Too Many Variables


I think one of the reasons that there are so many books, magazines, newsletters, articles, websites, and blogs devoted to running is because there are so many (perhaps too many) variables to consider when deciding upon training methods, shoe selection, and, most importantly to the masters runner, injury prevention and injury remediation.  Part of this stems from the fickle nature of the human body, as well as the fact that our experiences of our own, individual bodies are often unique to us. This is a roundabout way of getting back to Dr. George Sheehan’s assertion that “we are an experiment-of-one.”  The nature of good experimentation itself, however, militates against this idea. You can’t, for example, run a good study without trials, control groups, and enough subjects to result in statistical relevance, to name several aspects of experimentation that require multiple subjects.  One of the things that runners do is to try to adapt the results of experiments and studies to their own individual needs.  As everyone visiting this website is probably aware, this is a tricky endeavor because, simply put, we are all different.  I am increasingly convinced that there are no universal solutions and that it is important to step back from the bandwagon and assess what is really going on before pronouncing a magic training bullet. (I’m looking at you, barefoot running…)  What works well for one runner might not work as well for another, or might even result in less than favorable results, to put it mildly. This recognition extends to all aspects of running, not just injury prevention and recovery.  This, of course, helps to explain websites devoted to constant discussions of training plans and shoe reviews.

I’m writing this short entry in advance of an upcoming piece on “leg cramps and how to deal with them” to think about how runners actually use information.  To help illustrate the point I am trying to make, I am going to tell a story. I imagine that it will be all too familiar for some of us.  During the spring of 2010, I was recovering from a hobbling case of plantar fasciitis when I started to notice a slight pain in my right shin. Not to worry, I told myself, it’s probably just shin splints – some ice, backing off the mileage, and this will go away in no time. A week later, the pain was more intense and it began to feel like my tibia was about to give out. I was starting to panic. I stopped running for a week. I got an MRI and an X-ray. I didn’t feel like it was getting better. The beginning of the summer was slipping away. I was missing goal races. I was getting depressed.  Then I did what many of us do when confronted by injury: I applied all remedies – all remedies at once.  I drank tart cherry juice, iced, used heat, discovered KT Tape, replaced my shoes, and swam.  My tibia did eventually improve; but I can’t tell you why.  Was it a combination of remedies?  Was it the cherry juice?  The swimming?  Thinking back on it, I did experience rapid improvement while I was drinking tart cherry juice, but it was ultimately way too expensive.  Perhaps it was the fact that I had been resting my leg for several weeks.

Anyway, the approach that most of us use to deal with injury is completely unscientific and usually consists of trying anything to get back to running.  We try several things at once, introduce numerous new variables, and are left wondering what ultimately worked.  From a psychological viewpoint, the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” injury solution makes sense – we want to get back to running as soon as possible because we feel miserable not running.  To develop efficient and effective remedies for future running injuries, however, this method can prove frustrating, because we are still left wondering what remedy or combination of remedies worked. I think the solution here is patience. This, of course, is difficult advice when it is your leg that is hurting.  We need to realize, however, that experience is one of the masters runner’s advantages. If we think long term, we can realize that there is always another race and that we can put our experiences gained over years of running to use in addressing the solutions to injuries in a systematic way.  I am suggesting here that to more accurately decipher the injury equation, we should be more willing to try one approach, see how it works, and then move on to the next. It will take more time, but it will ultimately prove more useful in establishing repeatable remedies.  I would suggest, then, that rather than bemoaning the problem of creating too many variables in injury remediation, we should think both more systematically and patiently in our approach to running injuries.

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5 comments on “Too Many Variables

  1. bridgett says:

    The “one thing at a time” solution also leads (as an unintended consequence) to the embrace of the necessary ingredient for all healing : time. So, what you’re really suggesting is combining one active therapy and one passive therapy, right?

    Can rest ever be an active therapy?

  2. Drew says:

    Looking for some thoughts on my current injury…

    In August, I lifted Kirsten’s bike into her car – she was going to ride behind while I ran on the rails-to-trails bike path – and I felt a twinge in the lower ab region. Of course, I was two stubborn to ease-off of my P90x ab-ripper exercises and ended creating a bigger and bigger problem. After two months, I broke down and went to the doctor who diagnosed “micro tears” in my abs. His prescription was physical therapy. The PT told me to quit running and of course how could I? I had two big races coming up. After four sessions, he told me he wasn’t going to work with me anymore until I quit running for a while. Aughhh!!! I am now at one week of no running and hoping I can hold out another week. Damn abs. Any ideas?

  3. I just read your problem aloud at the dining table where everyone is doing homework. The dancer in the family said, “It was better to stop running for several weeks, rather than risk further injury and not be able to dance (uh, run) for months rather than weeks.” Bridgett merely raised her eyebrow and said, “You guys never learn — you must rest to fully recover.” My response was, “Holy crap, Drew’s doing P90x, should I be doing that?” Seriously, though, micro-tears in my abs are something that I haven’t yet experienced. My go to exercise when I can’t run is the elliptical machine at the Y, but I don’t think that would relieve stress on your lower abs. I also swim when really injured, but the amount of swimming required to replicate a five-mile run is depressing. I’ll look around and see what else I can find out.

    • Kirsten says:

      Drew can’t swim, so that is not a viable alternative.

    • Drew says:

      I am going with the sage advice of the women in your house…rest. I am now past the toughest part of the transition…no running for a week and a half.

      John, regarding p90x not sure I can recommend it. It is just another gimmick. Remember, you are the outstanding runner in this equation and you need to stick with what works for you. My biggest shortcomings as a runner are starting at age 48 and a really, really short stride due to tight hips. My “turnover” is excellent so no issue there. If I could extend my stride then I would be good. So my focus during my no running time is loosening the hips.

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