Head vs. heart (vs. IT band): A running journey

I used to run. Not in high school, at least not voluntarily, but after I’d lost 110 pounds for the second time in my late twenties, I ran, and I loved it. I loved that I felt light and fast and athletic when I ran. And so I ran a lot – I averaged 35 miles a week and never once felt a twinge of pain, not even when I still had some weight left to lose (I started running when I had about 40 pounds left to lose). When I stopped running, I stopped eating properly and I re-gained 110 pounds for the second time.

Fast forward to present day. I’ve lost 63 pounds so far (of the 110 I need to lose in order to be in a healthy weight range per the BMI charts). I’ve completed a sprint duathlon. I finished the Couch to 5K program and am able to jog for 30 minutes straight, albeit inside, on a treadmill.

I started the Up & Running 5K course last month because even after finishing Couch to 5K, I wasn’t able to run outdoors at all and I want to be able to run the monthly 5K events I participate in. At the beginning, I was quite pleased with my progress – I was finishing all of the running segments in less than the time listed on the Training Plan and feeling pretty good. (Turns out I was the slowest kid in class, but that’s a post for another day.) Then my shins started to hurt so I gave the running a miss for a few days and went right back to it again without any problems. Until last week.

Lovin' my body before The Color Run 5K on my birthday
Lovin’ my body before The Color Run 5K on my (46th) birthday

The training program I was working on last week features three separate intervals of 1/2 kilometer running with a two-minute rest break in between and topped off with a 1 kilometer run before cooling down. I was a little nervous about the amount of running involved but I trusted that I could do it because I’d done all of the running in the previous four weeks with so little trouble. (Slowly, but I’d done them.) The first run of the week was tough and I hated it, particularly the running uphill involved in any 2.5 kilometer run in my neighborhood. I rested for a day between runs – aren’t I good newbie runner? – then went back at it again. This time it was even harder and actually painful by the end of the third 1/2 kilometer running segment, to the point that I was crying in pain and frustration but didn’t stop running. I mean, I couldn’t, right? To stop would be to admit weakness and then I wouldn’t be able to say I’d done it. (I know that’s crazy personified but that’s what I was thinking.) I finished up the final kilometer, which was downhill all the way, and gratefully cooled down. A day off and then I went for the third and final run of the week at the end of my work day so that it would be nice and flat because surely it was just the hills at home that were causing problems.

I should have listened when it hurt at the beginning of the first 1/2 kilometer run, but I didn’t. It hurt a bit more for the second 1/2 kilometer and a whole lot more by the third and final 1/2 kilometer. I was in tears again but this time from the frustration of not being able to force my body to do my bidding, but I readied myself for the final 1 kilometer push and looked forward to a weekend off from running. When I took the first step for that final run, I could tell something was very, very wrong with both of my legs as well as my left knee – they just felt “off”. And finally – finally! – I listened. I stopped trying to run immediately and speed walked the final kilometer before melting into my cool down.

A little research and a visit to my favorite physical therapist/masseuse led to a diagnosis of iliotibial (IT) band syndrome. I have pain from my hips down my thigh and especially just above my left knee. From what the therapist has told me, if I don’t stop running and cycling (and pretty much anything except walking and strength training) until the symptoms are gone then I risk knee problems and chronic pain that will likely keep me from running again. In addition to the restricted activity schedule, I also have to use a foam roller on my IT band and quadriceps twice a day and stretch after each (walking) workout. For once in my life, I’m following orders without question or resistance; I think I’m finally scared straight.

I’m frustrated and disappointed, not because I have to give up running and cycling for a while, but because of how I got here. Ignoring my body is the antithesis of my motivation for Project Me – to live a healthier and happier life. I spent most of my life hating and trying to divorce my body even as it carried around the (literal and figurative) weight of my world without complaint – I don’t want to live that way any more. Integrating my mind and my body is an important success criterion for my long-term happiness and perhaps this period of being forced to listen and respond to my body’s needs is the right prescription for this recovering control freak.