An Experiment of One (Water Version)

It has been said that running training and the resulting personal performance level is an experiment of one. While there are certain general training characteristics to which all humans undoubtedly respond, the speed and level of adaptation to a specific training stimulus vary from individual to individual. Further, there is little doubt that the individual's response changes over the long haul. Next month I'll be turning 50, and like most competitive runners, I look forward to moving into a new age group. (No more pesky and quick 40 and 41 year olds to worry about.) Unfortunately, my zeal, coupled with a stubborn streak and lack of self-perspective, has led me to injured status. I am the not-so-proud owner of a stress reaction to the navicular bone in my right ankle. This has been biting me since summer although I was under the impression that it was soft tissue damage (such as the posterior tibialis tendon). In February, after little to no progress, the sports doc ordered up an MRI and discovered the bone damage. Prescription? Six weeks of no weight-bearing sports (i.e. no running, XC skiing, etc.), and then ease back into it.

What to do?

Taking a page out of my own history book (training log), I decided to turn to cross training, specifically water running and bicycling. Several years ago, a regimen of water running mixed with easy land running helped me to overcome a lightly torn calf muscle. About a month out of the pool, I ran a personal best for 8k. I followed some of the advice given by Olympic Marathon Trials winner and exercise physiologist Pete Pfitzinger regarding pool running given here. This year the injury battle will take longer and the rehab and cross-training will be a greater challenge, and I decided to log the results here; not so much as a definitive test, but as anecdotal evidence that other runners might find useful. I don't know what the outcome will be (hey, it's an experiment of one, right?), but we can find out together.

About three weeks ago I began my program. It involves an average of about 10 hours of aerobic exercise per week plus three core-plus-weights sessions lasting about 25 to 30 minutes each. At this time of year I'd normally be logging around 70 miles per week +/-10, so 10 hours seemed to be a good target. My easy running pace is mid to low 7 minute miles, so although I wouldn't have spent 10 hours to run 70 miles, past experience tells me that my cross training efforts would not be as high either (lower heart rates) so some extra time would be in order. The last three weeks have averaged out to four or five days of biking on the magtrainer for about an hour in a modest gear to keep the cadence up, and maybe the odd 30 minute extra day thrown in after a weight session. Pool running averages out to four one hour sessions with a fifth "long run" of 1.5 to 2 hours. Two of the sessions are "tempo" workouts where the output is higher, perhaps around half marathon to marathon effort, and performed in sets (e.g. six by five minutes with one minute recoveries, three by ten minutes with two minute recoveries, etc.). These are performed entirely by feel; I keep the cadence up around 175 to 180 steps per minute and link the breathing 2-2 (i.e. two steps inhale, two steps exhale) which is what I would do on land. I think it is important to include a couple of up-tempo efforts per week, and I'd rather do these in the pool than on the bike as I believe it might be a bit better for the ankle.

My current observations include:

1. It is now obvious to me how top endurance athletes who are not runners can spend so much time on-task. I hardly feel beat-up at all after even two hours in the pool. (Well, the initial half hour has my guts a little tied up, but I never get the feeling of whole-body tiredness that I'd get after a two hour run.) If it weren't for the sore butt, several hours on the bike wouldn't be an issue either. My wife insists that the sore butt is due to a vitamin deficiency: "You have no assitol!"

2. No matter what you do, you can't get the chlorine smell off. Even after a good, soapy post-pool shower, I'll smell the chlorine the next time water hits my skin. I have tried a special swimmer's shampoo, and while it reduces the chlorine smell, it leaves behind a somewhat skunky smell.

3. Swimmers generally look at water runners with a combination of curiosity and confusion, and maybe a bit of denigration for some of them.

I am hopeful that this will maintain my condition to a reasonable level (at the very least, I managed to drop five of the ten pounds I had gained by New Year's). Whether or not I will come out and run well by mid-summer is anyone's guess. I do plan on taking a few extra weeks in the pool and for the transition, just to be on the safe side. I'll offer another progress report when I begin the transition back to land, and a final report once I get back to racing.

Pfitzinger also has a useful article on returning to running after a major injury such as a stress fracture, here.

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It turned out that the stress reaction in the bone was only part of the problem, the other being a problem with my posterior tibialis muscle which was not pinpointed until July of 2008. Although I had continued cross-training, so much time had elapsed that the experiment was abandoned. I began running again in mid summer, only a few miles at a time, 3 times/week. I cracked the 60 mpw barrier a few weeks ago, but had a recent setback after a long run on snowy/icy roads (hip flexor, due to the constant backward slipping). My speed and endurance is just starting to come back although it probably will be some time before I can do true speed work again.