Post-Marathon Recovery: Playing the Long Game

By:Content Team

Post-Marathon Recovery: Playing the Long Game

 📷: Mitch Flores

More is more, so I often think. Stuff, experience, mileage. The more of it I have, the better I’ll be. But that’s often not the case. Sometimes, a pause is necessary and part of discipline. It’s the first step to playing the long game.

***

After my first marathon, I decided to charge right back into my normal life with a full head of steam.

The evening after The Bull Runner Dream Marathon was a familiar tour through the Sunday blues which culminated with me passing out asleep to later be awakened by the sun peaking just over the horizon–a working Monday rising up indifferent to the previous day’s accomplishments. This Monday in question was no ordinary Monday at that. The office was set to host a large delegation of visiting potential investors and lapses on my end, or my legs suddenly buckling for that matter, were far less than ideal. But the whole thing went fine.

To my boss who may be reading this: the lady who requested detailed financials never did get back to me, but she does have my card!

The rest of the day went in a similar fashion: just fine. 

As did the rest of the week. I wasn’t running. I was doing the usual rest after a marathon while hugged around the post-event aches and pains. And I was doing just fine.

The first run back

I’ve come to realise that this first run back is the next bookmark in the journey of a marathoner. It’s no usual run. It’s celebratory. You’ve conquered the 42 kilometre beast and you’ve picked yourself up for more–to be even better. 

I threw on a pair of new shorts a friend gave me to try out and I was enthusiastic about their look and feel. Deep charcoal in colour with reflective marks resembling a topographical map, they hit a balance between feisty and muted–probably as loud as I’m willing to let my shorts be. And I wanted loud shorts. Hell, I wanted to throw a loud shirt on too. This was going to be my very first run back after a marathon that didn’t pan out exactly how I wanted it to.

My first run back was going to be a win.

4:37 min/km pace for a 10 kilometre first run back. Sounds pretty cool, but in retrospect this wasn’t very smart. Let me park this here for just a moment and take us back to the latter kilometres of my first marathon. 

You might remember that I puked

What I neglected to mention in the initial recounting of events was a pain at the outside of my right knee that began around the 39th kilometre.

I was hobbling along, staving off cramps in my calves and thighs with no more than gentle prayers and hope, and suddenly an extra spanner in the works decided to jam itself right into my knee. The pain was sharp, as though a small dagger were wedged right into the side of my leg. It radiated upwards into my thigh. Unaware of any better solution, I decided it best to slap the outside of my thigh with my right hand and continue on with the pain coming and going at an inconsistent clip. To my mind it was probably just some sort of fatigue. Either that or my knee had just cracked in half.

I nonetheless finished the marathon and all of this faded into a numb pool of ecstasy. I was done. My friends were hugging me. Marathon achieved and pain forgotten.

Back to my first run post-marathon in my cool new shorts, the pain was smack-bang in the centre of my mind. During the 10km run around the streets of Makati, the sharp pain burst right up into the outside of my knee and wouldn’t let up–my slapping and massaging (and prayers and hopes) now failing me. 

Iliotibial band syndrome

Well, there went my hopes of throwing a 5 kilometre time trial on the roster in the coming month. In my hubris and sense that I’d achieved a new level of fitness, I thought a time trial was in order to test myself. Completely erased now from the books, room was made for trips to the physiotherapist and an orthopaedic doctor.

ITB Syndrome was the consensus diagnosis. 

Suffice it to say that it’s a common overuse injury often seen in runners and cyclists. The ​​fibrous band of flexible fascia that extends from the hip to just below the outside of the knee either compresses a sensitive fat pad or grows inflamed–either way causing pain just outside the knee. It’s a weird little condition because the prevailing research on the cause of the pain has changed over time. It’s well outside my expertise to get into this, but here’s a helpful article that does a better job.

I’m writing this over 50 days since the marathon took place and running is not currently my primary form of exercise. It’s a mix of swimming, band work, sessions of pretending I know what I’m doing at the gym, and lots–LOTS!–of clamshells. Clamshells are one of the exercises which specifically targets the gluteus medius, a hard-to-reach muscle which is essential for hip stability, something I lacked during the course of my training for the marathon–and which contributed to the injury I now find myself nursing.

I also started living in my Oofos

Aside from being undisciplined with my strength training during the course of my marathon training block, I’ve never taken proper time to recover. Just look at how I treated my body right after I ran a marathon. There’s a joke that all runners in some way or other enjoy a bit of masochism, but tucked beneath the humour is a startling lack of self-care.

While I run and I run, demanding more and more of my body, surging when I don’t need to surge, and missing weight sessions that I should be deeply engaged with, I’m missing the self-care of tantamount importance to a sustainable running practice.

I’ve long inhabited a state of mind that calls discipline just getting the bloody job done. More. Always more. But I’ve come to realise that this is a symptom of the short-termism I’ve grown accustomed to running through. Rather than playing the long game, with running as a lifelong companion, I’ve been playing the short game of running hard all the time to achieve best results. There’s a discipline and maturity that comes with playing the long game.

It isn’t a blind, dogged conviction to slap more kilometres onto your weekly plate of mileage. It’s a discipline which takes time to take care of your body with rest. 

And while I find that pill difficult to swallow–old habits do indeed die hard–the gummy slides I inhabit during at least 60% of my waking hours serve as a heuristic. They’re a shortcut reminder that I’m healing, that recovery is important, that I am not just slacking off. They’re damn soft too, absorbing 37% more shock than traditional footwear and putting less stress on my joints. 

The way forward

My injury hasn’t yet reached its denouement. I so wish it had though; it would’ve made this second recounting of my marathon journey so much more well-rounded. A challenge followed by another challenge, followed by a resolution and a lesson learned.

But perhaps that’s because learning this lesson of taking better care of myself needs to happen before the resolution is had. The healing period for ITB Syndrome is another source of frustration: it can take between four to eight weeks. Not only is that a long period of time, but the healing period has a high degree of variance. As someone that has high demands on their own self, this situation lights a fire requiring constant effort to put out–it’s not easy being dealt with uncertainty.

But the most fulfilling lessons never do come easily. It seems counter-intuitive, but discipline in the context of running is not always running more. Often, I find it’s exercising the required self-care to keep you running. Playing the long game. 

And whether that means committing to the gym, seeing the PT once a month, or sliding a pair of Oofos on (even just as a reminder to rest), I highly recommend you play it.

It’s a game I’m still learning to play. 

***

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