Less Pain… More Gain: Painful Lessons Before Getting on Trail

Over the past three months, I’ve been constantly injured: a wrist sprain, runner’s knee(s), plantar fasciitis (in both feet), and now a strained hip flexor.  All of these injuries are a result of — you guessed it — overuse, my own indignant stubbornness, and ignoring what my body is telling me.

My Atrocious High School Sports Mindset

The more I get into long-distance running and think about the trail, the more I realize I need a mentality shift in my relationship with exercise. (Wow, it only took me six injuries in three months to figure that out!) Growing up, I fostered the mentality that pain is something you should push through, and if you couldn’t just “suck it up” then you were weak. Quitting a physical pursuit because of pain was blasphemy in my mind. It is embarrassing to look back on.

“A good athlete is one who knows how to listen to their body.”

In high school, I played lacrosse. Outside of practice, I would do additional running and strength training. Eventually, (due to overuse, if you notice a theme) I developed a stress fracture in my right ankle. Instead of acknowledging that I was in a lot of pain, I would pop four ibuprofen before every game and continue to play. And even still, it’s hard not to look back on it proudly, like I was some star athlete sacrificing myself for the team, when in reality, it was harmful and dumb. A good athlete is one who knows how to listen to their body.

Ah, the epic highs and lows of high school sports, clearly worth sacrificing your body for. Photo Credit: Fiona Das and Riverdale

I joined the Virginia Tech Club Crew Team my freshman year of college and rowed for a year with no injuries. A combination of the pre-made training plans and low-impact allowed me to learn how to properly train and respect my body. Which, apparently, I forgot all about as I got into long distance running again. It’s something I need to relearn if I want to have a successful thru-hike.

Me, eating strawberries, thinking about how my wrist would not be sprained if I had been nice to my body, Dec. 12, 2022.

Post-50K Recovery Fail

When I ran the 50k, my knee started hurting a lot just past mile three. While I don’t regret finishing it, I believe if I had walked more, I might be in less of a predicament now. Two weeks after the 50k I felt fine just walking around, so I figured I could rejoin group runs with the Virginia Tech Ultra Running Team. I missed everyone a ton, and I wanted to get back into running with everyone and catching up. Less than a mile into our four mile trail run, my heels started twinging, my knee tendon started aching and my hip chimed in with shooting pains. Less than a mile, and my body was a lovely symphony of pains. I had not given my body enough rest. Still, I gave myself reasons to continue: I want to see my friends, I miss running through the woods, exercise feels great, it’s not too bad — just keep going. And that’s how I wound up in a wheelchair.

“Vroom vroom” – Charlie XCX, Jan. 24, 2023

I have strained my hip flexor, and I’ll need to rest for about four weeks, possibly a few more. After that, I can ease back into walking and hiking. Emphasis on EASE back into walking/hiking! This allows me to still start slowly in March, body willing. (My mind is already hiking.) As of now, I am fastidious with icing, heating and taking supplements to heal myself. Though I’m largely immobilized at the moment, I’m finally learning how to take meticulous care of myself and address my pain. And how to ram people with the fun motorized shopping carts.

Instead of seeing pain as something to push through, I am learning to respect pain as guidelines for the limits of my physical capabilities.

From what I’m learning, the key with maintaining endurance without injury is to not let pain get to the point where it is too bad. Because when it gets too bad, disappointing things happen. People can’t finish their race/hike, they can’t move properly — they get off trail. I am hoping that if I listen more to my body, rest and treat small injuries before they become larger ones, I’ll be able to complete my thru hike.

Oftentimes, my mind is at odds with my body. My mind is convinced I can do anything and forces my body to keep up. Now, my body is forcing my mind to learn how to rest. I am trying to listen to both equally and form a stronger, more symbiotic relationship between the two. Instead of seeing pain as something to push through, I am learning to respect it as guidelines for the limits of my physical capabilities.

A vow to listen to my body

Within the first mile of that run, I should have turned around. There are mild pains that you can push through (soreness, blisters etc.), but others where you can feel that something is wrong. There was a tiny voice in the back of my mind, offering a small suggestion: maybe we turn around now? And I squashed it. And now I am covering myself in ice packs, manifesting a recovery before my start date. Yet again. One of the hardest things I will have to learn is how to stay at my own pace even if my friends are going faster. However, I will put my faith in the trail, and reassure myself that if I can cultivate harmony between my body and mind and hike at my own pace, more friends will come along — and I’ve always enjoyed my own company.

Sometimes, the greatest feat of strength an athlete can have is listening to their body and resting.

Mental toughness is not always pushing through pain. Sometimes, the greatest feat of strength an athlete can have is listening to their body and resting. In my pursuit of thru-hiking the AT, rest will be one of the greatest gifts I can give myself. My body has to last the whole trail — and further, my whole life. It’s the most incredible gift I’ve been given, but I need to learn how to use it better. I plan on taking the start of the trail at a snail’s pace, regardless of cool fast friends I meet, and building up mile by mile (as long as I’m pain free). I’m out there to enjoy the trail and enjoy the experience of cultivating a healthy body and mind. And if you’re planning on taking more than a few zeroes — I’m right there with you.

On the couch with my new best friends, writing this blog post, being a true star athlete, Jan. 24, 2023.

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