Injury Volume 2: Build New Strengths

This post is Part 2 of a three-part series on coping with injury.  No matter whether you’re training for a marathon this year or resolved to walk a mile every day, I hope you find some inspiration from this incredible woman to keep pushing forward no matter what setbacks you may face.

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I shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised at just how damn inspiring this next woman’s story of coping with injury was.  Laura DeLucia, running enthusiast, professional marathoner, and coach for the New York Road Runners Team for Kids organization has pretty much been a badass since the day I met her when we both moved into our freshmen dorm at The George Washington University.  But what happens when even the baddest of badasses is saddled with injury?  I’ll let her tell you in her own words.

What was the nature of your injury?

I developed tendonosis (chronic trauma) in my Achilles tendon, which is the tendon that connects your calf muscle to your heel. The injury started in the early fall, as I was coaching a marathon training program. Because I needed to change my speed to run with different groups, I altered my stride and was putting too much stress on my calf and Achilles. After running the New York City marathon, I pushed my body to its limit and after awhile could no longer run or even walk properly. Walking down stairs felt like I had a broken ankle. Running and jumping were out of the question.

How did your injury impact your typical fitness or exercise routine?

I’m an avid runner and part-time running coach, running 4 to 5 times a week alone and with groups. When I’ve gotten injured, I realize that I run not only for the wonderful, addictive endorphins (that ‘runner’s high’) and physical benefits, but just as much for the mental and the social aspects and to be out in nature.

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Coach Laura (center) with the members of her Team for Kids marathon training program. Photo courtesy of Team for Kids.

Running in the morning is my time to reflect on life, sort out life’s challenges and appreciate nature. I run partially because I love to be fast and strong, but just as equally because I love the feeling of being free outside and exploring new places. So when I had to stop running, I knew it was just as important for me to get outside and still have that time to think and reflect and enjoy the outdoors, as it was to sustain my fitness.

How long did it take for you to make a full recovery?

Still healing! It’s been about 2 months, but I’ve been able to start getting back into running lightly. The hard part for me is ramping back up my mileage and intensity slowly. As an athlete, you’re trained to push through pain, so you forget how to dial it back and let yourself heal, rather than risk delays in healing or re-injury.

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Laura and one of her runners in the 2015 New York City Marathon.

Were you able to work around the injury by changing up your fitness routine or did you just have to wait it out until you fully recovered?

Unless you break both arms and both legs or have a traumatic injury, surgery or accident, there are likely still countless ways you can not only remain fit, but even continue to improve your fitness. Instead of going to the gym every day, I would walk for 20-30 minutes to a nearby park or to the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, even in the dead of winter. I need a little adventure in the morning!

For strength, I devised an exercise routine that eliminated my Achilles and focused on my upper body and core strength, doing pushups, planks, Russian twists, inch worms and every ab exercise under the sun. Since jumping and running were out of the picture at first, I worked on more static leg exercises like holding lunges that worked my quads. The other important element was to work on my aerobic endurance, so that when I did start to get back into running, I wouldn’t be sucking major wind. I mimicked whatever track workout would have been prescribed and did it on the stationary bike. If I was scheduled to do 6 x 400M intervals on the track to train for a 5k, I would mimic that on the bike to keep my heart strong and work towards my same fitness goals. Focus on what you CAN do, not what you can’t do. I kept seeing a guy my age and with a similar injury at the gym who was trying to work just his left leg while the other was in a boot and getting very frustrated. Definitely do the exercises that your PT prescribes, but then instead of getting upset about what you can’t do, seize the opportunity to work on making your weakness into new strengths.

I took my “recovery” time to switch up my regular, stale routine and try out new activities that I either hadn’t tried before or hadn’t done in a while. I tried spinning for the second time ever and found it a tremendous way to get your heart rate up and work those legs. I started taking upper body strength classes that I used to enjoy, but had abandoned in favor of focusing on running. I got back into boxing and tried a new muay thai strength conditioning class.

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Laura getting in an early morning strength training workout.  “I devised an exercise routine that eliminated my Achilles and focused on my upper body.”

And don’t shy away from going to your favorite (or new) group exercise classes! Talk to the instructor beforehand about your injury and they will be happy to give you modifications to the exercises so that you don’t get hurt. And if fitness is an important part of your social life, don’t be afraid to still hang out with the group even if you can’t participate (if you’re part of a running club, for example). Go set up a water station to support your running club’s weekend long run or organize a happy hour, so you don’t feel isolated and sad. Other athletes will have tips for recovery and anecdotes from their own injuries that will motivate you to hang in there.

Did you learn any lessons or experience any personal growth as a result of having to cope with your injury?

Absolutely. The number one lesson is to go see a doctor when you first get injured. I always delay it and only leads to either your misdiagnosing yourself or prolonging or even worsening the injury. The number two lesson is to have a good attitude. Give yourself a few days to be upset and frustrated and mope around in a sea of chocolate and sadness, it’s only natural if you’re competitive and driven. But after that, pull it together and tell yourself ”no more whining!’ It is counter productive and undoubtedly annoying to your friends and family. You’ve got to seize this as an opportunity to build new strengths, get creative, try new things, meet new people and even get some rest and focus on your non-fitness activities. It’s also a tremendous exercise in patience as well as a means of appreciating the gifts you once had and will over time have again. As Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. That’s true in life, and it’s true with injuries. Sometimes you get knocked down – and you have the choice – you can either let it break your spirit or you can use it as an opportunity to get stronger and wiser. Be a role model! People will look to your enthusiasm and persistence in hard times and realize that they can do more than they might think, whether it be with an injury or age or another type of adversity. An injury is the best reminder that with time and care and patience, things do heal.

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Coach Laura (right) with one of her runners in the TFK marathon training program.  Photo courtesy of Team For Kids.