When I shattered the bones of my right shin, I was told I would never run again. I teetered toward depression until I realized the answer was lifting big, heavy weights. Here's why.

By By Sarah Tuff Dunn
Updated: October 11, 2016
Sarah Tuff Dunn

Ever twist a branch into splinters? Yeah, that's kind of what happened to my right leg during a freak trail running accident in March 2013 involving Vermont's black ice and an awkward landing that left me lying on the gravel with a foot that was clearly pointing the wrong way.

I snapped my tibia in two and fractured my fibula so badly that my doctor (Andrew Kaplan, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Vermont) told me I would likely never run again. In fact, as I drowsily woke up from surgery he said I was lucky not to lose my right foot entirely. The procedure left my leg in an external fixator-the same device used on seriously injured war veterans and motorcycle crash victims to realign and stabilize their bone.

I kept hearing those words-Never. Run. Again. It sounded like a death sentence. (My accident was a mishap, but here's what you need to know about common running injuries and how to avoid them.) I'd been a runner my entire life, from competing in the 100-meter dash in elementary school up to running the Boston Marathon multiple times.

Kaplan instructed me to steer clear of any weight-bearing exercise for several weeks and gave my husband Carlton instructions on how to take care of me.

I didn't exactly sit on the couch and cry into a pint of Ben and Jerry's, but there were definitely many bowls of popcorn involved. And, okay, maybe a little vodka. But after a couple days, I picked the kernels from my teeth and called my friends Maura, a physical therapist, and my Tyler, a CrossFit coach. The two of them hatched a fitness plan that began with 2-pound dumbbells. [Gulp.] Before the accident, I was able to deadlift 200-plus pounds, but I'd become so weak from the surgery and my body was using all its energy to heal me, so 2 pounds was actually kind of difficult. (Yes, I was careful to baby my right leg, which wasn't too difficult since the Hannibal-Lecter-like cage around it pretty much rendered it useless.)

It might not have seemed like much, but I told myself that some kind of exercise was better than no exercise at all...right?

Armin Tehrany, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care, says that he believes light exercises until an injury is completely healed is the right way to go. "If strength training is too aggressive and begun too early it can hinder the recovery process," says Tehrany.

Sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl, M.D., agrees. "I never prescribe total rest," he says of his injured or newly rehabbing patients. "I've always recognized how endorphins and wellness are linked into activity, so taking that away is really hard. The hand cycle, sit-ups-any activity you can safely do-are all good."

Hobbling into my local gym to use the hand cycle, I attempted to ignore the aghast expressions I saw around the room, and desperately tried to keep a smile on my face as I cranked my arms round and round again. I would do one-legged push-ups and slowly I graduated from 2-pound dumbbells to heavier weights. In April, one month after the accident, I was lifting 12-kilogram kettlebells. (If that seems like a lot to you, read up on these 8 reasons you should lift heavier weights.) By May, my triceps were more toned than ever, thanks to strength training and the crutches I had to use to go everywhere. When Kaplan removed the external fixator, my leg was hairy, skinny, and frankly, scary, but he looked at me a bit shocked, and said, "It's in really good shape." Yes!

Now, instead of rods and screws sticking out of my leg, Kaplan put me in a standard cast. So, next up? Returning to my CrossFit box, where I jumped back into doing pull-ups (yes, the cast does add some extra weight), and began bench pressing and doing single-leg squats. I knew I was taking risks. "Loading a bone is known to stimulate its growth in response to the load applied, but this is a long, slow process due to the endocrinologic system working through hormones and changes in proteins," says Jeff Kreher, M.D., Boston-based musculoskeletal and sports medicine specialist.

Screw hormones, I thought. I was feeling better than ever, and having fun-even hula-hooping as my leg healed. That summer, the cast came off, and on came the heavier weights. During Labor Day weekend, less than six months after breaking my leg, Kaplan gave me the green light to run again, so I organized a half-K (that's about one-third of a mile) that would not only reintroduce me to the track, but it would also raise money for athletes with permanent disabilities. My friends arrived dressed in feather boas and popping Champagne. Running a single lap felt like winning a marathon all over again.

All that hard work I put in by deciding to take action instead of sitting around through my recovery paid off. "Strength training can provide the muscular stability to help you heal faster," says Metzl. "The stronger the muscles are around the joints and bones, the more stability you have in general."

Weighted squats, lunges, deadlifts, and cleans all became part of my weekly routine as I returned to running longer and longer distances. And each time I returned to Kaplan's office, he marveled at my now-strong, once-broken bones. (BTW, which is better: running faster or running longer?)

"The shearing and compressive forces of weight training stimulate increases in bone density and strength," adds strength coach Andrew Berry. "These stresses help activate osteoblasts," which are the cells responsible for bone formation. (This is why running actually makes your bones stronger.)

I was digging my new heavy-lifting regimen so much, I wasn't sure I was even interested in running another race again. But in February 2014, almost one year after my accident, I entered a Valentine's Day-themed 5K. The organizer asked all the participants to tie a scarf somewhere on their body indicating their romantic status: white for single, red for committed. With Carlton and my kids watching, I tied the red scarf around my right leg and ran fast, then faster, until I was in first place and crossing the finish line.

Today, I'm not racing much, but I'm still running, and lifting, and, of course, keeping a keen eye out for black ice.


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