“Let’s go schedule a followup. You okay to walk?”
“Yep. Let’s go.”
I stood up and walked out of the room. Blood quickly started draining out of my head. My vision looked like a poorly-focused vignette.
“Nope. I need to sit down again. Hang on a minute.”
My name is Lisa, and I’m an injured athlete.
That exchange was about five weeks ago, in a doctor’s office at Stanford. The doctor had just told me he was about 80% certain I had a stress fracture. It was on the growth plate of my right tibia. I most likely wouldn’t be running for about three months.
“What can I do?”
The next few days were disastrous.
I was immediately terrified that, without a regular exercise routine, I would promptly gain 40 pounds and never be an athlete again. Despite the irrationality of this thought process, it seemed like a very real outcome. To try and combat this perceived impending obesity, the first thing I did was sign up for a membership at 24 Hour Fitness, the only gym nearby with a pool open at all hours of the day. Within a week, I was swimming 2 miles a day. Within three weeks, I was up to 3 miles.
In my mind, I was no longer a runner. I wasn’t actively running, and it wasn’t clear when I next would, so that meant I wasn’t a runner. I felt like I was lying to the world, posing as a runner when I clearly wasn’t one. I didn’t tell anyone about my injury. I was too embarrassed, and it was too painful to think about it, much less talk about it.
I stopped eating for about a week and dropped several pounds. Because, in my mind, I wasn’t an athlete, I didn’t know how to eat anymore; food no longer was categorized as fuel. It was an undefined quantity with no clear use to me.
The first few weeks were worse than any breakup I’ve ever been through. After a breakup, I could pound out a hard 10 miles to work off the emotional turbulence. Running has always been a way to burn of pent-up emotional confusion. This injury was the first problem I had encountered where it couldn’t be solved, or at least temporarily alleviated, by running.
Every time I felt pain, I imagined my bone splitting apart. It was nauseating.
A few weeks later, I went back for an MRI to confirm the diagnosis. I made sure to eat breakfast beforehand; I had convinced myself that the dizziness from the last visit was due to low blood sugar, not shock.
There was good news, and bad news. The good news: it wasn’t a stress fracture. The bad news: it was tendinitis. Recovery time for tendinitis can be as short as 4-6 weeks. I was relieved, but it also didn’t immediately change anything I was doing. I still had to spend every morning confined within the walls of a windowless gym.
Sidenote: There’s no doubt in my mind regarding what caused this injury. I didn’t give myself enough time to recover after my 100-mile race. Consider that lesson learned.
Today, about five weeks after the first diagnosis, I ran 1.25 miles without pain. Today is the first day I’ve felt real optimism that I’ll run again.
Over the past few weeks, things have settled down a bit. I’m cycling almost every morning, and I’ve started lifting some weights. An exercise routine has been successfully established.
I’ll probably do some additional writing on different facets of this recovery process, mainly so others can read about some of the things I’ve learned. Having never done any research on injuries prior to this event, I’ve definitely learned a lot about injury prevention, recovery, and some specific health issues, like the female athlete triad.
Because of this process, my motivations and psychology around running and my approach to life have been torn apart, laid bare, and pieced back together. It’s been an eye-opening experience, made even more shocking because of the relative lack of severity of the injury.
Importantly, I’ve come to terms with this injury. Just because I’m not running today doesn’t mean I’m not a runner. I’m still a runner. I’m just taking a vacation.
Have you had a sports-related injury? How did you recover?