The MRI machine whirs, clicks, and shakes ominously; I try to keep still.
A few days later, I find myself confined to a walking boot and crutches, diagnosed with a metatarsal stress reaction. I'm only a few weeks out from the full marathon I'd dreamed of racing, I'd already completed the 20-mile training run, and this was my second attempt to train for a marathon after surrendering to a knee injury the season before.
This was my spring 2015. Even worse, three out of my four most recent training seasons had ended in overuse injuries. I was frustrated and dejected--it seemed as if I had already done all I could. After my first unsuccessful marathon attempt, I dedicated half my workouts to crosstraining. I was averaging under 30 miles in running most weeks, yet I still managed to hurt myself. I began to wonder whether my body could even physically handle chasing my long-time marathon dream.
After meeting with the training center doctor, I limped back to my dorm. You'll need to take at least two and a half months off from running, he had said. I wanted to cry, but I was too numb.
My full marathon would have to wait, and it would have to wait for a long time. Quick calculations told me I'd be far from ready for another attempt in the fall. Delayed gratification, delayed gratification, delayed gratification...I repeated the words in my head like a mantra.
Then, I hobbled back to the gym for a workout.
My doctor recommended no lower extremity exertion for at least two weeks. The arm bike in the training room, however, was safe. My scrawny limbs pedaled furiously in attempt to quelch the inky sadness of yet another unattained goal.
"Lily, this tells me a lot about you."
I looked up--it was my doctor.
"The fact that you're back here training after what I just told you tells me a lot. I have no doubt that you'll run your marathon before you graduate."
I smiled, thanking him.
And just one year later, I ran that marathon.
* * *
So if an injury has postponed your race ambitions, I know exactly how that feels--I've been there several times. In a few months, however, I'll have been injury-free for a year (minus the little aches that don't upset training). Here's what I did to finally conquer my long-time goal, and stay as healthy as possible.
I trained for a marathon running only 2 days a week.
Yes, you read that right--only two. My workouts, however, covered a full six days a week, plus one rest day.
After my first triathlon, I decided to maintain my multi-discipline schedule, even while I prepared for running-only events. For instance, here's what I did from 3/6/16-3/12/16:
Sunday: 24 lap swim (3 warmup + 1 kickboard + 8 + 8 + 1 kickboard + 3 cooldown)
Monday: 45 minute run (about 5 mi) + strengthening exercises + core
Tuesday: 27 minute outdoor bike + 10 minute tabata + strengthening exercises
Thursday: 35 minute spinning workout + strengthening exercises + lifting + core
Saturday: 3 hour 30 minute run (21.59 mi) + strengthening exercises
Running fewer days a week allowed my body more rest between high-impact training--my other disciplines (swiming and biking) required less pounding on the legs. While I'm sure experts wouldn't recommend fewer than 3 days a week for marathon training, 2 days worked just fine for me--it was just enough for the critical long run a week plus one regular run. I had gotten my stress injury running only 3 days a week, so I wanted to be as cautious as possible the third time around.
This time, I also increased my mileage more slowly--coming off of a peroneal tendon injury from the fall, my first marathon training run on 12/5/15 was only 10 minutes long. I increased time in increments of about 5 minutes until I reached 60 minute runs. After that, my increments became 10 minutes. Once I hit 2 hours, I began increasing by 20-30 minutes.
Spacing these longer efforts was also crucial--once I hit runs longer than 2.5 hours, I realized that my body could no longer handle weekly long runs, especially if I were to keep building. So, I scheduled some lighter weeks with no long run at all, allowing me 2-3 weeks of relative rest between these big endeavors.
Beginning training almost 6 months in advance also allowed me more cushion for unexpected changes, such as illness, aches, or burnout. I adjusted my training plan countless times based on my physical and mental condition, which ultimately made a huge difference. Leaving ample time to train well really alleviates the pressure to complete a workout when your body may not be ready. Because of fewer time constraints, I was free to focus on building my body, rather than forcing arbitrary milestones upon myself.
4. Embrace the detour and keep pushing on.
As I mentioned in #2, my stress injury took me on a triathlon detour, and I wouldn't have it any other way. In spring 2015, swimming was a monumental task--just a few laps depleted me.
Last week, however, I competed in my first olympic-distance triathlon, swimming 1500m (.93 mi) in the open water. I never would've imagined being able to swim over 40 minutes straight in a pool, let alone in a murky Midwest reservoir. Yes, I am still a far-from-stellar swimmer. Yes, it's still not my favorite discipline. But I've learned to appreciate the sport, and I find it empowering to have tackled what I used to fear, and to have improved.
My injury led me to run more efficiently, freely, and gratefully. It led me to plunge into new disciplines, and to become stronger physically and mentally.
Unfortunate circumstances don't need to be tragic endings--a lot of times, they can push us to grow in ways we never expected.
Train happy. Dream strong.