from doing everything one can to treat their body well and heal when necessary, there is really nothing in anybody’s power to ‘fix’ these things. I figure, if I can’t change something, there’s no use in stressing about it. Luckily, I’ve got a lot of other interests, so I can distract myself pretty easily. I’ve learned that it’s really important for me to find purpose outside of running.” For some, that may mean finding a new hobby — Cotton is a photographer, so she shifts her focus to that while healing. “There is so much beauty to life outside of running, and it’s important to explore your interests, capabilities and passions outside of one narrow thing,” she adds.
LEARN FROM YOUR INJURIES
Use an injury as a learning experience: Both Cotton and Lickteig say they now understand the importance of mobility and proper stretching and recovery as runners. Once you’ve come back from an injury, don’t stop practicing those good habits. Stick to the foam rolling, core strengthening, resting and recovering properly, and you’ll have a much better chance of avoiding future injuries.