Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 13 Dec 2013 05:20:59 -0500

Injuries Aren't All Bad

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from December 1987.)

“Keeping Your Running Injury-Free” was the topic this hour at a weekend-long seminar. My only excuse for sitting on the panel was to present the minority viewpoint: in favor of injuries.

Without them we runners would have to find a new topic to start our conversations. Injuries also make us take needed breaks that we wouldn’t accept voluntarily.

I have made a career of getting hurt, and no longer think of injuries as threats to my running future. I have come to view injury-free running as not possible for most of us.

The only way to stamp them out completely is to stop running, which would hurt worse than being injured. The surest way to limit them is by avoiding the racing and training that make running worth doing for many of us.

Whenever runners push our limits of distance or pace, we also go to the brink of injury. One of the great attractions of the running sport (as opposed to the exercise) is seeing how far we can bend without breaking.

We sometimes break. Surveys taken at Runner’s World report that at least every other reader will be hurt in any year.

The casualty figure stood at 56 percent in a 1985 poll, down by about 10 percent from the mid-1970s count. This drop suggests that runners as a group do slightly better now at bending without breaking. But the fact remains that a minority escapes unhurt in one year, and almost no one does over a career.

The statistics sound worse than they are, because they don’t define “injury.” Runners rarely get hurt seriously or permanently. Our injuries don’t fall into the same class as career-ending football knees or baseball elbows.

I define “injury” as any problem bad enough to disrupt the normal flow of running. Minor damage will do that.

A sore spot the size of a dime and the severity of a toothache can cripple a runner. It may not hurt at all except when we try to run on it.

Dr. John Pagliano’s epic study involving thousands of runners in his podiatry practice indicates that their complaints are rarely serious and seldom permanent. Time heals nearly everything, as long as the root causes are eliminated or modified.

Most running injuries are self-inflicted. They result from preventable and correctable mistakes, not random accidents.

“The number-one cause of injuries is a mistake in the training program,” says noted sports orthopedist Dr. Stan James. “That accounts for almost two-thirds of the breakdowns. Obviously, then, the way to prevent most injuries is to avoid making these mistakes in training.”

Experience teaches, and the worst experiences teach best. Dr. James learned the most about training mistakes by making them in his own competitive running and cross-county skiing.

“I’ve made all the mistakes,” he says. “I know what it’s like to feel tired all the time, and have had a lot of injuries through the years.” His health, energy and performance all improved dramatically after these problems forced him to rethink and revise his program.

James first had to stumble and fall before he fully realized why he’d tripped. That’s the main benefit of injuries: they get your attention. You need one major injury as a powerful lesson in how to run and why you run.

You don’t need to go looking for the Big One. If you run long and hard enough, it will likely find you.

And when it does, when you can’t run at all and wonder if you ever will again, that’s when you see clearly what went wrong. That’s when you swear to take a better course if/when you recover. That’s when you find out how much running means to you, after almost losing it.

The only bad injuries are the ones you don’t learn from and don’t get over.

UPDATE FROM 2013

Dr. Stan James is perhaps best known for operating in Joan Benoit’s knee less than three weeks before the 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon. He fixed her so well that she won that race, and the Los Angeles Games race that came three months later. Dr. James still practices both medicine and endurance sports in his 80s.

Twenty years ago I co-authored a book with another doctor, podiatrist Joe Ellis. The publisher titled it Running Injury-Free. I argued then that, in the name of truthful advertising, that the last word should have been “Freer,” since complete freedom is unlikely. A new edition (without my help but with the original title) came out in 2014l.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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