Allow Injuries to Make You Better, Not Bitter

by CJ Hitz March 15, 2017 7 min read

A person blacksmithing a metal tool. Close up of hot metal and hammer.

World-renowned mountain runner, Pikes Peak record holder, and frozen custard shop owner, Matt Carpenter, believes ice cream heals injuries. “When people are happier, their injuries heal faster and I guarantee when you eat frozen custard, you’re happy.”

Those of us who call the Colorado Springs area home often joke that Matt’s strategy in selling frozen custard (his shop is in nearby Manitou Springs) is to fatten up his competition. I’m pretty sure frozen custard and ice cream doesn't heal injuries by themselves but being in a happier state of mind certainly can help according to science.

A large 2010 study looked at 93 diabetic patients in regard to leg and foot ulcers they developed. This study essentially showed that the patients who coped the best over a 24 week period, healed faster than those who were in a greater state of depression.

When we’re more anxious and depressed, our bodies tend to release more of the stress hormone cortisol which serves to slow healing. When we’re happy, our bodies release more of the hormone called serotonin.

My recent bout with injury

No athlete ever wakes up one day and proclaims, “I would love to get injured today!” I certainly didn’t back on December 11th. Looking back, I think there were a few things that possibly created the right conditions for an injury.

From the end of August to early December, I was logging some good mileage week after week (60-70 miles on average). I was training for the Houston Marathon which was January 15th. A lot of my miles were intentionally run on asphalt and concrete in order to prepare my legs for the concrete jungle that makes up the Houston course. This added more wear and tear on my legs which most likely put me in a compromised state.

I had begun to manage what I considered a fairly minor left quad strain that came about from all the concrete pounding. In December I decided to run the Holiday Half Marathon in Portland, Oregon while we visited some of my family. Leading up to this tune-up half, I had run over 100 consecutive days without a day off which gave me lots of consistency in my training. To be honest, I never had a day during that stretch where my body seemed to be begging for a day off.

We flew into Portland on December 8th as a major ice storm was hitting the whole area. Waking up the next morning at a nearby motel, it was evident that running outside was not going to happen with a layer of ice coating every square inch. Sure, I could have searched out a local gym to run on a treadmill but I decided this was a good day to take a rest. We eventually made the hour drive to my brother’s house in Dundee where I intended to run the next day. Well, at the last minute, we made the decision to head up toward Mt. Hood to go snow tubing. By the time we returned, it was getting dark and the footing outside was still a bit sketchy.

This meant I didn’t run on two consecutive days after running for over 100 straight. On race morning (December 11th), we woke up early to a chilly rain that the weatherman said would continue for most of the morning. Not exactly the ideal conditions to run a fast half-marathon. Nonetheless, we made the 1-hour drive to the race. It’s not every weekend I have the opportunity to race at sea level.

The start gun went off at 8 am and there was a steady light rain coming down. My aim that morning was to run 5:40s per mile which would put me somewhere around 1:15 to 1:16 for the race. I came through mile 1 in 5:48, mile 2 in 5:44, and mile 3 in 5:40 before my left quad started lightly talking to me. I decided to back off a tad and ran mile 4 in 5:57. Around the 4.5 mile mark, I began noticing a twinge in my left hamstring which I ignored until around the 5-mile mark. At that point, that “twinge” was growing tighter and more tender by the minute. “Shoot!” I mumbled to myself. It was becoming very evident that my race was finished so I made the decision to bail at the 5.5-mile mark.

“DNF” is not a pretty title but sometimes a necessary one. Rather than simply turn around and run the course back to the start, I decided to take a shortcut which still turned out to be 4 miles I had to jog back. I’m not sure which hurt worse, the race or the jog. Even though my pride was also a little hurt, I knew I made the right decision.

I decided to take the next day completely off before running really easy for a few days. Upon returning home to Colorado, I had a 20-mile long run I needed to knock out on December 18th. I made it to the 11-mile mark before that same hamstring started flaring up again. Fortunately, I was only a mile walk from my car. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a hamstring strain knows it can be a frustrating process back to healing. With only 4 weeks until Houston, the writing was on the wall. I knew the next 2 weeks would be nothing but easy miles and some rehab. Those were 2 precious weeks of long runs and key workouts that I knew I had to have in order to reach my goal for the marathon.

So with 3 weeks to go until Houston, I made the tough decision to back out. Since I had a comped entry and hadn’t bought hotel or lodging, it was a little easier to change my plans. I knew that even if I toed the start line on January 15th, that stubborn hammy could flare up at mile 16 and force another DNF. It was time to look ahead and put this one behind me.

Unfortunately, after that left hamstring healed, my right hamstring decided to join the fun. I had gone over 3 years since I strained a hammy and now both of them decided to get mad in the span of 2 months. Around this time, my left calf was getting tight on me. My body was one big compensation after another. All I could do at the time was throw my hands up in the air in frustration!

Lesson learned

Nobody likes to be injured. It slows us down, gets in the way of our goals and makes us downright difficult to be around (my apologies to my wife Shelley). But we can all learn some valuable lessons as we deal with injury.

When I look back on that weekend of December 11th, I know without a doubt that I was dehydrated as a result of barely drinking anything much of that day we went snow tubing. This isn’t good practice the day before a half-marathon race.

I know it also didn’t help to completely get out of my running routine those two days in a row. I was a little tight on race morning and the chilly, rainy conditions only added to that tightness.

Another factor I believe contributed to my injury is the fact that I had gained a few extra pounds over the holidays from way too many sweets (my weakness) and other high-calorie goodies. Trying to run at that race effort while carrying just a few extra pounds can compromise muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Fortunately, I’ve since lost those extra pounds and have tightened up my diet.

Finally, I realized I had grown lax in being consistent with various strength exercises and core work. I was doing the bare minimum each evening before going to bed but it was nothing more than 10 minutes at the most. Nothing like an injury to motivate us to get stronger in all areas.

Since then, I’ve specifically blocked off Mondays for more intense strength and core work including squats, deadlifts, plyometrics, Roman chair leg lifts, pull-ups and various exercise ball movements. After just a few weeks, I can already feel my body turning a corner. It’s a great feeling to gain strength that translates into more efficient running!

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

If you ever find yourself sidelined by injury, here are a few tips to increase your chances of healing faster…

  1. Choose to embrace the season you’re in – make the most of it by learning how you might prevent this same injury in the future. This can happen through reading, consulting with other runners and getting advice from professionals.
  2. Be proactive – rather than just sitting around and pouting, find out what movements your body can handle that won’t aggravate the injury. I know some of us hate the words “cross-training” but there are seasons where we need to utilize what we can. This also helps take our mind off the actual injury.
  3. Quality sleep – nothing will aid in recovery and healing like quality sleep. Study after study has proven that our bodies release HGH (human growth hormone) during that deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Deep sleep will also help our bodies create more serotonin which was mentioned above. I’ve really enjoyed taking a scoop of Perfect Calm before going to bed each night in order to relax and create the right conditions for a good night’s rest.
  4. Healing foods – first of all, let me mention foods that will actually slow healing before mentioning some foods that foster healing. Foods with lots of refined sugar will only increase inflammation which will slow the healing process. Since alcohol metabolizes as sugar, it’s going to be in the same boat as refined sugary sweets. Foods using heavily processed cooking oils (canola, “vegetable”, soybean, corn, safflower) will also get in the way of the healing process as they create inflammation and force the body to spend precious energy digesting these oils.

Here’s a great article on healing foods from our friends over at Runners Connect titled, How to Recover Faster: 27 of the Best Foods for Healing

What we put into our bodies will either help or hinder the healing process as we work our way through the injury. Choose wisely.

Even though my 2017 didn’t start off like I would have planned, I’m happy to say I’m back on track to achieving the lofty goals I set that are still ahead. I’m also learning valuable lessons I can share with others.

As athletes, let’s endeavor to get better…not bitter!

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.