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July 8, 2017

Why a long running break might not cure your injuries

This post first appeared on Jenny’s blog Hold Fast Health.

I recently wrote about my first run back after about a 6 month break and have been thinking about the benefits of taking a long running break, but also the drawbacks. Taking a two/three week break at the end of a long season is totally necessary to let your body recover after months of hard training, but we also tend to think of running breaks as a cure for injuries.

Despite taking some serious time off of running, I still returned with the same left ankle/right hip problems that I had before and will have to invest some serious time fixing my imbalances and weaknesses.

It isn’t surprising to me that these issues just resurfaced since I haven’t done any motion that would make these chronic issues flare up in awhile, but I wanted to talk about why a long running break won’t assure that you’ll come back super healthy and ready to run lots of miles.

Benefits and drawbacks of a running break

If you’re suffering from a stress fracture, tendonitis or some other common running problem, taking some time off of running is usually the first (but most dreaded) thing to do.

Resting after the initial injury allows inflammation to calm down, but many times the injury resurfaces almost immediately and you can’t explain why. Shouldn’t a few days or weeks off have cured this thing?

The problem is that injury wasn’t really the issue. The injury was just a symptom of the issue. The issue is something a little more complex, like a muscular imbalance, slight problem with your biomechanics, a matter of not getting enough consistent rest or recovery in your training which caused a slow but steady break down in your mechanics, or something else.

“Rest doesn’t fix problems”

In one of my favorite running books, Anatomy for Runners, coach/physical therapist/instructor/author Jay Dicharry explains the causes of most common running injuries by discussing biomechanics, flexibility, mobility, stability, strength training etc. and tells us that “rest helps calm down acute inflammatory events but does not result in any type of positive tissue adaptation”. I.e. a running break allows us to reduce the pain and immediate symptoms of an injury, but does nothing to help us in the long term.

Let’s think about achilles tendinopathy. I’ve experienced this horrible and frustrating injury a couple of times. It comes in the form of a very inflamed, hot, crunchy and painful achilles that barely allows you to walk. My freshman year of college, I dropped out of an 800m race at 500m when I heard a big pop and felt a large pain in my achilles after two weeks of moderate pain and inflammation.

I thought my achilles had ripped. Thankfully it didn’t, but I limped around the rest of the weekend and was told to “take two weeks off, and it’ll be fine” after that.

I took a two week running break and yes, the inflammation did lessen. But as soon as I started running again…BAM! CRUNCHY achilles. I was right back to where I started. Why didn’t the break cure me? For an injury like achilles tendonitis, I needed to be doing things like eccentric calf exercises (3×20, twice a day) and getting massage/dry needling to help relieve the tightness in my calves.

I also needed a long term plan to correct my weaknesses and my overall weird running form (I ran on my toes for like 12 years and didn’t realize I was over-striding and causing a lot of stress that lead to chronic shin splints, achilles tendinopathy, ankle sprains and tibial stress fractures).

A combination of rehab, rest, ice, and physical therapy and a long term plan to address biomechanics, muscular weaknesses and instability would have been my best plan of action (if only I had been told this 5 or 6 years ago…)

Short term treatment vs. Long term solution

Jay Dicchary explains the difference between addressing the symptoms of your injury in the short term, versus creating a more resilient and less injury-prone body in the long term:

“Achilles tendinopathy, metatarsal stress fractures, chronic ankle sprains, and shin splints all stem from the same basic movement imbalance. Wouldn’t it be nice to decrease your chance of getting a bunch of injuries by addressing a few simple issues?… This is not to say you should ignore your symptoms. Go see your health care provider for help there. They’ll help pinpoint and stage the severity of the injury to direct yo not he best course of action for right now. But if you dedicate some time to improve the mechanism that got you here in the first place, you are going to be calling for an office visiting for the same thing sometime in the future. A smarter body can avoid getting hurt in the first place.” –Anatomy for Runners

Rest is great and super beneficial/necessary to relieve short term symptoms of an injury, but it won’t magically cure the muscular imbalances and underlying issues that cause you to get hurt.

Take your running break, but once your body is ready to start the rehab and strength work, do it. And make it a priority over cross training. Building strength takes time, getting your cardiovascular fitness back is easy. Well, not easy, but definitely more simple and straightforward than corrective exercises.

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