How I Learned to Appreciate My Body After Countless Running Injuries

Shape's Liz Doupnik survived nine stress fractures (including a fractured sacrum), countless muscle strains, an eating disorder, osteopenia, and years of depleted self-worth to make it to the finish line of the Brooklyn Half Marathon.

In May 2019, I finished a half marathon. It wasn't my first, it wasn't my fastest, and it wasn't my prettiest. It was a goal I had set for myself—and one that wouldn't normally feel like a huge deal. But after a long and unexpected journey, finishing this race wasn't just an exciting accomplishment, it was the assurance I needed that I could be strong again.

The 3-Year Ordeal I Didn't See Coming

Though I'd run some marathons for fun in my 20s, I didn't get serious about running until I was 28 years old. You see, I went through this Eat Pray Love phase when I quit my job as a fashion editor and decided to become a trainer at a luxury gym. While teaching there, I continued running, mostly participating in half marathons. Then, I found out about a gym-wide fitness contest held for trainers and decided to take part. One of the events in the competition was a 2-mile run. I was up for the challenge to try my hand—err, legs—at a shorter, speedier race.

One day, while training on the treadmill, I was pushing myself to the max. I felt great—it was the fastest I'd been in my life. I'd worked so hard to get to this point. Then, mid-run, I felt something give out in my back.

At first, I didn't think much of it. I pushed through the rest of my workout (even though it was uncomfortable) and banked on the fact that I'd feel better after a good night's sleep. To make it a little easier on my body, I went for a casual swim the next day. I felt okay, maybe a little sore, but nothing nutty. After my refreshing dip, I had errands to run—which, in NYC, means carrying your life, your laundry, and your groceries guessed it, your back. (Did I mention I live in a fifth-floor walk-up?) Later, as I was folded over, putting away my laundry, I burst into tears. The pain was back, and bigger than ever. I was really hurting. (

A few days later, I went to the doctor, who ordered an MRI. I remember laying in bed with an ice pack on my back when she called me with the results. She said I needed to go in to see her ASAP and that I shouldn't take the subway or walk. Turns out, I had one of the worst sacrum stress fractures she had ever seen.

That day, I was put on crutches for the next three months. My whole life revolved around being active, so being practically immobile was hell. Living in New York City on crutches isn't exactly ideal, and having a job as a trainer posed its own challenges. But more than the logistics, this injury took a toll on me emotionally; this wasn't the first time my body had been tested in this way, and it was bringing back a lot of familiar and uncomfortable feelings.

Regaining My Strength After My Injury

Growing up, swimming was my thing⁠—and I was good at it. I competed on a national level and dreamed of swimming in the Olympics. Then, in high school, I tore my rotator cuff. After years of attempting to heal it with physical therapy and non-invasive methods, I had to undergo surgery—and the surgeon told me I'd never be able to swim again. That was a hard pill to swallow, to say the least. My entire life had revolved around being an athlete. Not only was my Olympic dream—a dream I'd had since I started going to swim practice at six years old—killed, but my body was also broken in the process. Even if I couldn't swim, I couldn't shut down my competitive nature. Once I went to college, I turned to running as my outlet. It had been a part of my life since I was a young girl, but at that point, it started to become more than just a sport. Running became a way for me to reconnect with myself and work through all the emotionally trying times in my life.

Unfortunately, one of those difficult moments came just a few days before I injured my sacrum. I learned that my best friend from college had passed away. Naturally, I was devastated and dived into training even more as a way to cope. That was my process: Life got hard, and running helped clear my mind and sift through my thoughts. But with my injury, I couldn't run. Heck, I couldn't walk. It made the whole situation that much more unbearable.

When I was on crutches, I obviously couldn't do any intense training—but the thought of doing not doing anything active sent me into a tailspin. Luckily, the doctor said I could swim (since my shoulder injury, years of proper strength training got it to a point where some recreational laps were ok), minus any kicking. That's what got me through the rest of my recovery. I've never been more appreciative of my swimming background than I was during that time. It was kind of ironic that swimming was going to help get me through my injury considering that, at one point, swimming caused a major injury.

Because of where I fractured my sacrum, I couldn't put any weight on the left side of my body. Through physical therapy, I was able to work on the left side of my core and back, and I also began careful, seated upper body strength training while I was still on crutches. Once I was off the crutches, I was allowed to a half mile a day—that covered my walk to work, but that's it. A couple of weeks later, I was cleared to do some pool jogging and run half a mile a day. It was another 12 weeks before I started easing back into my old routine.

But once I was able to start really running again, I realized my body felt completely different; my left posterior chain strength had totally waned as a result of putting zero impact or weight on it for so long. I was so excited to be able to run again, but I couldn't just walk out the door and start jogging; I had to completely change the way I trained. Given my history as a personal trainer, I worked with my physical therapist and doctor to develop a super careful workout program designed to uphold (and improve) the strength on my right side, while also slowly integrating weight-bearing exercises on my left. Part of that plan involved doing 30-40 minutes of mobility work, foam rolling, warm-up drills, and core- and glute-activation exercises before every single run (something I still need to do today). Pre-sacral fracture, I didn't do any mobility work or even think about recovery.

Training the Wrong Way

Once I felt able enough to run, I was determined to get back to where I was before my injury—going fast. That's when my doctor introduced me to my first running coach.

I was so optimistic about working one-on-one with a coach for the first time since swimming. From what I knew, he was one of the best and had worked with several professional runners in the past. Right off the bat, he threw me into the deep end with training. He really pushed me. Slowly, my running times crept toward the point where the dream entering races at a competitive level became plausible. But while I was working on getting faster, I started to feel this lingering pain in my foot. I remember doing a 10-mile run and, by the end, my foot pain was so severe that I could barely put any weight on it, or straighten my foot out. Asking for help has never been easy for me but given the level of my pain, I hesitantly told my coach what was going on. He tried massaging my foot and wrapping it, but it didn't help. Still, he remained optimistic and told me to train through the pain. Having grown up with tough-love coaches, my instinct was to listen to him and push through. Given his impressive resume, I was even more inclined to follow his lead. But two weeks later, my pain got to the point where I couldn't even put my foot on the ground without wincing. (

In an effort to advocate for myself, I made my way to another doctor and learned that I had a stress fracture in my foot. I had to take a break from running once again. I tried not to let that get me down and still yearned to get back to running once the injury healed. When I finally got the all-clear six weeks later, I started training with the same coach.Over the course of one year, I ended up with more stress fractures—this time in my shins. Even though my training was super intense, my doctor felt like something wasn't adding up: Why was I getting so many injuries?


The Test That Changed Everything

This new doctor recommended I go in for a Dexa scan, a non-invasive test that measures bone mineral density to assess your risk for fractures. For the next week, as I waited for the results from the scan, I continued training. Little did I know, my life was about to change in a big way. I'll never forget the day my doctor sat me down and told me exactly why I was so susceptible to injury: I had osteopenia, a condition where you have a much lower bone density than normal. It can be caused by a number of things, including previous low-impact bone fractures, smoking, rheumatoid arthritis, low estrogen in women, and malabsorption conditions like celiac disease. In my case, it was because it runs in my family and also because of my previous struggles with eating disorders.

Suddenly, my carousel of injuries made perfect sense. When you have osteopenia, the lack of bone density increases your risk for bone damage, and I had literally starved myself and ran myself to the point where my bones were falling apart. I'd been pushing my body so hard yet also felt like I wasn't trying enough, when, really, there was something going on with my body. And it all led to this moment: A doctor was diagnosing me with something that's typically found in people in their 60s and 70s. In fact, I was told that people my age—31, at the timerarely reached this low of a bone density level. (

I felt like my body had betrayed me once again. So many times, I'd been at the cusp of success and reaching my goals—and it gave out on me every single time. I felt like a stranger in my own skin, a feeling that's so triggering for me, given my history with disordered eating. It felt very similar to the time I started gaining weight during my ED recovery (uncomfortable and lost) but I knew I needed to feel that way to get better. Once you have an eating disorder, you always have it. That need for control sticks with you. So when I got diagnosed, once again, I felt control slip through my fingers, and it nudged me into a very dark place.

Coming to Terms with My Diagnosis

Despite being labeled as "fragile," I still hoped to run a half marathon one day. Following my diagnosis, I signed up for three different marathons over the next year. But every time I started training, I got hurt. The constant disappointment made me decide to give up on the half marathon distance and I took a sabbatical from running. I was heartbroken but realized that no matter how badly I wanted to cross that finish line, my body wasn't going to cooperate. I didn't want it to suffer more than it already had.

Months later, I started working for Shape and knew the Shape Half Marathon was on the horizon. The thought of being part of that community and running a race with my co-workers and thousands of other women in Central Park was so enticing—I just couldn't pass it up. Nervously, I thought, 'Let's just give it a whirl.'

To train for the run, I started working with Nike Running coach Rebeka Stowe in September 2018. The Shape Half was in April. She could not have been more different than my former coach (who, by the way, ghosted me when I told him I had osteopenia); her training method was much less intense and she really worked around my osteopenia and susceptibility to injury. That meant doing a lot more strength training, focusing on recovery, and adjusting my mileage every week based on how my body was feeling. My goal going into the race was to just ramp up my endurance, get my legs underneath me again, and keep from pushing myself too hard.

A few weeks in, training was going super well. For the first time in a long time, I felt encouraged. I thought I might actually be able to run this race. But then, in December, I hit another roadblock. Home for the holidays, I was taking advantage of Baltimore's massive hills and decided to clock in some hill interval repeats. Midway through the workout, I felt something pull in my calf. 'Here we go again,' I thought. I tried some stretches and light jogs but nothing helped. After getting it checked out, I learned that I'd badly strained my calf and running the Shape Half was out of the picture. Disappointed, I questioned if I'd ever be to able to race again.

For the next two months, I couldn't run. Eventually, the Shape Half came and went. I watched my coach, coworkers, and fellow runners absolutely crush it. While I definitely had some FOMO, I was just happy to be a part of the experience, even if it was from the sidelines.

Once my strain healed eight weeks later, I started running again. When an opportunity to run the Brooklyn Half Marathon with New Balance opened up the next month, I just couldn't turn it down.

It may sound insane (after all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, right?), but let me explain: For the past four years, people would constantly ask me why I kept running, despite everything my body had been through. Everyone, including my friends and family, kept telling me time and time again to try a different sport or to give up on doing anything physically strenuous altogether.

In my mind, that was never an option.

Every time, I would think: 'What if this time, I could do it?' I felt like I needed to prove to myself and to everyone around me that I wasn't broken and that I was capable enough to accomplish this, regardless of how difficult it was going to be. I wanted to cross that finish line in honor of what my body had been through—from my eating disorder to the stress fractures, muscle strains, and osteopenia. I wanted to run in honor of my best friend because even though she was gone, I wanted to keep moving forward for her. Saying yes to New Balance wasn't even a question. So, for what felt like the 100th time, I started training again.

Getting to the Finish Line

I was still feeling some pain from my calf injury when I started training for the Popular Brooklyn Half, but my physical therapist had cleared me to run and wanted to follow my training plan to a T. I knew that if I was going to finish this time, I had to listen to my body like I never had before. Sometimes that meant skipping a strength training workout or swapping one of my long runs for a recovery run. Sometimes it meant doing nothing at all. Being that lax was difficult for me, but it was also a helpful exercise in letting go.

It's something my coach really helped me with too. For the first time, I had a coach-athlete dynamic where I could voice exactly how I was feeling, and she gave me space to skip a run here and there while reminding me that I wasn't a failure for doing so. I retrained my mind to give up on the idea of the "perfect" race and the "perfect" finishing time. I just wanted to be able to run. I just wanted to get to the end. I began to think of this race as my love letter to the sport.

As I continued to train, I did everything I could to avoid injury. On top of relaxing my expectations, I also changed some of my eating habits, got out in the sun more to up my vitamin D, and continued to focus on strength training to help with my bone replenishment. But my body was still resisting. As I trained, I developed blisters all over my feet, my Achilles and my hip started acting up, and my calf strain lingered. (

Even with all those things considered, I made it to race day. Yes, I was an emotional wreck. Yes, my body felt like crap. Yes, I was nervous that it was my first time at a starting line in years. But I held on to the fact that I'd made it this far. I made it to race day, and that was an accomplishment in and of itself.

Things were going smoothly until I got to mile three. I started to feel some pain in my Achilles. I tried to push through but had to stop a few times—totally demoralizing for me because I'd never paused in the middle of a race before. By the time I got to mile ten, my feet were in pain, too. I remember looking down and seeing blood seeping through my shoes. Panicked, I ran into the closest medical tent. They were able to clean up and wrap my blisters and I also had some time to ice my calf and take some ibuprofen. When I stepped out of the tent, I told myself that there was no stopping. Up until that point in the race, I just felt humiliated. I was slow, I had stopped, I kept thinking about the people who were tracking my progress and how I'd disappointed my coach. But once I returned to the course, I decided to dedicate every mile to something important. I thought about my journey, I thought of my best friend, I thought of all the people who'd helped me get to this point. Using all of my might, I finally crossed that finish line.

What I've Learned Along the Way

When I look in the mirror today, I see someone who's lived through nine stress fractures, countless strains, an eating disorder, osteopenia, and years of negative self-talk. Making it past the finish line of the Brooklyn Half was a pillar in this new perspective and approach I have to taken to continue to do the thing that I love.

But learning is an ongoing process. I still have my moments and have to force myself to take a break when I need to. I'm still training and there are times when a pace that used to feel easy can feel like I'm running up Mount Everest carrying a bowling ball on my back. There are days when my body just doesn't cooperate and lifting a dumbbell takes all of my strength. But I keeping hitting pause and remind myself that it's not a competition. It's just about moving forward. Now, I give myself permission to not be perfect, which is hard because I still find myself expecting perfection. But perfection does not exist—and I find myself feeling immense gratitude for exactly that.

I've learned to embrace my body for what it's capable of—even when that isn't much. Instead of comparing myself to others, I've realized that each person and each body is different. Everyone's approach to training is different. Asking for help doesn't make you any less of an athlete. If I leave you with anything, it's this: Injuries can feel like a significant loss. The loss of a goal, loss of training, loss of time. It can be a very isolating experience. But it does get better. Have patience, believe in yourself, and remember that failure is a part of every journey. It's how you react to it that makes all the difference.

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