“Hitting reset”, when it comes to running, is a way of stepping back completely, recovering, and returning as a healthier and refreshed athlete. It’s necessary after after wading through a pile of injuries, fatigue, less-than-perfect seasons and/or disappointment, but it’s definitely not an easy decision to make.
My post “It’s OK to Quit Running“, received a lot of feedback from runners who have had a hard time stepping away (even for their health), so I thought this would be the perfect story to share to show that a much needed break can do so much good for your bones, health and overall longevity in the sport.
Kathryn Fluehr ran cross country and track at Princeton University and hasn’t had to take more than a week off of running due to running injuries since 2012. She attributes this long stretch of injury-free running to the year that she took off of school and running to get healthy. Here’s her story! (Oh and she has an identical twin, as seen below).
Ironically as I write this, I’m sitting with my foot in a big ugly boot and the only “training” I have done in the last ten days has been a fifty-minute pool running session this morning. (I tripped on a rock on an easy run and fractured my second metatarsal. That’s another story. It’s healing, though!) Yet, I wanted to write about my experience with injuries and, more importantly, of my experience avoiding them for awhile.
Injuries are tough. Obviously. For me, one of the hardest parts is having the things I look forward to each day (like that morning run, being with teammates, the feeling after a hard tempo, or barefoot strides) all of the sudden missing. At the same time, if I reframe things (if I’m in a really optimistic mood), an injury can also be a chance to hit reset. My recent fracture has made me think about this. I’m feeling like this hopefully minor injury is a chance to hit reset in other aspects of my life, so I have been reflecting on how hitting reset eventually worked out for me a few years ago.
I took this idea of “hitting reset” to the extreme at the start of my sophomore year at Princeton. During my freshman year I hardly ran a step. In high school I had never been injured, but a week before arriving on campus at the end of August, I was diagnosed with a femoral shaft stress fracture and was relegated to “pulling” in the pool during cross country preseason. I also had to endure crutching around Ikea with my Mom and twin sister on our pre-college shopping trip – not ideal.
Eventually my femur healed, but after only running for a couple of months at very low mileage, I felt uncomfortable pulling in my groin and was diagnosed with two pubic ramus stress reactions by January. “That was it,” I told myself. I would progress from this one even more slowly. And I did. By summer, I was able to run with my sister as we both took a much more conservative approach to running and training.
We were both getting fit training on our favorite dirt roads by our house in Northern Michigan and were being really careful, focusing on lifting, rehab, and all the little things. Preseason at Princeton this time around was way more fun without crutches and constant wet hair. I was able to finally train with the girls I had been looking up to the whole year before and also finally got a true taste of Peter’s (Princeton’s women’s track and cross country coach of 39 years) quirkiness.
Our first race of the season was at Penn State, my first college cross country race. I was so excited during the pre-race the day before. Peter finally talked to me one on one and it was so nice to be with the team. But I sensed something might be wrong as I did strides that afternoon. After the race and bus ride back to Princeton, I couldn’t walk. I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my other femur the next week on the first day of classes.
When I had been injured the previous winter and spring, I told myself that if I got another season-ending injury I would take the year off of school. I would take way longer than necessary to fully recover. I would “hit reset.” I just wanted to be able to go about normal life and do things I liked to do, like play tennis with my Mom. I just wanted to go for a damn run and not have to be so worried.
When it came down to it, the decision to take the year off was not easy. My twin sister and I were and are incredibly close. To leave Princeton for the year would be leaving my best friend. I was also lost on how I would find ways to be productive (Peter’s main concern when I informed him of my idea.) Of course, my parents were also part of the decision.
My Mom thought it was smart, she missed my sister and I and had always said we should have taken a “gap year.” My Dad was not as convinced, concerned I wouldn’t actually ever return to Princeton, end up dropping out of college completely, and then what?
I was also worried about returning to school and running. How would I handle coming back to writing papers if I took such a long break from it? How would I balance taking so much time off from training while remaining committed to the sport I loved so much?
deciding to take a break
Well, I decided to take the year off. It was the only option I saw to get out of the year plus – long injury cycle I felt so stuck in. I laid out the next several months of training – or lack thereof. If I was going to do this thing, I was going to do it. Not halfway. I decided not to work out until Thanksgiving, except for lifting which I started in October.
This was probably unnecessary for the healing of this particular injury, but I felt it was needed to reset physically, emotionally, and mentally. During those months I worked, read, baked, and spent a lot of time with my Mom. Looking back, I was really lucky to have had this time for random drives, movie nights, and bread baking experiments with my Mom. But it would be a lie if I said this time was easy. It was the saddest I had yet been in my life. It was the first time I was alone in my sister and I’s shared bedroom in my whole life.
When I had been diagnosed in September, I decided I would start running January 1. So symbolic, I thought! A new start! My progression was ridiculously slow – including walk breaks and five minute jogs on grass. By summer, though, Erika and I were back on those dirt roads, training together for the fall cross country season.
Since September 2012, I have never had to take more than a week off of running. (Except for end of the season breaks, but those are my choice. And expect now with this fluke tripping incident.) I’ve progressed up to sixty miles or so a week this past fall. I’ve gone on long runs of fourteen miles most weeks for the past year and a half. I’ve gotten to do eight mile tempos.
I certainly have had niggles and paranoid injury scares in the past four and a half years, but not the stuff I dealt with at the start of college. I attribute it to “hitting reset.” I realize now It took more discipline during those few months to take time off than it would have to wake up early for cross training sessions, do doubles in the pool, or desperately try to elevate my heart rate doing intervals on the bike.
I do not think your run of the mill injury requires the extended time off I took. Injuries are part of the sport. I have come to appreciate that a lot of issues can be solved by some extra ice cream at night, a lot of sleep, acupuncture or a good massage, a day or two off, or even just some rationalization. I do think, though, my situation was somewhat more significant than just an injury. I had osteopenia as a freshman and was having these recurring injuries in major bones, like my femurs, due to under fueling in high school. I needed to make an investment for a chance at longevity in the sport I loved so much.
Despite suffering from low bone density and being warned I would never be able to run over 30 miles a week, my bone density significantly improved to normal levels. A lot of other factors, like stronger muscles, being better in tune to my body, taking recovery seriously, and recognizing muscular weaknesses have allowed me to enjoy running more than ever over such a long period of time. But I think taking the time to “hit reset” was a huge factor in allowing me to get there.