I’ve been struggling with a hamstring injury since the beginning of winter. For most of that time, I didn’t even realize it was an issue. My hammie was tight and sore but I figured it was something that would work itself out. About a month ago, that dull soreness turned into a burning pain in the tendon behind my knee, and I suddenly realized that maybe this wasn’t something that would go away on its own.
I saw a sports medicine doctor. I got a massage. I reduced my level of activity. I quit running. I started going to PT once a week. I began spending lots of time stretching during and after all physical activity. The pain still lingers, but I’m finally seeing some improvement.
Soft tissue injuries take a long time to heal. A few years ago, I broke my arm, and that wasn’t exactly fun, but I was given a timeframe. There was a clear path to healing. It got better in a very predictive, linear manner. After about a month, I was back to riding on the road. Another couple weeks and I was mountain biking with no pain.
With my current injury, there is no clear path. Some activity seems to make it feel better than sitting around too much, but if I overdo it, my hamstring lets me know. I won’t feel any pain for days and then it’ll flare up. I’ve spent the last month trying to find a balance of what I can do to stay sane and maintain some level of fitness while also letting my body do what it needs to do to get back to 100%. I waffle back and forth between what’s best — complete rest or doing as much activity as I can without making it worse? Do I push the limits or do I take a very conservative approach? Not even the doctor could give me a definitive answer, which led to a lot of frustration, especially in the beginning.
When I first realized that this wasn’t something that I could just work through, I was devastated. I had a spring full of adventures planned — a bikepacking trip on the TransVirginia route, the Hyner Challenge 25k trail running race (for which I had an ambitious time goal of 3:30, 43 minutes faster than I ran it 5 years ago), the Keystone Off-Road 50-mile mountain bike race, more long days on the AFT, and lots of long gravel rides because it’s that season. I had to bail on bikepacking and I won’t be running Hyner this upcoming weekend. I’ll be at Keystone Off-Road but I think it’s safe to say I won’t be riding all 50 miles. The long gravel ride weather has been amazing and I’ve missed some super primo mountain bike trail conditions during a rare dry spell. Just as I was getting super excited about long runs, I was forced to quit running.
My disappointment wasn’t only over the activities themselves. Not only are biking and running my hobbies and things that feed my soul, they are also the main components of my social life and a crucial part of my existence. I quickly realized that so much of my identity was wrapped up in being able to go do long, hard rides and runs with my core group of friends who also like to do those things. As soon as I couldn’t do that, I started to feel like I had lost a piece of myself. An irrational fear cropped up that I would be cast out of “the club,” that I’d be forgotten and written off as “no longer a badass,” and quite frankly, just “not cool” anymore. And then there was the scariest thought of all that floated through my head — what if it never gets better? As I type all this now, I realize I sound so crazy that I’m considering leaving that part out of the story, but in the interests of full transparency and honesty, I won’t.
It’s not like all (or any!) of my friends are petty a-holes. It’s not like every athlete doesn’t get injured at some point. It’s not like I don’t know a bunch of people who would be happy to go on easy rides and walks with me. And the chances of this being some weird chronic issue were probably pretty slim, as long as I took the time now to heal and continued to take care of myself in the future. But as someone who uses exercise to manage anxiety and depression, a decrease in activity took its toll on my emotional state and these irrational thoughts kept creeping up. However, they were not alone. Amidst the despair, there was also a healthy share of positivity, silver linings, and lessons to be learned.
I spent a good chunk of this winter feeling burnt out, but I was so scared of losing the base of fitness I’d been building up for years if I took time off or slowed down for a while. 2018 was a huge year for me physically and I ended it in the best shape of my life. I loved all the big things I did — the solo double century, building up from running 5 miles to running a half marathon and then to a 25k and beyond, several bikepacking trips, and so much more — but as 2019 began, I found myself struggling to set goals for the upcoming year. Part of me felt forced to set my sights even higher, to go farther and faster. These types of goals motivated me the previous year. But this past December, the thought that kept popping into my head was “balance.” I needed to find it. I was getting a little too obsessed with running and riding as much as possible, and deep down inside, I think I knew that wasn’t sustainable for me. I knew I needed to mix it up, but habits are hard to break and it was a lot more fun to get out on my bike or go for a run than struggle through a yoga class or strength training session. I’ve been wanting to get into bouldering for years but I’ve never gotten past the tough learning curve and inevitable discouragement that comes with going out to climb only to be tired after 15 minutes.
I did finally catch the yoga bug this winter. I found a lunchtime class that I like at a studio down the street from my office, and I committed to going once a week. After a few weeks, I started to get strong enough that it didn’t totally suck, yet there were enough challenges to keep me coming back. Once I got injured, I also started doing yoga-based stretches and strength-building a couple more days a week at home. Afraid of gaining weight around my stomach (it all goes there first) and not being able to fit into any of my pants, I forced myself to do the long-dreaded core work. Now I’m happier with my mid-section than I’ve ever been.
Not being able to spend all weekend every weekend riding has also allowed me the time and energy to get some overdue house projects done. My first weekend off the bike was spent ripping up our living room carpet in anticipation of a new hardwood floor. Evan and I have also been working on getting rid of stuff we don’t need and general home maintenance, repair, and cleaning that was ignored for too long (holy crap our windows were dirty!). I’ve never been super into house projects, but getting sh*t done lately has definitely been satisfying.
In the past five weeks, I have gone from supreme disappointment and not being sure what to do with myself to a place of acceptance (not to be confused with complacency). I think the third week was the worst — I was sure I should be getting better, and every time I thought I was making progress, it flared up again. I was on a roller coaster of emotions. I made an emergency follow-up appointment with my sports doctor and she told me I needed to be more patient (I’m sure she thinks I’m super neurotic). My physical therapist told me that these types of injuries could take 8-12 weeks to fully heal. She also told me a story about her daughter who runs track and got a very similar injury, got better about stretching, and has since taken significant time off her mile. The fact that being 5 weeks in and not all healed up was not unusual, and that there is hope for me to come back stronger made me feel better. I’ve embraced taking it easy, and while I can’t wait to be back to 100% and know that I can go out and crush a hard run or bike ride, I feel less of a sense of urgency than I did a few weeks ago.
Progress can be hard to measure when it’s slow, but I can’t deny that I’m seeing vast improvements. The muscle that was feeling significantly weaker than the other side now feels normal. Sitting doesn’t cause pain anymore. Days go by without a twinge. Easy bike rides and hikes don’t hurt. Longer or more intense activities still do, but knowing that it IS getting better, even slowly, is comforting and helps with the whole “having patience” thing. I know that in the grand scheme of things, this is just a little tiny blip.
In the meantime, who wants to go for an easy bike ride with me?