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What I've learnt from not running

OK, so let me put this straight, I was, and still am an absolute running fanatic. I’m that person who loves running, rain, wind, or shine. I am also that person who never gives in, or will let excuses get in the way. Running has always been a top priority in my day, for my health, fitness, sanity, and happiness. But when does dedication become an obsession? It’s a blurred line between being healthy and truly overdoing it.

When I was 12 years old I decided I wanted to win the school cross country, so I did. I remember my parents telling me the more running I did then the faster I would get. So I started getting up in the morning and running around the paddock. Did I mention this was in gumboots?! I was hooked, and got more competitive and serious about training in my late teens. You will be relieved to know running in gumboots was a very brief period, and it didn’t take me long to realise sneakers were a much more comfortable, lighter and efficient option.

Eleven years on from my school cross-country days, nearing the end of 2016 and I started to have occasional moderate pain in my left shin when I ran. The pain was nothing excruciating, and not consistent enough that I bothered to do anything about it. Never having an injury in my entire running career I was naive to the warning signs. The pain was always there at the beginning of a run, almost like a sharp stiffness, and as the run progressed the pain would ease to basically nothing. I don’t know what I thought it was to be honest. I had the typical runner attitude of "she'll be right”, but in retrospect I wish I had acted on this discomfort much sooner. I didn’t take action, and as a result, my leg was anything but OK.

Two months after the initial pain started, the pain was so excruciating and sharp that one day running I had to stop mid-run (and trust me, I hate stopping) and phone Sports Med in Christchurch. Initially they thought it was shin splints, but after a fortnight of strengthening exercises and low-impact cross training, there was no improvement. An X-ray then revealed a clear dark line horizontally through the middle of my anterior tibia; in other words a stress fracture in the front of my shin. I knew this was serious, and I also knew it would be a long road to recovery. I cried, I panicked a bit, and I then started planning other exercise, recovery, and training options I could do that would be safe and speed up the healing process.

It’s now a year since the initial pain. I started with the occasional run very carefully and slowly in May this year, but consistently started training at the beginning of August for the Queenstown Half Marathon in November. Ninety percent of the time my leg has felt normal running, but now and again there is a sensation (even when I’m not running) in that exact spot of my shin. I wouldn’t describe it as pain, but definitely a sensation that wouldn’t have been there in my healthy shin. Making a wise decision I thought it was best to have another check up with my sports Doctor last week to ensure the healing was complete. The X-ray has showed good healing in comparison to the initial X-ray (meaning that clear black line through my shin has mostly filled in), BUT X-rays are not the best means for clearly seeing if the healing is complete, and it also showed possible incomplete healing. So, I’m back to not running until I’ve had a CT scan to confirm what is happening. What is devastating is the Queenstown Half is likely not going to happen for me, but if a little extra time off running means my leg can properly heal, then in the scheme of things, that’s REALLY important. The location of my stress fracture is also ‘high risk’ which means they are much harder and take a long time to heal. It is really bad news if this stress fracture doesn’t heal and I am doing everything I can to ensure it does heal. I don’t want to talk about the other options! Further investigations of my full body bone quality are also happening at the end of the month with a bone density scan.

If someone had told me I was to have almost a year off running this time last year, I probably would have absolutely freaked out! In all honesty, I’ve been surprised by how well I’ve coped, how I’ve adapted to the change, and how I’ve shifted my focus on health.

Here are 6 things I’ve learnt in my time off running that you may benefit from:

1. Running is addictive, but not always in a healthy way. I know that a major component in the occurrence of this injury was because I was overdoing it for far too long. The ‘stress’ fracture is the result of too much consistent stress on the bone, and something had to give. I hated days off running, only taking them if it was going to be really tricky to squeeze in a run, or I was very unwell. Our bones need impact and stress to help them stay strong, but too much of the same repetitive exercise will likely lead to injury. I just got away with it for a lot longer than other people.

2. Cross training is incredibly important. Incorporating multiple types of exercise is excellent for overall health and well-being as it allows a greater variety of muscles to be used and greater overall fitness. For people who are training more intensely, mixing up the types of exercise not only helps add variety to training, but let’s some parts of the body recover while maintaining strength and tone in other parts that can complement other activities.

3. Exercise should be enjoyable. It should never be a chore, and it should never be used as a punishment. Find something you love and stick to it. Learn the difference between low motivation and actually being physically too unwell or exhausted to exercise. A certain level of motivation is important, but forcing yourself to go out and exercise when you are exhausted or very unwell will only do harm. LISTEN to your body.

4. Happiness shouldn’t rely on exercise. Running sets me up for a good day, makes me more motivated, happier, energised, and focussed. Many of you may feel like this too. I mean exercise makes us feel AWESOME! What I’m trying to say though is that having an unplanned ‘rest day’ shouldn’t be a bad thing. If you are really so negatively affected by not exercising then maybe you need to reconsider the relationship you have with exercise and your body.

5. Be kind to yourself. Your body is incredible. At every second of the day it is doing everything it can to keep you alive in one million processes. It’s important (and a necessity) to physically challenge ourselves to improve fitness. BUT it is also important to recognise the difference between improving fitness and punishing our body. It is hard to pin-point exactly when my shin pain started but I do remember doing very high intensity circuits involving jump squats, box jumps, jump lunges, and some netball around this time, and combined with daily running it was a stress fracture waiting to happen.

6. It’s OK to have a break from running. This has taken me many months to feel comfortable with. It’s been hard to swallow; I was constantly improving my times and places in running events, and increasing my speed and power in HIIT circuits. However, it’s going to take months of very slow, careful, and gradual training to get back to that level. It really upsets me, has been an important lesson to learn, and unfortunately I’m learning the hardest way possible. I was known for being a good runner, so with this happening I almost feel like I’ve lost part of what makes me who I am. I miss it every day, but in all honesty running is not all there is to life. On the plus side I am more toned and the strongest I have ever been. I have also enhanced my fitness greatly in other areas including full-body strength and flexibility.

If you take anything from this – LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. If something hurts, something isn’t right.

Cushla Holdaway

Registered Dietitian


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