Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 25 Aug 2007 05:55:17 -0400

Lessons from Layoffs


(rerun from August 1998 RC; written shortly after a post-marathon illness had driven me into a record-length stop)

A long-lasting injury or illness can be good for a runner. Long as in weeks or even months, not days. The longer the layoff, the better the lessons about what running really means to you.

This isn't true at first, of course. Pain and suffering are never pleasant, and they don't allow philosophical musings to break through. All you want early in the ailment is for the hurting to stop.

The worst of the pain might not come from the ailment itself, but from not running and wondering if you ever will again. During this stage you can't stand to see or talk to or read about healthy runners. They remind you too painfully of all that you are not.

This stage eventually passes. The pain settles down and then eases, and your head clears. You now see what went wrong.

Your illness or injury was no accident. You got what you paid for, or more likely the bill came due for not paying out enough in advance of your last big effort.

Say you ran a marathon a few weeks ago. It was your first in years, and by most standards your training had fallen short of adequate.

Your longest run before the marathon was 30 kilometers. This left you more than a mile shy of the 20 miles that most advisers on the subject call minimum pre-marathon distance. So you probably hadn't paid enough into your training account.

You ran the marathon anyway, trusting experience and the magic of raceday to carry you through. They did, but it was a long and tough day, especially the final miles.

The less the training, the more sporadic the racing, the harder the effort, the longer the recovery time. A hard-training, regular racer might be immune to most of the stresses of racing and might bounce back from a marathon in a week or two.

A lightly trained, infrequent racer hasn't built such immunity. A marathon might require six or more truly easy weeks afterward.

So what happens if you fit the second description and try to resume normal running in fewer than the needed number of weeks? If you don't voluntarily take the full time needed for recovery, the body demands it from you as an injury or illness. Healing that problem then occupies the weeks when you would have been getting over the marathon anyway.

As you come out of the dark spell and begin to run again, you see that the troubles have helped you. They have shown you what means the most in your running.

This is not finishing a marathon or taking the long runs that lead up to one. Nor is it shorter races or the fast training that prepare you for them.

What you missed most was getting out for the little everyday runs, the fillers between the big efforts. They're the ones not worth bragging about because their length and pace would impress no runner. Getting down to the little runs, you now see, is at least as important as getting up for the big ones.

You promise yourself not to get greedy again anytime soon. That vow will last until you forget how bad your last illness- or injury-forced "vacation" felt.

It's best to develop a long memory, so you never forget the worst of days. This adds to your appreciation of days that are back to normal.
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