Early in the spring I took a Wilderness First Responder certification course and over the duration of 10 days the recurring joke among those of us in class was that the only safe place was at home on your couch. It was our tongue in cheek reaction to learning of all the injuries that you could fall victim to when you venture out into the mountains for recreation. And to an extent, fitness is no different. We exercise to maintain our healthy bodies, but sometimes we end up doing just the opposite.
This week I want to share two of my personal injury stories with you. All in all, they are relatively minor – I have never broken a bone or dislocated a joint. But getting hurt is still a bummer with a capital B. If it doesn’t put you on the sideline entirely then it’s sure to reduce your performance.
So, in the very least I hope that you can learn from my failings and avoid following in my footsteps.
So I’ve spoken about Movnat before and I’ll continue to do so because quite simply, Movnat has had a profound effect on me and how I view fitness. It’s a fitness methodology that aims to train the body in an integrated way. But what really got me hooked was this article from Men’s Health (all the way back in 2009) and the ‘showreel’ video I subsequently stumbled upon.
I was hooked.
And one aspect that I was particularly intrigued by was the brand’s promotion of barefoot running.
Enter Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run. I imagine you’re familiar with this book because at this point, everyone and their mother seems to know about it and the amazing story that comprises the meat of it.
Suffice it to say, Movnat and Born to Run was the perfect blend of Kool-aid that got me running again.
I still remember the chilly April afternoon when I walked down to the park and kicked off my running shoes to run barefoot across a somewhat snowy grass field. It felt fantastic. Just like that, running was fun. And so began my journey with barefoot running. Or, near barefoot running – I purchased and wore Vibram FiveFingers before they were cool ;).
Fast forward a couple years and I got into the triathlon game. In one summer I decided that I would race my first ever tri – a sprint, then the next month an Olympic distance race and finally finish off the season with a 70.3 Ironman. And complete the running portion barefoot in all (3) races.
After my big 70.3 I kept running, albeit at a reduced volume. A few months passed and then I began to have a nagging soreness on the top of my foot that just wouldn’t seem to go away. Turns out it was a stress fracture on my fourth metatarsal of my right foot.
My stress fracture – mechanism of injury
A stress fracture is due to just that – stress. In my case, with every run I was putting more and more weight bearing load onto a bone that was trying as hard as it could to keep up with me.
This injury put me on the bench for a long time. Obviously, there was no running for about (6) weeks, but the injury also stole from me my confidence. I had never felt farther from running barefoot in the woods than I did when I was walking around with a surgical boot.
This injury should have been a wake up call. Instead, I have another injury story to share with you today…
Sorry, I have to tell a squat story. But before you jump all over this and say that “Ryan doesn’t like heavy squats!” – let’s be clear: Heavy squats are great. And no, squats aren’t bad for your knees.
That being said…
A few years back I was training at a kettlebell club that doubled as an Olympic weightlifting gym. I was a newly minted Olympic Weightlifting Coach (according to the certificate) and wanted to start working towards jerking and snatching my bodyweight. The gym owner and I developed a good rapport and he eventually offered me a very good rate for coaching.
As my training began, my coach’s first order of business was to build up my leg strength. And that meant back squats.
On one particular day, coach was having me squat pretty heavy. In fact, heavier than I had lifted in many years. But maybe I was babying myself, I thought, and not pushing myself as far as I could be. After all, when you train alone for many years you miss that external motivator that only a training buddy or coach can be. But the heavy weight wasn’t the thing that got me in trouble that day, it was the range of motion. Coach was having me squat ass to grass. And to the point that I was concerned that my lumbar spine may be rounding a bit, aka the infamous butt wink.
So as I descended with each rep all I could think about was keeping my back tight. But the thing that my coach and I both overlooked was that I was asking more of my kinetic chain than I maybe ever had. I was squatting heavy and doing so through the longest ROM I had ever lifted.
I left the gym that day feeling as though I had trashed my legs – which is a great feeling among us contemporary meatheads, but the next day – ya, not so much. I had soreness just above my right knee with a small bruise about the size of a grape. To the best of my knowledge, I had a little bit of microtrauma in the musculotendinous soft tissue of my quadriceps near my knee.
My knee injury – mechanism of injury
What got me in trouble boiled down to overreaching. Lifting heavy wasn’t the issue all by itself, rather it was the fact that I also squatted deeper than ever before.
This sidelined me for weeks – I took six weeks off just to be safe. And even then I felt minor soreness for months to come. And to this day, I have a minor amount of scar tissue that rears its ugly head every so often. Not in a bad way, but in a “Ryan, remember me?” sort of way.
In the end, I can chalk this one up to insufficient conditioning and an inability to fully understand my body’s compensatory movement patterns.
What did I learn
Yes, there is a silver lining to the carnage!
Both of my stories served as wake up calls (unfortunately, I didn’t listen the first time).
It was now becoming very clear to me that something was going on with my right side. Regarding my barefoot running, the question I should have been asking myself was whether the fourth metatarsal on my left foot was just about to crack as well – why didn’t I have (2) stress fractures? And regarding my squatting incident, I should have asked myself “how come I didn’t have soreness in both knees?” After all, I was performing a heavy bilateral movement and to the naked eye, everything was symmetrical.
Searching for answers, I discovered a whole new world of health and fitness professionals all trying to answer the fitness problem, but from a different perspective. These folks weren’t talking about adding more weight to the bar, but instead, they were looking at soft tissue. Which muscle groups are shortened? Which are hypertonic/hypotonic? And why?
Rolfing, Egoscue, acupuncture, physical therapists – the list goes on and on.
Long story short, I discovered that I had a tight spiral and lateral facial line. I’ll write a blog post in the future on meridian lines and fascial anatomy, but the takeaway is that I had a handful of movement compensations that led to my right leg getting pretty well locked up. This is why when I ran I was landing hard on the right side and basically just dragging my left leg along for the ride. A stress fracture was inevitable.
Does this mean that barefoot running is bad? No, it does not. There are no absolutes in fitness. Instead, I feel confident saying that in order for you to run barefoot you better have a well aligned body and good movement. Anything less and those small imbalances that you may be able to mask with fancy running shoes are going to creep out when you run shod free.
And if you haven’t deduced it already, my soft tissue injury was the result of a tight facial line on my right leg. Simply put, I loaded far too much tension on a part of my body that not only wasn’t prepared for the load, but wasn’t even moving well in the first place.
Learn from my mistakes
I’m not going to list 17 different ways to stay off the injured list because everything really distills down to (2) big items. Follow these two nuggets of advice and you’ll greatly reduce your chance of injury.
1. Listen to your body
I know it’s a clique, but it’s the best advice I can give you. No one is going to know how your back feels during a squat or how your shoulder feels during an overhead press better than you. It’s easy to get caught up in the action of a group training class, but always remember that you’re the one that has to live in your body not just today, but tomorrow. Pain is a clear sign that something is not quite right. When your body talks, you should listen.
2. Leave your ego at the door
One of the biggest challenges we face in the fitness world is wanting to do too much too fast. We wish we could lose 40 lbs right now. Or pull 500 lbs in the deadlift right now. And in this quest to attain our goals we can fall into the traps of extreme dieting and putting too much weight on the bar too fast.
It takes a lot of courage to say to yourself, “Self, I’m just not ready for this movement/exercise/feat of strength, so I’m going to work up to it for X days/weeks/months/years.” None of us want to say that we are going to take (6) months to work on correcting a movement dysfunction when summer or spring break is right around the corner.
It’s takes mindfulness to be able to hear what your body is trying to tell you and it takes courage to slow things down when you need to.
Stay healthy folks and I’ll see ya out there.
By Ryan Wagner2 ways that I injured myself - and how you can avoid the same pitfalls by Ryan Wagner