Runners tend to be incredibly focused. Just ask your non-running friends. Though being fully engaged in an activity we love can be a good thing, therein hides a potential problem.
Joe Henderson, the first editor of Runner's World magazine, wrote an article years ago that described the evolution of a typical runner. He observed that most runners start out as joggers seeking to improve health. It may be to lose some weight, or it may have even been a high school coach trying to get you into shape for your "real" sport.
Then a funny thing happened. We pinned on our first race number. Whether we crossed the finish line in first place, last place or anywhere in between, we were transformed. No longer a jogger, we enter the second phase as a racer. Sure, the health benefits remain important, but getting a personal record in a race was now more important.
No longer counting calories, it's logging the weekly miles that occupies the runner's attention.
In the early stages, improvement comes in leaps and bounds. As the weight is shed and the running legs get more developed, the capacity to do more grows, and we eagerly take advantage of the newfound strength.
Personal best times seem like low-hanging fruit, and we eagerly grab as many as possible. Then it happens. Injury.
It seems that when running becomes an important part of your life, injuries are the dues that must be paid.
Consider this from a recent article in the Harvard Gazette: "Most people know about a runner's high. But for most runners, injury is as much a part of the experience as euphoria. Studies vary widely, but estimates indicate that between 30 and 80 percent of regular runners are injured in a given year from shin splints to runner's knee to iliotibial band syndrome to plantar fasciitis. For many years, everyone from coaches to biologists to casual joggers has accepted such injuries almost as a necessary evil."
But must we accept the injuries as a necessary evil, or is there a better way?
Let me start by stating that I have explored every possible method of squeezing the maximum results from my training, yet failed miserably at keeping injury-free. I can imagine my orthopedic doctor, chiropractor, physical therapist, massage therapist, Reiki master, acupuncturist and wife nodding in agreement.
Sometimes wisdom comes from making errors. If that's true, then I may be a running genius at this point. But by trial and error, I believe I have learned the secret, and it's in a word — seasons.
Most runners don't have seasons. If time is taken off from hard training, it's usually not planned, it's being on the disabled list due to an injury. That's when we get depressed, eat poorly, gain weight and become irritable, not to mention envy those who we see running from our windows until the injury heals just enough so that we can begin the cycle again.
It's said that insanity is doing the same foolish thing over and over again, while expecting a different outcome. If true, then I guess we'd be crazy to not consider planning our running seasons better and include cross-training in the off-season.
Cross-training has been the same — made by the best coaches and professional athletes — for as long as I can remember. Strength training, biking, swimming, Pilates, yoga and CrossFit are among the many options that can occupy that space once reserved for bench-sitting injuries.
In the long run (pun intended), cross-training will deliver the overall strength and endurance needed to keep a runner "in the game" for a lifetime. There's no escaping the fact that as we age, our running capabilities will change. Grabbing those once-easy-to-attain personal bests will become more difficult, so the goals will have to change, as well.
What should never happen, however, is to allow an injury to preclude you from continuing your life as an athlete.
In Joe Henderson's article from so many years ago, he writes that there is a third phase that we will attain if we are fortunate to run long enough — from Jogger to Racer to, ultimately, Runner. It is only then that we can truly enjoy all that running gives us — good health, certainly — and a chance to compete, of course, but even more so, an opportunity to run the open roads for years to come.
Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders in Massachusetts. Licciardello has participated in 35 Bostons and 88 marathons, and 2013 was his first year as a start line coordinator at the Boston Marathon. He has served on the BAA Boston Marathon organizing committee for 23 years.