1504 running rehab 1

For the last 3+ months I have focused entirely on rehabilitating my legs back into running. This means I haven’t swam but a few times (usually during our training events) because I needed to give my limited time each day, each week, to the consistent running rehab regime I had set up for myself. I’ve got some summer/fall swim projects in mind so I will start training for those soon, but while the weather is cool I want to take advantage of these conditions and use my limited time each day to give this body the best attention I can.

Why write about it here? Though I don’t have swimming injuries to solve anymore (thank you, TI!), I will use the same TI mindset and methods to engineer my running revival. There is a great deal of cross-over application in this process for those with pain and injury in your swimming, and some of you out there are triathletes and you’ll likely face this one day in at least one of your disciplines.

150326 Mat legs 01My left and weaker knee. My thigh on this side is visibly smaller than the right.

My Brief Running History

I started running seriously in 1990, after severely injuring my shoulders on the high school swim team. My state-champion cross-country runner friend was an inspiration and urged me to adopt his sport. I took up cycling as well and in my university years I was an aspiring Olympic distance triathlete… that is, until an overuse running injury shut down my left knee in the fall of 1994. Lesson: High effort + high pain tolerance + poor technique + poor self-restraint = serious injury.

I had arthroscopic knee surgery in 1998 and after a quick and torturous rehab with a physical therapist I was able to resume running again. I had some scar tissue soreness in the knee but found I needed to run through that. I have learned the difference between this benign sensation and pain which warns me of pending injury. I have continued to run off and on since then but have never returned to racing or to the previous level of intense training – my life and priorities took a major turn during that post-injury season (that’s another story). Though I have occasionally taken time away from running I have learned since this surgery that if I don’t use it I will lose it – if I quit using my legs in full range of motion they will lose mobility and strength and scar tissue will build up again. So, if I ever want to hop, skip, jump and run in the future I have to keep running to keep the scar tissue at bay and keep the legs built up for a wide range of activity.

I continued running when I moved to Turkey 7 years ago – but then emerged new, strange pains in my legs. I would start running but these strange pains would appear and shut me down within 15 or 20 minutes. Some weeks I could work past it and go. Some weeks I could not. I would rest for a few days (swimming has been my main emphasis and I would go to the water instead) but this kept eating away at the running base I had stored up in my ‘fitness bank’ over the years until eventually it felt like it was gone. And I found that infrequent running only made me more susceptible to injury. It would have to be all or nothing, because being a ‘weekend warrior’ in running was not going to work for me.

Four years ago – after being intrigued by the logic and grace of barefoot running, and having nothing to lose by trying – over the course of a year I very carefully retooled my stride mechanics to a forefoot, barefoot running style (though I must wear shoes for various reasons), and spent a couple seasons using a Tempo Trainer to rewire my brain to prefer a much faster cadence. These were very positive changes for me. This new style completely removed all the joint soreness I used to feel after a long run in my previous style. But the strange muscle knotting, nerve and tendon pains continued – those were not caused by the running, but were definitely revealed and aggravated by it.

Though the new style left me feeling so much better in the joints, by last spring these several pains and new nerve injuries converged to make me consider retirement from running for good. I stopped all last summer. Then, providentially in the last 6 months some new insights and tools made me reconsider. I regained hope that I could apply these ideas to my own rehabilitation.

The Liberating Ideas

1. I need to work out the muscle constrictions.

Last summer I discovered the muscle knots in my back were pinching the nerve running down my left arm and restricting my shoulder and neck mobility. I used a racquetball to persistently press and smash dozens of them out, one-by-one, day after day (I wrote about it HERE). Over a couple weeks, devoting over one hour most mornings to this muscle/fascia pressure work, I started to feel wonderful relief and release. Then I eventually realized this was happening in my legs too.

150329 Mat on roller 01

2. I love the Foam Roller.

My TI Coach partner Baha introduced me to a foam roller which helped me expose, identify then remove various points of pain and excess tension in my legs. I discovered issues I didn’t even realize were there until I started pressing on them. (More about this in Part 2). I have removed most points of muscle tension and the subsequent pain by working the tissues in various places. What was most surprising is that I would have pain by a tendon or muscle insertion point (for example), but the problem was actually in a muscle knot above it – once I smashed the knot back into squishy peace the tendon pain went away. (This was exactly my experience when working on my upper back and bringing relief to nerve pain in the left shoulder and arm).

I have been studying these self-maintenance concepts more in depth and have since discovered there are more specialty tools for all kinds of muscle and fascia work. But I have experienced wonders with just this one tool to start with. (I just ordered a few more to play with!)

3. I need to rebuild all the (running-specific) support systems together.

Just as in my whole-body swimming I started to understand the inter-relationship between the runner’s muscles, tissues, nerves and joints from the spine to hips to legs to the feet. Thanks to Dr. Kelly Starrett and his guide ‘Ready To Run‘ (and thanks to TI Coach David Shen who introduced me to his stuff), my therapist wife Gail, and additional resources I found I could test and correct my own structural problems.

4. I applied my TI methodical mindset to break this down into a gradual step-by-step sequence according to solid principles, aiming for a specific goal.

First, to make my plan I had to be clear what my goal for running is. I want to enter a State of Flow when I run (I explained some of this Flow State in the previous post). Speed feels good, of course, but I understand that speed is a servant of this state, not a master over it. Speed can get me into the zone, and it can take me out of it too. The key to this state is not speed, but energy. Manage energy well and we feel awesome – manage it poorly and we feel like crap, and eventually we are injured. So I concentrated on using physical and mental techniques that make me use my energy well (and that is a big topic itself which my entire coaching blog is virtually dedicated to) by using various internal focal points to increase relaxation and smooth, accurate, supple movement patterns and enhance productive mental processes.

So, my objective for any run (or any swim, for that matter) is to set up the conditions for Flow State, enter into it, and sustain it as long as possible, and resume it quickly if I should lose touch in the midst of a challenging event.

And for my capabilities, I want to be capable of 60+ minutes of running, and preferably off-road (I love hilly terrain and trail running). When I travel, exploring a place by running is one of my favorite ways to tour. And, there is no doubt, running is convenient and low-expense (in time and money). I have a lot of incentive for keeping running in activity palette.

I am pleased to announce that my approach has worked well now for the last 4 months. I have enjoyed several consecutive 40 to 60 minute pain-free runs in just the last 4 weeks, and have reached the first enjoyable level in ease and flow. I look forward to more.

My Training Plan

1) Faithful posture and mobility work.

Each day, running or not, I try to put in the ground work on a yoga mat in my office. I work on the core stability and on mobility of the systems – working from the spine outward. This has been an absolute priority. My running depends on the tissues being all released, unified and ready to work together to support the running. More on this in Part 2.

2) Always improve technique.

Every run, every step, every repetition is programming – in movement and thinking. I insist on only the best programming I am capable of and don’t waste my time on mindless meters. So I use a set of technique-oriented focal points (drawn from various sources, including my swimming, and personal experience) and cycle through them during a run.

I do sometimes listen to an audio book while running (for some reason I have not felt like listening to music for a few years now). From time to time I do use a Tempo Trainer to test and recalibrate my cadence. If at any time an audio device feels distracting to my control over quality I won’t use it. Achieving Flow State and maintaining it is paramount. If I need an audio device to defend against boredom then something is wrong with my training, because boredom is a warning signal. Ignore it at your own peril.

3) ‘Read/Respond To The Pain’ Rule.

I have a strict rule to never run with any bad kind of pain (pain is a messenger!) – if one of the trouble spots in my legs gives a signal and I cannot find and remove the cause with corrective focal point I will either switch to a drill or stop running and walk home. Pushing through this pain would gain me nothing and almost certainly mean a few days off running, or worse.

A run is only labeled successful if I achieve my intended duration with no dangerous pain signals along the way. Since ignoring pain and poor restraint was my downfall in my previous athletic life, I give myself points for stopping a run short when some danger signal comes up and I cannot solve it through technique. I will instead go work it out on with the foam roller on the yoga mat at home.

4) Gradually increase duration.

There are several systems that need to be prepared to handle longer running distances. They are not all starting at the same point of conditioning. Though my leg pains might be absent on a certain day and make that system feel relatively free I know all the other systems need time to gradually adapt and strengthen themselves for the return to a life of running. So, I have needed to set my limits according to the weakest member of that systemic team and bring it up to even with the others.

I have gradually built up distance/duration, starting at 30 minutes, pain-free in January. By the first week of April I reached 60+ minutes of pain-free, pleasurable running.

5) Gradually add consecutive run days.

I had, up to this season, not run back-to-back days in order to let my sore or vulnerable spots get some rest. I always took one or two days rest between (and swam instead). But I know that the more frequently I run the much better it will feel and the much faster I will develop strength and speed. So, I had to break out of this injury-cycle in order to get into a more enjoyable state of running.

Someone gave our family an elliptical running machine to use. Though I loathe the idea of being indoor and on a treadmill it has provided me a no-impact way to work the muscular system around my knees and hips on days between actual running. (I am wary of an elliptical trainer because I feel it too easily urges poor hip mechanics, so I take great care with my mechanics to avoid hip and back problems from using it.) This allowed me to do start back-to-back days for leg work with reduced stress on those vulnerable points.

Toward the end of March I felt ready to do back-to-back runs, and by the time of this writing I now am going out 4+ times a week.

6) Gradually build up the running-specific fitness bank.

I do believe the idea that running performance depends a great deal on building up enough consistent mileage – like building up an investment in the bank so the interest starts to pay back decently. All the systems need regular stimulation (proper kinds of stress) over time to adapt, strengthen and rise to a new level of unity and performance. At this age I know now that it needs to be quality mileage too. From years of experience I anticipate that I personally need about 4 weeks of consistent running, 4-6 days a week, to break through to a pleasant realm of running. Before I reach this point, frankly, much of running experience sucks because the systems are not all evenly strong and unified. If run days are less frequent, it will take much longer to break through. And, if the run days are too infrequent I simply cannot break through at all. That is running hell.

Since, my pains and injuries were keeping me cautiously limited to 2 or 3 runs a week, this process took me three months instead of one. But in the middle of March I could feel the shift take place, critical mass had been reached and now my body is eager to run. This is what I was aiming for. I have not felt this good for decades.

6) Get into that next level of running before summer heat.

It is hot here in the summer and this stresses the body a lot. If I found myself still working in an uneven, dis-unified condition it may be too discouraging to keep going during the summer. Then I would have to start over again in the late fall and I don’t want to lose ground like that. So, I have wanted to reach some minimal level of running momentum before the heat comes. But ‘hot’ is relative and I am conditioned for cool weather running, so it will start to feel ‘hot’ to me soon. It is mid-April and already I am running without a shirt on!


The points of hard-earned wisdom I am applying to this are:

  1. I planned my approach carefully, based on experience and reference to solid training systems that I admire.
  2. I am patient with the process needed to recondition my systems holistically. I know it takes time and I am OK with that. I maintain a love for this process so enjoyment is built into the routine.
  3. I am persistent and consistent in doing what I need to do each week, each day. Little investments each day add up to magnified benefits later on.
  4. I keep myself restrained in the safety zone, heeding the pain signals, doing the maintenance work – I keep the long-term objective of life-long running in mind.


In Part 2 I will describe some of the specific pain and injury points and how I use my morning routine and the foam roller to work on those.

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