Friday, July 27, 2012

When Shin Splints Become Stress Fractures

2 miles to go in the Davis Stampede 10K
I entered the 2011 racing season with determination. I felt that if I trained my still-adapting body to run faster, I could compete for a top three spot in the 30-39 age group. At 39 years old, I had lost 40 pounds by running and watching how much I ate, and my motivations had morphed from running to lose weight, to losing weight to run faster! I ran my first 10K, the Davis Stampede (a nice flat course) for my 39th birthday and achieved my goal of going sub-50 minutes (48:28, 7:49/mile pace). Unfortunately, my new found enthusiasm led to over training early in the spring, and my race times year over year did not show much improvement.

The first race of the Gold Country Grand Prix is the Penn Valley Daffodil Run, a 5K/10K/Walk to raise money for local schools and to beautify the neighborhood by planting daffodil bulbs. In 2010, I ran the 5K in 25:56 (8:22/mile pace). After working hard all winter, I ran the 2011 5K in 26:09 (8:26/mile pace). As a novice, I thought this meant I needed to train harder. A month later, I ran the Run For The Community 5K, which helps a local church "serve extreme community needs". Again, my pace went from 8:06/mile in 2010, to 8:10/mile in 2011.

I consider myself to be a thorough researcher. In my three years of running, I have devoured dozens and dozens of books on running, from technique to memoir. I have tried to find as much information on the pursuit as possible. Somehow, I had overlooked the often mentioned 'overtraining' phenomenon, which led me to train even harder in search of more speed! I was still placing in my age group, and receiving medals for my efforts, but the improvement I desired was not materializing, which frustrated me to the point that I considered giving up running all together. "You don't have the best body for a runner, you know" my father said to me one afternoon. Having run marathons in middle age, his opinion was one I respected, and he supported my running then as he does now, but his words only made me want to work harder.

Then, after a ten mile trail run, my training plan called for 5 strides of 150 yards. My left shin and soleus muscle had been experiencing some pain in the preceding weeks, but I had determined that it was a case of shin splints, and figured I could train through it. By the time I was on my last stride drill, I could hardly walk! My goal race, the Bear River 5K (benefiting the Bear River High School cross country team) was only three weeks away, and I had come up lame! I attempted a run here and there over the next two weeks, but the pain in my shin would not recede while running, a sign that it was more serious than shin splints. I bought a neoprene calf sleeve and hoped for the best. I showed up for the race with barely 3 miles run in the previous 3 weeks.

My shin did not hurt as bad while I warmed up, and I figured that if I was going to have to take some time off and give up all my aerobic fitness, then I was going to give it my all during the race. At the start, I latched on to a friend who I knew was faster than me, and held on to his pace for two miles before saying "you're killing me!" and falling back slowly. Going out so fast spent most of my energy; I even walked up the last hill, but still set a PR (22:51, 7:22/mile pace) by over 90 seconds! The pain in my shin paled in comparison to my joy at having finally showed such improvement, and the three week break caused by my injury turned out to be just the taper my body needed. I did notice that my heart rate for the race was a bit too high, and it caused me to begin thinking about how I could better train for cardiovascular efficiency.

Unfortunately, a trip to the doctor, x-rays and an MRI ultimately led to the diagnosis that I had two stress fractures in my tibia, and running was taken away from me for the next three months. Even walking the races was out of the question until I could hop on my left leg - a test I could not complete until the end of fall. Not being able to run caused me to become depressed, and I looked at other runners with a longing which surprised me. In my heart, I finally felt that running had become part of who I am.

Once walking and easy running was possible, I participated in the series-ending fall races with my wife, who surprised me by running much more of them than she intended, although the running bug has never bitten her, especially not like it has consumed me. I finished the Grand Prix in fifth place for men 30-39, despite my injury.

By the end of 2011, I had begun a new training plan based on heart rate and time, not mileage (Total Heart Rate Training). As I rehabbed my leg, I spent a lot of time at the gym working on the new heart rate workouts without running. Focusing on heart rate instead of pace, I have found that I can better avoid over training by alternating hard and easy days, and ensure that I have easy weeks thrown in to allow for adequate recovery. My 2012 goals were to race the Grand Prix 10K races, break my PR at the Bear River 5K, complete a 15K trail race on my 40th birthday, and run the CIM Marathon in Sacramento.

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