“I think my running days are over” A tale of a recreational runner with knee pain
So, late September this year, I completed my 38th half marathon – not fast by any measure, not anywhere near my PB and not an ounce of energy in left in the tank. But … a hugely satisfying personal accomplishment – achieved, done and injury free!
Turn the clock back to the beginning of the year – a casual Sunday trail run and with 6km to go a significant pain hits my left knee. I ignore it, it gets worse and overnight throbbed so badly I couldn’t sleep. After a few rest days there’s no sign of improvement. I’m not feeling good about this at all.
Sadly, I know what this is. It’s a meniscus tear. I’ve no medical or physiological knowledge or training but I know what it is because it’s a pain that’s familiar to me. My other knee has a meniscus with history. Two tears and two ‘ epairs’ via arthroscopy operations – temporary repairs as it turns out because it had a third tear which I’ve just lived with for over seven years. This one has been manageable and hasn’t stopped me running in that time including three ultra-marathons, a road marathon, two 30km races and 10 half’s. It complains occasionally but not badly enough to stop or to convince me to go under the knife again.
But now I’ve a matching pair of bad knees – in need of repair, 52,000km of running on the clock, one careful but ageing owner. Where do I go from here? I couldn’t run, I could barely walk, especially downhill, without a level-8 pain and steps and stairs were absolute agony.
My first decision though – I was absolutely adamant I was not having any more knee ops. No way! So, I contemplated that maybe ‘managing my expectations’ was the best way to look at this and as someone heading to mid-60s that may indeed mean no more running and absolutely definitely no distance or trail running. There were a ton of reasons why this could have been a seriously depressing thought – running has been a large part of my life for over 30 years, most of my closest friends are fellow runners, the health benefits it brings and more than anything just the sheer enjoyment I get from it. However, I did manage to stay positive – there’s millions of others my age (and younger) who are a lot worse off than me. Instead, I put in lots of time at the gym with weights and on the rower, kept up weekly PT sessions, did my daily strengthening exercises at home and finished my third RunFit class at Vital Core.
But could I run again and anywhere near to where I used to be? Most importantly, my physio (Stacey) believed from the outset that I could. As all physio’s should, she advocated a program to rebuild body and leg strength and to get me to adopt proper running posture to protect the knees. A sound plan but it took several months before I was eventually convinced recovery was possible. But it meant starting right back at the beginning – and that meant running for 1 minute then walking 4 (1r/4w) and repeat for 30 minutes and so so slowly too. Every week or two weeks we’d revisit and if all good then progress to 2r/3w then 3r/2w etc. But progress wasn’t always smooth nor continuous. Some days the knee pain was pretty bad to awful – early on it frequently took 20 minutes or more running before the pain dissipated. It was easy to doubt I’d ever get back to normal. However, I dug deep, persevered, worked through the negatives, diligently did my assigned exercises and slowly, so slowly began to see consistent progress. I began to truly believe it was improving.
During the early covid months this year, I started doing weekly one-on-one Clinical Rehab sessions with Stacey. This, almost immediately, made a massive step-change in my recovery. I even upped it to twice weekly sessions for a few weeks. We established a strong focus on getting me up to handling a weekend long run. I was able to advance from run/walks to a 5km run, then up to 7km, then 10km.. 12km on Saturdays. The disheartening set-back days were also becoming infrequent. If there was pain, I recovered quickly. As consistency in my running was re-established, I was able to also do trails walks and then short trail runs in the hills (which I love). My fitness and stamina slowly improved over these weeks allowing me to keep up with my weekend running group.
Confidence builds from self-belief and after a few weeks I was up to 18 and 20km Saturday runs and then to crown it finishing the 21km Adelaide half-marathon late in September.
So, my running days are very far from over. Stacey and I are working on improving my strength, fitness and stamina. I’m back to running 45-50km per week and with a much-improved pace. Once through the summer months we’ll set some running goals for 2021.
There’s a few ‘take away’ messages for me from all this. The obvious one – and the one we typically all do initially and then lapse – is that doing the exercises the physio sets you do are actually really beneficial – who’d have thought! 🤷♀️
It’s also useful to understand that my injury was probably 99% unfortunate – there’s possibly things I could have done to prevent it and perhaps there’s not. Sometimes you get away with overloading for a period of time – sometimes you don’t.
And leading on from that is that keeping moving at whatever capacity you can manage is vital. If you can’t run fast then run slower, if you can’t run then walk. I’ve been an active runner for over 30 years but as I get older and also now retired it is sometimes too tempting or too easy to just put it off today and leave it to tomorrow especially when it’s more of an effort than it used to be. But through this 9-month recovery, it’s become obvious to me that I need more than ever to do the opposite. The ‘rest is rust’ adage has never been truer. And that means adjusting expectations and goals – you won’t achieve the same pace as 25 years ago, PBs are distant memories – to realistic manageable distances and pace. I love the encompassing holistic approach to my well-being with weekly Clinical Rehab, personal training, runfit classes and 4 to 5 runs a week.
And lastly, the human body is amazing – its capacity and resilience to recover is incredible. It’s worth looking after it.