After undergoing surgery for a chronic hamstring tear in which two tendons had completely detached from the bone, my "life as a runner" came abruptly to a halt. From running 80 miles a week, racing every weekend, and training for the Olympic Trials, to sitting immobilized on the couch, struggling for twenty minutes to put on a sock, and hobbling around at a snail's pace on crutches – resting with an injury was a big transition. As a lifelong athlete, it was a significant physical and psychological adjustment to no longer be able to lace up my shoes for my daily run. I also began to wonder if and when I would ever run again, as I tried to wait (im)patiently in my immobilizing hip brace for my hamstring to heal. Fortunately, my running life was only temporarily put on pause, even though several months often felt like an eternity.
Here are some tips for navigating the often frustrating process of returning to running and racing after surgery:
1. Be patient
Patience is a virtue. I don't have it. However, I tried my best to make peace with the fact that recovery after an operation takes awhile, and the body simply needs time to heal. Letting go of what you can't control, such as how quickly your body will recover, can be very difficult, but the sooner you accept the fact that the rate of healing is largely out of your control, the easier the overall recovery process will mentally be. You can try as much as humanly possible to speed this process along by following your doctor's advice, eating and sleeping well, and avoiding further aggravation of your injury, but the bottom line is: Recovery. Takes. Time.
2. Have a (realistic) goal
The first question I asked my orthopedic surgeon during my pre-op visit was, "When will I be able to run again?" I wanted to set a goal so there would be a light at the end of the proverbial injury tunnel. For me, that goal was returning to some semblance of running by the time I would travel to Iceland four months after surgery. I wanted to be able to explore and adventure through this incredible country on foot. Having that ultimate goal in mind provided the incentive to be careful during the initial return to running, to follow a physical therapy regimen religiously, and to have something to look forward to while sitting on the couch post-surgery.
3. PT, PT, PT
Physical therapy is important - fit it in your schedule! For me, as a resident physician with a somewhat erratic schedule, this meant that I carried a Thera-Band in my backpack wherever I went, often doing physical therapy exercises in the overnight call room and squeezing in PT appointments after working night shifts. To give yourself the chance at returning to your best athletic self - make time for PT.
4. Listen to your body
Not following Tip #4 may have been how you got into this mess in the first place. Pre-surgery, I limped through a number of runs, even races, in which my running form would have probably been better described as hobbling, as I ignored excruciating pain that I thought I could "just push through." However, listening to your body is key to recovery. If something feels off – STOP. Your body may not be ready to transition to the next stage of recovery yet – and that's okay. Stop, reassess, and see Tip #1.
5. Find alternatives
Recovering from surgery is a huge life adjustment when *insert sport here* is more than just a component of your life - it is part of your identity. Having that part of you (temporarily) taken away can be devastating. During your recovery, finding alternative activities to your favorite sport can be immensely helpful - and who knows, maybe you will find something new that you love! (Or perhaps not - I am still a hopeless swimmer, though I gave it a good shot.) However, I did discover the wonders of road biking, and I stayed connected to my running team, the Impalas, by crutching around the track during practices and cheering for teammates at races. I also kept myself busy by making numerous pies and quiches while cooped up in the house during initial post-op recovery, and discovered that I'm not a total failure at cooking. Finding alternate activities can keep you sane, and you may discover new passions along the way.
6. Find Your Strong... support network
This is a time when you will rely on friends, significant others, and family for support, of both the logistical and emotional variety. When recovering from surgery, you will likely need physical help with simple tasks that may now take at least five times as long to perform. I couldn't put shoes on without assistance for weeks, and simple actions such as lifting my leg over the bathtub required a sling and careful coordination. Getting in and out of a car became a ten-minute ordeal, and carrying anything was almost impossible without help. If you pride yourself on independence, this experience is very humbling. I can't give enough thanks to friends and family who provided unconditional love and support in the form of car rides, home-cooked meals, and arms to lift heavy objects and to provide hugs, and I am immensely grateful to my fellow residents who covered my shifts in the ICU when I missed work. Sometimes your strong can be found in others...
7. Find your silly
Keeping your spirits up is key. Here are some ideas for not taking things too seriously during recovery:
- Decorate your brace or cast with some epic stickers
- Enter a race or two on crutches (be careful and watch out for rain and potholes)
- Attach plastic cups to your crutches for assistance in carrying at least some small items (such as beer)
- Celebrate recovery milestones (e.g. throw a "bye-bye crutches" fiesta when you're literally back on your feet)
- And celebrate the heck out of that first day when you return to the sport that you love
8. Be patient
See No. 1, you'll #FindYourStrong again soon!
By: Michelle Meyer, #FindYourStrongTeam Member
Photos by: @jordanrosenphotography