Okay, confession: I was never ‘sporty’ at school, I hated P.E. and I would avoid exercising in front of other people at all costs. But coming to university three and a half years ago marked the beginning of a massive shift in my attitude towards running. Prior to this, I was running once or twice a week, mainly just to get out of the house and to keep myself active but I wasn’t at all committed to it; I just kind of went through the motions. I would go out and run for about half an hour but didn’t run with any intent; I didn’t really care about running.
But, when I came to uni I decided I wanted some purpose, something to run for, and so I joined the university athletics team. My attitude towards running was absolutely transformed within a few weeks. I was training most days of the week with a group of brilliant, motivated and talented runners and I suddenly had something to work for; I wanted to run faster and further and I wanted to make myself better. And I fell in love with running.
By September 2016 I was training every day, sometimes twice a day, and I was so happy. I was getting faster, I could run further than I ever had before and with so much more ease than I thought possible. In just over a year I broke my 5k PB four times, my 10k PB twice, ran my first half-marathon and looked forward to running like nothing else.
But I overdid it. In November 2016, I started really pushing myself; going to more and more high intensity sessions, training hard to compete for the university and (I realise now, crucially), not eating enough. I started feeling a pain in my upper left thigh after training sessions but, thinking it was just tightness in my muscles, continued training as intensely as I had been. And it started getting worse; I would wake up in the night because of the pain, I would struggle to run back from hard training sessions and to walk into uni the next day. But when I was actually running it felt fine, and my training was going really well; I was getting faster and faster and loving it more than ever and I didn’t want to stop. And then one day in December, on my jog back from a training session, I felt an excruciating pain in my upper left leg. It was worse than it had ever been before and I could barely hobble back to the house. It turns out that it was a stress fracture in my femur. A stress fracture is an ‘overuse injury’, so, instead of resulting from a single severe impact, the accumulated trauma of thousands of foot-strokes on the road had weakened the bone to the point of breaking.
I had to stop running all together. Stress fractures require a rest period of between four and twelve weeks, and I’m not going to lie, I was incredibly daunted by the prospect of not being able to exercise for 3 months. I’d got so used to training every day that even my one rest day a week was difficult to deal with. On top of that, running had been so important for keeping me focussed, for keeping my anxiety at bay and for keeping me in touch with my friends. So, all of a sudden, I was finding myself working all day and having no way to wind down in the evening. And I couldn’t handle it. My anxiety got really bad, I was struggling at work and I hated the house I was sharing. I missed running so much; I genuinely think I was suffering from full-blow withdrawal.
In hindsight, I really should have stuck with rest period longer. But after about three weeks I went back to the gym and started resistance training and spinning. I kind of thought it would be fine; I was taking a break from running and not doing any impact-based exercises, I just wanted to keep my fitness. But I also started eating less because all of a sudden, I didn’t know where I stood with my calorie input/output. When I was running I knew what each of my training sessions translated to food-wise, but spinning and resistance training didn’t seem intense enough to warrant the same number of calories. Again, in hindsight, this was silly of me; my body needed to recover and it needed energy to do it, and I was restricting it massively.
I carried on this pattern for about 6 weeks and then I tried running again. I started with 5 minutes every other day and gradually built up until I was running for 20 minutes at a time. I was so encouraged and started looking forward to getting back to training and competing. And then my leg started to hurt again, like, all the time. It hurt after a few hours walking around town, and if I rested something heavy on my lap. So, I had to stop. I stopped for a few weeks and then started the same pattern again. This cycle happened 3 times before I realised I was doing something wrong. And so, finally, I stopped everything. I stopped running, going to the gym and cycling for six weeks. All I did was about an hour of yoga a few times a week to keep me from going insane. After about four weeks of this, I realised that I needed to eat more, and I’ve been trying really hard to stick to it. I’m making sure I spread my nut butter on extra thick, I’m drinking cappuccinos instead of black coffee, I’m snacking on bread and muesli as well as fruit and veg and I’m saying yes to dessert most nights of the week. This has been a massive mindset jump for me; I used to struggle to eat anything ‘unhealthy’ or ‘excessive’, but realising that it is essential to allow me to get back to full fitness has made it so much easier.
And now I feel like I’m in a better place than I was even when I was running. Running was headspace for me. I relied on it. And when I couldn’t do it anymore, my life felt like it was falling apart. But being injured has put in in perspective. I appreciate my fitness and my health so much more. I’ve been able to cope better with everyday life and found ways to tackle with my anxieties head on rather than forgetting about them while I run. I have a better relationship with food. I have more time to invest in other areas of my life. And best of all, I respect my body more. I understand what it needs, what it can do and what it can’t.
My latest X-ray results show that I am stress-fracture-free. But I still want to take it easy. I’m not running again yet. I’m focussing on making my body stronger. I’m committed to eating more and I’m lifting weights in the gym. I’m going to keep going until I know my body is ready to start running again. I miss running every single day and I cannot wait until I can get back out there again, but I have to wait. And while I wait, I am proud that I am becoming stronger every single day.