The Long and Winding Road Back to Running

I set a personal record at the Chevron Houston Marathon in January, but in recent months, I haven’t run much due to ongoing issues with my left lower back, IT, or illiotical band and hip flexor. A recent MRI uncovered two bulging discs in my lower left back, the lowest of which may be pinching on a nerve on my left side. My doctor speculated that this might be causing all the issues on my left side. She referred me to a spinal specialist, who referred me for a physical therapy program that would help straight my back and pelvis, gave me a prescription for pain cream and a steroid shot in my lower left back.

Not being able to run has been particularly difficult for me, given that work has been hectic this spring. I haven’t had much energy to read for fun or socialize either, but the loss of running has hit me particularly hard. Like many runners, running is not just about the cardiovascular workout, but running is a way to relieve mental stress. That stress has been building up in other ways, including more frequent snacking in the work break room and just an overall feeling of edginess at times. I find myself getting more impatient with people around me, from drivers to pedestrians. (I swear, it seems like everyone at the mall the other day was deliberately walking in front of me!)

I never knew I had an IT band until I started running over a decade ago (running offers great lessons in human anatomy). For non-runners, the IT band is a ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin. IT band syndrome is when the IT band becomes tight or inflamed. I’ve dealt with it at different points of time in my running career, usually when I haven’t been diligent about strengthening the glutes and other muscles. Stretching the IT band is difficult. In this latest round, I’ve been dealing with a sore hip flexor on the same side and tightness in my lower left back. If one thing isn’t acting up, it’s another, which made me wonder if there was a tear.

I’ve always found that running helped me stay balanced mentally and physically, but given my issues, I’ve had to cross train more and find new outlets for stress. Now that work has slowed down a bit, my mind isn’t so weighted towards my to do list, so I feel like I can now tackle my IT band again. I’ve got even more incentive to run the Houston Marathon in 2015. This time, I’ll be running as a veteran, a status that a runner achieves after completing 10 Houston marathons.

The prep and wait for the shot was longer than the procedure itself. More paperwork to sign, vitals to be taken, IV inserted and discussions with the doctor and the anesthesiologist. I was given something to help me relax, but I was awake during the procedure and aware of everything – I had been warned to expect the ‘twilight’ experience. The atmosphere in the operating room was very casual, with country music playing in the background and people talking about upcoming plans for the Fourth of July. I was given time and cranberry juice to recover, then rolled out in a wheelchair to my husband’s truck. I spent the rest of the day recuperating and catching up on recordings in our DVR.

I think I was expecting to instantly feel better. My back is sore at the injection site (and will still be for a while). My back does feel somewhat better, but I was awoken early this morning with hunger pangs (I think my body was still catching up from not being able to eat after midnight the night before the procedure) and by a tight and painful IT band on my left. My hip flexor on the left side also was bothering, so I know there’s going to be more stretching and rehabbing before I’m completely out of the woods yet.

Just like balancing work, relationships and personal pursuits, I’m finding that it’s difficult to get my body back into balance. The ongoing weakness on my left side (my right side is stronger, not surprising since I’m right-handed, my physical therapist told me) is definitely a concern. The human body can do amazing things, but like any instrument with many working parts, there are lots of things that can go wrong. I don’t know if it’s age (or because I’m a runner) but I can see that strength training – and keeping both sides of my body strong – will be critical if I’m to have a future as a runner.

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