My Achilles Heel

At this point in my career, I’ve come to realize I will not “recover” from any injuries. My injuries will just go into remission.

I have struggled off and on with my Achilles tendons. And my left one is the worst. This first happened in high school, and it always seemed to be during track season. Part of me wondered if it was psychological. I really didn’t like track as much as cross country. But now I think there was something real there. The more intense interval training and shorter distance running probably aggravated my Achilles more than the cross country training. Thus, I enjoyed cross country more.

I managed to go without too much trouble from my Achilles through college and my early running as an adult. However, when I started training for Hospital Hill in 2011, it started to nag at me. At one point, I started doing calf stretches. And that just seemed to make it worse. So I stopped that. I made it through Hospital Hill okay, but as I trained for the KC Marathon and my mileage was getting up to 16 miles for the long run, they started to hurt again. I ran on them still (dumb! I know.) and only cut out maybe one 20 miler during this time. Of course, my training suffered and so did I. I ran the marathon on two compromised Achilles tendons, which didn’t really recover for about 6 weeks with reduced mileage.

Since then, I have been icing, wearing heel lifts, doing calf raises, and trying to “maintain” my tendons. The icing really helps, and I take a masochistic pleasure in plunging my left foot into a bucket (a recycling bucket) of ice water once a day during the work week. I also read in Lore of Running that running on the street (because of the grade of the road, also known as the crown, which allows the water to run off into the gutters) will stress the upper leg more than the lower. This is especially true for overpronation, since the upper leg’s overpronation is exaggerated by the grade. I also didn’t think I overpronated, but I went to KC Walk and Run and they video taped my stride. Lo and behold, even though I strike far on the outside of my fore-foot, my feet take a vicious roll to the middle and then overpronate on toe-off. It hurts to watch. (I also have very flat arches… I’m trying to mitigate that with toe curls, too. I have a thousand little rituals.) All of this starts to explain a lot (or just “make sense”) to me. I have been comfortable in support shoes, but haven’t really worn them because my wear pattern is fairly normal or suppinated (because of my foot strike on the outer fore-foot). The other thing explained by overpronation is the huge calluses on the inside of my big toes I developed during my marathon training. I am now in a pair of Brooks Adrenalines, and they seem to be helping a little. It might be just because they are new.

Another thing I have done is calf raises. I finally figured out (from reading Lore of Running) that the point of the calf raise is actually to strengthen the calf muscle during eccentric motion (that is, when the heel is going down). Silly me… I was doing them to have beautiful, defined, rock-hard calves. They should be called heel downers. Calf raises (heel downers) strengthen the calf muscle and lengthen the Achilles tendon. I think that I may be doing them too “vigorously” though. I should do it just enough to strengthen the muscle in the needed range of motion, and I think I push the envelope. The same is true of “wall pushers,” which I was re-introduced to by George Sheehan in “On Running and Being.” Wall Pushers are one of the magic six stretches to combat the natural shortening of the range of motion in your body brought on by running. I think I am doing wall pushers too vigorously, too.

All of this came together on a trip to San Francisco and a long run to the Golden Gate Bridge. I could feel my tendons being put under stress on the run, and I could feel the difference in strain as I moved from one side of the road to the other. I figured out calf raises for the first time on this trip; and they actually helped, instead of exacerbating, my Achilles.

Right now, my left Achilles is in remission and almost not a thought on my mind. It is still sore after some runs, and I try to pay attention to what makes it worse. In Lore of Running, the shoes and workout are noted as the main “variables” in the ongoing experiment with injuries. By varying these factors, hopefully you can figure out what ails you. For me, this has meant running in the Brooks Adrenalines and Nike Pegasus for similar workouts and figuring out if the tendon is better or worse. Not easy.

Another thing I have done is cut back on the speed of interval training I am doing. I was following the paces as prescribed by Run Less, Run Faster. These are much faster than any “conventional” training plans. And doing them made me feel superior to “other runners.” This was probably foolishness. And I have an aggravated tendon to show for it. I am still following the prescribed distances and repetitions (which are fairly conventional, like 3x1600m, 4×12, and 5x1K) but at a reduced pace. This has been wonderful… I am enjoying interval training much more, and my tendon has responded favorably.

Another thing in play is my gait. I have started moving (back) to a mid-foot and sometimes even a heel strike gait. I worked hard to get to a fore-foot strike, but that puts the stress on your Achilles. I was so much on my fore-foot that I was not letting my heel drop to the ground. I ran on my toes. However, I am well aware that a mid-foot and heel strike gait puts more stress on your knees. It’s a trade-off.

These days, I am thinking of my body as a car. And I am trying to keep it in alignment. And I am trying to keep the wear on the tires even. And I am trying to keep the suspension tuned. Sometimes all of this makes me wonder if I really could use a coach. But I’m too cheap to spend the money. Instead, I spend uncounted hours reading (and re-reading) books, articles, and comparing notes with friends.

I’ve noticed all of the ways I stress my Achilles. Standing on my toes, twirling around (especially in the kitchen as I go from here to there, changing direction by pivoting on my left toes on the hardwood floor wearing slipper socks), and starting the lawn mower. At those times, I think of Tiger Woods, and some snippet I saw about him modifying his swing because he relied too much on his left hip and Achilles to give him power and he had injured them. At least, that’s how I remember it. And I wonder if I am like Tiger Woods, and I went past a “peak” in my performance that was causing my body harm, and I will just have to live with what I’m capable of without injuring myself. Or maybe I’m just letting myself off the hook.

In the next three months, I will be ramping up my mileage to 12 in January, 14 in February, and 16 in March. Hopefully the tendon will hold, and this will give me some confidence to take on the even longer runs in June when I start training for the KC Marathon on October 19.

Here is a link http://www.runnersworld.com/injury-prevention-recovery/inside-doctors-office-keep-achilles-tendinitis-away that had a great summary of how to deal with Achilles tendonitis.

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5 Responses to My Achilles Heel

  1. graceglimmers says:

    The more I run, the more I want to run, and the more I live a life conditioned and influenced and fashioned by my running. And the more I run, the more certain I am that I am heading for my real goal: to become the person I am.
    -George Sheehan Enjoy the runs in the year ahead! p.s. your wife sent your link via FB so you may have some readers!

    • neltow says:

      I love George Sheehan. I’ve read On Running and Being and know that I have found a kindred spirit.

      • graceglimmers says:

        May have to check those books out. I have read his quotes and some article in Runner’s World that talk about him. Will have to check the library for those!

  2. Katie H. says:

    Welcome to the blogosphere, Nelson! I’m looking forward to reading more.

  3. Tad says:

    Just getting around to reading the full post – glad to hear you’re in remission!

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