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Transition from hiker to runner

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

I was very stiff getting up in the morning, as I had been during my recent hike, and shuffled carefully through my morning routine that included the usual short set of stretching and strengthening exercises.  The exercises haven’t changed much in 35 years and I’m quite religious about doing them.  But the repeats have reduced in deference to advancing age and I do give myself a discount on weekends.  I start with sit-ups (also known as trunk curls) for stomach muscle strength, followed by push-ups for upper body strength, a body curl to stretch the lower back, some calf stretches and heel raises to stretch and test the Achilles tendons and lower calves, and finally some quadriceps stretches.

Taking a break while hiking the Hume & Hovell Track
It’s not a lot, maybe 10-15 minutes worth, but that has value in itself.  I’m a great believer in setting achievable goals and think the reason I have been consistently able to maintain this schedule is that it is not an onerous task.  Yet, it is enough to wake my body up, build strength in some key muscle groups, and highlight any injuries that may need attention.  The range of exercises developed in response to various serious running injuries I have had over the years.  I still suffer from some of the same injuries, but am confident that the exercises have reduced the frequency.

This morning, the heel stretches and heel raises highlighted some pain in my right Achilles tendon that has been an occasional problem in the last six months and was quite sore on occasions in the last three weeks while hiking.  One of my genetic deficiencies as a marathon runner seems to have been the structure of my Achilles tendons.  When running, my tendons have had a tendency to rub on the heel bone, causing inflammation at first and then chronic swelling, destruction of the bursa, clagging of the tendon in the sheath, and finally serious tearing of the tendon.

The result was a series of chronic left Achilles tendons injuries in my first fifteen years of running addressed with cortisone injections, NSAIDs and finally three successive surgeries.  The last of these was radical and removed a corner of my heel bone on the theory that this would eliminate the root cause of the problem.  I was one of the first in Australia to have the surgery from a specialist who had recently returned from working in Canada where the procedure was pioneered (I think).  The recovery was lengthy, but it seemed to solve the problem.

Twenty years later, in my early fifties, I developed similar problems with my right Achilles tendon whilst living and working in the US.  I saw a specialist and had the same surgery as had been done on my left tendon and, after a very lengthy recovery period (nearly a year), I was able to run again.  However, I’m starting to worry that a chronic problem is beginning to develop again with the right tendon, probably associated with running style changes to adapt to a chronic right knee problem.  The pain seems to come and go, so I’m hoping it will gradually clear up.  I try not to tie my shoes too tight so that there is not too much pressure on the heel and switch the shoes I wear from day to day in the hope that keeps changing the pressure points.

In another concession to age, I now wait longer before I run after getting up and now try and make it at least 90 minutes with a minimum of 60 minutes.  Otherwise, I feel like I am forcing my body - the ligaments, tendons and muscles – when it’s not ready and risking injury.  It also feels uncomfortable.  Ten years ago, the minimum time was 30 minutes.

When I finally headed out for an easy 10km, not having run at all for three weeks, I decided to walk the first 500 metres before starting to jog as another risk-mitigation exercise.  To my pleasant surprise, it didn’t feel too bad when I started jogging.  Though it was slow, I wasn’t bothered.  I know the next couple of weeks is going to be all about getting my body back into running mode and that there are no short-cuts and lots of injury risks.

I crawled up the Copa Hill and round the usual morning 10km, studiously avoiding forcing the pace and constantly examining my body for niggles and potential injuries.  There were a few – left lower back and right Achilles tendon – but they didn’t seem to grow worse and I finished the regular course in about 56 minutes, which is middle of the range for the course.  It was good to have the first run out of the way and I was longing for that feeling of being a runner again.