Yes, it's possible to still run with an injury, but you need to shift your mindset. Read this before sitting out your next race.
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Since I started running, I've consistently logged anywhere from 15 to 35 miles a week, with no real problems. That is, until this past fall. I had a chance to work with a well-known running coach to train for the Brooklyn Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon. I was pumped; I was hoping my new training plan would help me shave a few minutes off my PR.
Everything was going swimmingly until my first, and what ultimately would be my only, 16-mile long run. I finished without a problem; I even remember having just enough gas left in my tank to pick up the pace for the last mile or so. Sure I was hurting—but that felt normal. As I told everyone I came into contact with that day, I'd just run 16 miles!
The next morning, though, I knew something was wrong. The outside of my right sole was in serious pain. I couldn't run; I could barely walk without limping. A trip to the doctor left me with the diagnosis of peroneal tendinitis, and a recommendation to get a certain kind of mold-at-home orthotic. (Related: 5 Beginner Running Injuries—and How to Avoid Each)
Once I had those in, I could run without foot pain. But then my right knee started bothering me after a few miles. Back to the doctor—but only after I spent a few days panicking, watching my goal time slip away, and wondering if I'd even make it to the starting line. This time I left with the diagnosis of runner's knee.
But my story has a happy ending: My doctor said I was fine to run on the knee. And I was. I finished the race—a few minutes slower than I'd hoped and with my knee feeling pretty tender, but just happy I was upright and across the finish line.
The experience taught me that while you need to be smart about taking care of your injury, one setback doesn't necessarily mean you need to throw in the towel. Here are a few things I learned that could help you if you're ever hurt and have a race on the horizon.
See a professional.
Let's just get this out of the way: There are some injuries you definitely should not run on (stress fractures!). And you should see an expert to figure out if your pain puts you into the "do not run" category.
But you might be surprised at your diagnosis. I put off going to the doctor a second time in part because I didn't want to have running the race totally vetoed. I was floored when Jordan Metzl, M.D., a nationally recognized sports medicine physician and the author of The Workout Prescription, told me I was fine to run.
In his book Running Strong, Dr. Metzl says that runners who have to take time off due to injury often end up feeling dispirited (yep) and quickly lose whatever endurance or speed they've been working on building (yep). That doesn't mean you can always keep running on a running-related injury—sometimes you'll need to find a form of cross-training that doesn't aggravate the pain. But in my case, I just wanted to get through the race without blowing out my knee, and he gave me the green light. (Related: An Open Letter to Every Runner Working Through an Injury)
Be willing to take the "did not finish."
Got the green light, too? Great. But you need to adjust your race goals. Even though Dr. Metzl said I should be okay to finish, I went into the race promising myself that I'd stop and take the DNF ("Did Not Finish") if I started to feel too much pain. Thankfully, it didn't come to that, but being able to run long-term is more important than finishing one race. Don't be a hero.
No one else cares if you run.
Here's a small sample of the conversation I had in my head before the race: I'm being insane. I'm hurt, I haven't been running—I'm not going to run this race. I'd enjoy a few minutes of complete relief. Until: BUT... But I'm already signed up. But what if the day of the race, my knee feels fine and I have to live with regret? But what will my coach think? But what will all my friends think? (Related: The Best Ways to Avoid Injury While Training for a Marathon)
The answer, of course, is that they won't care. But the fact was, there were moments when I was pretty convinced the limb was gangrenous (IDK) and I was still determined to finish the darn race just to avoid letting people down—as if anyone in my life besides me really cared about me finishing. No one cares. Do what's best for you.