How to run a half marathon after a painful injury — plus expert tips on regaining your form after a painful running injury.
At mile 12, I felt that familiar pull on the outside of my knee. But there was no way I was going to let this come between the finish line and me. This was my comeback.
On October 27, I ran my first race in a year and a half, the Paso Robles Harvest Half Marathon in Central California. Throughout my formal three plus months of training, I insisted on staying away from the word “comeback,” until I realized that’s just what it was.
In October 2011, I was in the best shape of my life, running doubles three days a week and averaging six to eight miles on my easy days. And I was picking up serious speed for the first time in my running career. That month, I ran a PR at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (3:57:07). The next race on my horizon was the Pittsburgh Marathon in May 2012.
So I began training two months after Toronto. And to my surprise, I picked up the pace even more. On a 17-miler in the snowy streets of my former home of Syracuse, N.Y., I ran an average of an 8:17/mile pace. On the last few miles of that run, a thought crossed into my mind. It was a goal I didn’t think would ever be possible with my modest pace and regular goal to “just finish.” I might be able to qualify for Boston. (This was the last year before the Boston Athletic Association made the qualifying times even more difficult. So I knew this was my chance.)
And then I got injured.
One month before the Pittsburgh Marathon, I pulled my IT band. The worst part? My injury wasn’t even from running. I pulled it trying to show off a new yoga pose I’d nearly perfected in Bikram class. On a trip to London. Without stretching first. I heard a pop in my leg, and nearly fell to the ground.
As a distance runner, we’re used to joints feeling off, pains in your knee and random aches just about everywhere in our bodies. But I knew something just wasn’t right this time.
So like most (stubborn) distance runners, I took a week off and resumed regular training. With a taper quickly approaching, I thought I’d heal up and kick Pittsburgh’s butt.
My IT band never healed, and my competitive and stubborn streak just would not allow me to drop out of the race. So I ran.
I didn’t feel my best. I even walked up half a hill and stopped to stretch two things I’ve never done at a race before. About eight miles in, with the sun unexpectedly strong and my risk of dehydration high, I modified my goals. I knew I wasn’t going to qualify for Boston. I finished in 4:05:25.
Had I not run Pittsburgh, I wouldn’t have spent that entire summer off my feet. Two weeks after the race, I went out for an “easy 5K” to test out my IT band. I spent the last 1.5 miles hobbling back to my house in tears.
Six months later, I slowly built up to running eight miles on the treadmill (and gave up yoga). But I was still terrified to run outside out of fear my IT band would flare up and I’d be stranded. Again, the pain returned.
So I rested. For two months. My only source of cardio was a stationary bike.
It got old quick. So I started out with twomile runs. Outside. For three months I stayed to runs of four miles or less. And it felt amazing and the pain subsided. A year after my injury, the thought of training for another race creeped into my brain. And when my boyfriend said he wanted to do his first half marathon, that competitive streak got the best of me and I decided we should begin training.
Instead of the aggressive training schedules I followed for my previous half and full marathons, I decided we would increase our long runs by only a mile each week and stay between three and five miles for the other runs during the week. I also began lower body strength training at the gym, doing squats and lunges with very light weight. The combination seemed to work.
By the time we hit our 12-miler two weeks before the half, I felt ready. There was no pain in my leg and I felt like I could run even farther.
On race morning, we paced conservatively, right around a 10minute mile just as we had during training. But we picked up the pace around mile eight to a 9:45/min. mile.
On the final mile, my IT band joined the party. The pain in my knee made me scoul. But I powered through. And my boyfriend, even though I knew he could’ve gone faster, stayed with me. Against my best judgement and just because it’s what I always do, I sprinted to pass another girl ahead of me just meters from the end.
We crossed the finish line at 2:07:21. My worst time for a half ever.
At first, I was just so happy we finished. But on the car ride back to the hotel, the realities of my injury set in. I wanted to use this race as a test to see if I was ready to train for another full marathon. Clearly, my leg was reminding me to take is easy.
Although I was a bit sore in the two days following the race, my IT band feels back to normal now, and I am back to running 45 minutes per day. And the obsessive runner in me says this a sign I am ready to tackle the real distance.
Injury advice from the experts
If you’re injured, seeking out professional advice from a physician or physical therapist is always the smartest way to increase your chances and speed of recovery. Here’s some invaluable advice from two physical therapists who specialize in helping runners recover from injuries.
Dana Reid, DPT, Thrive Kinematics in Hood River, Oregon
A physical therapist and Ironman triathlete, Dana Reid knows a thing or two about coming back from an injury. Here are her best tips for how to get back in the distance running game postinjury.
1. Live by the 10 percent rule. “Don’t increase speed, intensity or distance by more than 10 percent on any long runs,” Reid says. “This is the biggest thing I’ve seen with distance runners. Don’t go from 8 miles to 13 just because you know you have in the past.”
2. “Make friends with your foam roller.” Reid says if you’re a runner, you need a foam roller. “You’re going to have to stretch that tissue out, and the foam roller is the way to do this,” Reid says. If it hurts, “you are doing it correctly and are in desperate need of it.”
But, Reid adds, if done correctly, the roller will eventually stop hurting. “That pain goes away because the tissue gets stretched out. Be reasonable, but it’s not supposed to be comfortable.”
3. Love a loop and find a loyal running buddy. If you’re nervous about running alone far from home, Reid says stick to loops so it’s easier to walk home if you need to. “And find a running buddy who is willing sacrifice their training day so you’re not stuck in your own head,” she says. “Sometimes just chatting with a friend can take your mind off that injury, which is all what most people need.”
4. Get a good pair of running shoes. Reid says no matter how many miles you’ve run, it’s important to reevaluate your gait and change sneakers if necessary. “Go to someone you trust, either a physical therapist or someone at a running store who does really good gait analysis,” she says.
5. Call the professional. “Most physical therapists, once you’ve been to them, they’re not going to kick you out forever,” Reid says. “We expect to hear from you after you walk out the door. So don’t be fearful of calling those practitioners.”
Rob Morrison, DPT and coordinator of the Spaulding National Running Center
1. Start over. “I tell our clinic patients to pretend that they have never run in the first place,” Morrison says. “We typically start people at no more than 10 minutes and never back to back days when they are ready to run outside of the clinic.”
Conservative, yes, but Morrison says the benefit of this is minimizing the chance for setbacks and catching them early. “In the early stages of recovery, there is very little upside to being aggressive,” he says. “In two to three months, instead of dealing with continued nagging issues, or worse, frank reinjury, people are often ready to start training hard again.”
2. Strengthen your hips. For a runner with an IT band injury, the hips are key. Morrison agrees with Reid on the importance of a foam roller. “And if you can afford it, a good massage therapist will be able to get you big head start on this process,” he says.
Also, Morrison recommends using a resistance band for a tweak the typical sidestepping exercise. “Put the band around the balls of your feet instead of your ankles,” Morrison says. “This will help you use more of your hip muscles by making you resist the inward rotation the band is trying to produce with outward rotation of your hips.”
3. Reconsider your technique. “If healing the injury isn’t enough to prevent it from coming back, then it is likely the problem isn’t just the IT band, [but] it’s how you are using it,” Morrison says. “If you find yourself dealing with IT band pain that just keeps coming back, it’s time to find a physical therapist who can help you with your technique, as well as, your strength and mobility.”