Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Poorly-Activated Muscle -> A Weak Muscle -> An Injured Muscle

With just days to go in 2011, I recently took stock of my training for the month of December.  What a blank-ing JOKE.  A collection of half-mile, or one mile runs.  ("All I ran was ONE ******* MILE?")

After ignoring pain signs through mid-November -- and, arguably, ignoring my calves and heels altogether since last spring -- I became "officially injured" on November 24th.  Since then -- over 5 weeks -- I've run a total of 30 miles -- most of which ran the gamut between "tight" or "sore" and bonafide pain in the left calf/heel. 

I've been stuck in a cycle of "It hurts, it feels a little better, let's run a little*, it hurts...", from which I've yet to emerge.  As a runner, coach and physical therapist, it's downright embarrassing.  Here's where I've gone -- sometimes right, sometimes wrongly.  

(*a little = as little as four minutes, a maximum of 18 minutes.  Never longer than 7 minutes consecutive, over the past month)

My treatment approach has been thus:

1. Do Nothing. Irritated muscles get overly-irritated by excessive stretching, strengthening, massaging and attempts at running.  So do nothing!  Well, this did not work.  I had a severely dysfunctional muscle -- so bound up by thousands of miles of running since last spring that my lower leg was one big grisley chunk of tissue, not a smooth supple muscle-tendon.  Every attempt to run on this clunker resulted in a straining on the same weak segment that gave way to begin with.

2. Tissue Remodeling.  My boss Jeff began to intervene around 12/8 -- pointing out that I had to remodel that healing, dysfunctional tissue.  According to the Tissue Healing Model, all tissues heal with fresh collagen fibers that grow irregularly -- into a jumbled mass, rather than organized fibers.  It's up to ME to "re-organize them" -- via stretching, massage, and occasional "challenges" to the tissue -- strengthenen, hopping/light plyometrics, and yes, running.

So that's what I did: three terrific professional massages that clearly pointed out how incredibly dysfunctional BOTH calves were, along with a regular regimen of stretching and hopping.

The problem: BALANCE.  Some days -- more often than not -- I over-did it.  Soreness crept into a session (usually running), then persisted.  And with soreness came favoring -- or BABYING, as I'll call it: me -- either consciously or unconsciously favoring the left leg in EVERYTHING -- standing, walking, and most definitely running.

Which brings me to the third progression in the treatment:

3. SYMMETRY.  I met on Christmas Eve with my boss at work (for our under-the-table "coaching for treatment" scheme!) so he could work with me.  What he found: egregious favoring of my left leg, with walking, squatting, heel raises, and hopping.  Ridiculous! 

Our focus NOW is on equal firing of the left leg.  And here's why that's important: A poorly-activated muscle is a weak muscle.  

Muscles are NOT all-or-nothing.  Their degree of strength depends on the number of "motor units" activated.  A motor unit represents one nerve fiber that innervates a collection of muscle cells, or a "bundle" -- of which there are hundreds if not thousands per muscle).  This is a requirement of life -- otherwise our physical response could not vary.  Ever lift a very light object that you thought was heavy (with any ensuing comedy?). 

For something as "challenging" to tissue as running -- the constant hyper-loading -> storing -> and releasing of energy that goes into every stride -- you have to have FULL motor recruitment -- or ALL the motor units being activated (to some extent) in your legs.  This is doubly important if you're dealing with a muscle-tendon unit that lacks full strength and resilience.

A weak muscle-tendon needs 100% full power, otherwise the pounding forces with excessively strain, resulting in more injury.  BUT, if one is tentative, guarding, or "babying", you're telling your brain to DE-ACTIVATE, thus giving LESS power.  The muscle-tendon is now weakened further!

And round and round we go:  A weak muscle -> an injured muscle -> a favored muscle -> a poorly activated muscle -> a weak muscle...

The answer: Go Hard, or don't go at all.  You either make that leap with 100% confidence -- and with it, full muscle-activation, without fear of pain -- or you'll land flat on your face.

And that's where I find myself, for the time being.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Mind the Exit Wound"...and the .44 Magnum on June 25th.

Welcome to my Page!  For Coaching Information, click HERE or on the tabs at the top of the page. 

November, and the aftermath of my first ultra on 10/30, has gone by quickly.  The restful weeks following the 50M went quickly and easily -- as I've been busy with work, education courses, and coaching.

Initially, I was far less sore after Autumn Leaves than Twin Cities -- no hobbling or aberrant stair-stepping. If anything, my only soreness was due to my own mechanical flaws -- overloading the left side, lacking push-off on the right, and chronic under-pronation on the right side.  I had some left lateral knee soreness for about a week, then a touch of heel pain on both sides for another week.

My college coach, friend/mentor and distance running mega-guru Sean Hartnett has a saying, "Mind the Exit Wound".  In other words, be mindful of not just the initial soreness, but the lingering after-effects of a hard race or workout and how they can affect your body.  

I did not heed this advice as I should have; the left heel pain, which I thought might've been lumbopelvic or ankle joint referred pain, turned out to be a significant musculo-tendinous strain.  It took a good two weeks of "barking" -- and pain escalation -- to make that clear.  And since then, I've run only twice in the past two weeks.  It's improving, but SLOWLY. 

It IS irritating, though: I should've been wiser.  I THRASHED my calves at Twin Cities (my left worse than the right), then did not sufficiently work them out prior to Autumn Leaves.  Then, when Lefty began barking, mid-November, I ignored it, thinking it was just "joint stiffness".  So, as it turns out, I've been pissing it off for a month.  It could take another week or more to heal sufficiently to begin training.

And train, I must, because on Saturday I Won The Lottery. I was among the 10% of the applicants lucky enough to win the privilege pay $370 to run 100 miles through the mountains on June 25th, 2011 -- my mom's "29th" Birthday! 

I have mixed feeling on this "win".  One one hand, winning a spot in the 2011 is a shot at achieving a lifetime goal of finishing an event I thought was completely impossible when I first heard of it.  I remember being at my mom's house in the summer of 2004, reading an article online about a Northern Minnesotan who was in the midst of a six-year streak of complete domination of an event I thought was "punishment for shoplifting in some countries".  Yet it intrigued me to the Nth Degree.  A ten mile trail run can be tough, but 100 miles??

On the other hand, I feel as though I haven't earned this spot -- I wish I was forced to win a Montrail Cup race in order to gain a WS100 berth, because that'd be more evidence that I was prepared and deserving of a spot in the "Boston Marathon of Ultras". 

Back in 2004 I remember poring over the WS100 website and the participant guide -- the maps and pacing and crewing...  Since my pacing experience at the 2010 event, I've pored even more, nearly to the point of obsession.  Now that I'm IN FOR SURE -- I am equally excited and frightened.

Some thoughts:
  • I'm definitely less scared about 100 miles than I was before Autumn Leaves.  And much less scared than my first impression 6 years ago.  However, I do remember being "several kilometers" into the 50M, thinking, "There's NO WAY I'm gonna even apply to Western States!"
  • I'm nervous and anxious about this Achillies -- heal, already!
  • I'm flattered and excited about having a burgeoning crew comprised of friends and family, that will add a sense of meaning to the event that would far exceed a solo endeavor
  • I firmly believe that the key to ultra-marathoning success is Biomechanical Excellence.  And I have a plan to make my own mechanics as excellent as possible, this involving maybe one of the most skilled and experienced "sports medicine movement experts" in the US.  Thankfully his office is a mile away from mine
  • I've got some fun and exciting training ideas already, my favorite being HERE
I've been telling people that Ultra running combines three of my favorite things: running, the outdoors, and EATING.  So, if nothing else, I suppose I can try to eat $370 worth of Mountain Dew, M&Ms, brownies, and PB&J sandwiches, come June 25th!