Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Racing on an Injury: It's (Almost Always) Stupid

 It’s kind of hard to hide some injuries.

Since almost everybody I encounter asks about my injury given my footwear “selection,” I should probably just walk around with a stack of handouts explaining my foot situation. When asked, I try to be as brief as possible– I had some foot pain 1.5 weeks out from a major goal race, minimized how much I ran on it, developed/worsened a stress reaction/fracture while competing in two races one weekend, and got the confirmed diagnosis a few hours after getting back to DC. The reaction from the (mostly non-athletes) I run into on a daily basis is generally something along the lines of “Wow, you are really tough! You did those two races on a broken foot?”

Not exactly the reaction I’m looking for.

What? Doesn’t everybody like to get some affirmation that they are super hard-working, determined, and altogether badass?

Maybe under some circumstances. But to be honest, racing on a known injury is arguably stupid, and should really only be undertaken in some very rare circumstances.

Hypocrite much? Maybe. Read on.

Racing on a known injury puts your long term athletic goals and health in jeopardy, and is highly unlikely to result in a stellar performance. There are rarely good reasons to do it.

Because you paid for the race/travel? Nope. That’s a sunk cost, and by racing on an injury, you could potentially hurt yourself badly enough to set yourself back even MORE cash as you try to heal in the months after the race.

Because you trained really hard? Uh-uh. See note about low likelihood of a stellar performance. Better to delay, maintain fitness as best you can with the injury, and bank those months of work for a later, healthier, race.

Because your friends are racing? Sorry, 6th grade is over.

Because you are in PR shape? Funny, if you are injured, you aren’t in PR shape, regardless of what those 800s at the track two weeks ago said.

Because you want to prove what a badass you are? Hardly. It takes a lot more strength to back away from a major goal and save yourself for a better race down the road than to stubbornly slog away through the original goal.

So then, why would you do it?

I can only speak for my reasons for racing two weekends ago, but it can be summed up as follows: it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was unlikely to come across again, and it was meaningful enough to me that I was willing to spend 3+ months under serious activity restriction following the race if I had to. In this case, I had qualified for a national championship taking place in my childhood hometown. This is a situation that would quite likely never happen again in my life (though we now know the race is going back to Milwaukee next year, and that I probably already met qualification).

Had this just been a target Olympic distance race, I’d have pulled the plug and found another race to build back up and taper for once the foot healed up. But this was a very different, very special situation.

This level of “worth it” might be different for everybody. Maybe it’s your only shot at running the New York Marathon, maybe it’s your final championship NCAA race, maybe you are racing with a dying relative, maybe it’s meaningful to you in some way that you can’t explain to anybody else. But the common thread in the decision HAS to be that you fully understand the potential consequences, and that you are willing to accept them WITHOUT whining about it after the fact.

This is why you won’t see me complaining about 2+ hour pool runs or races I might be missing this fall – I made my bed, time to lie in it. It had nothing to do with proving how tough I was, and everything to do with taking advantage of an experience that I thought I might never get again. I don’t regret it, but won’t hesitate to pull out of another race in the future if I’m injured. It’s highly unlikely I’ll find something so special in a race again.


  1. I think I told you before but my cross country coach said: If the race is worth further injuring yourself and setting yourself back more...then go for it.

    For you it was a once in a life time opportunity and yes you are more injured now...but you will heal. You said everything so wisely and smart. I'm sending you the healing vibes. Good thing there are lots of star and magic emojis...Is there a foot? I'll have to check.

  2. This is a great post. And your reasons for racing are valid. Sending you major healing vibes and hoping you can push all the watts soon!

  3. Crap, I'm sorry for adding to the chorus of injury-promoting idiots. I guess I just know how painful stress fractures are and how much mental strength it takes to run through that pain...I didn't mean to advocate such behaviour by implication.

    I agree that it takes a lot of strength to miss a race too...I should know about that since I'm a slave to my brain and I feel compelled to at least attempt races despite being in a terrible state of injury. And I moan about the consequences, so really I'm the worst kind of person in that respect.

    I'm glad your races were indeed worth it for you though, and really you had no concrete way of knowing that your foot would end up with a fracture. It was bad luck at the end of the day, and I'll join Hollie in sending over healing vibes. I don't think I quite understand how to do emojis though!


  4. I will echo the other injury running folks. I ran the Ragnar with acl/meniscus tear. Stupid? Yes. Couldn't let the team down though.

    1. In all fairness, my doc thought it was just patella femoral syndrome, told me to go to PT and didn't tell me to stop running. Didn't even get an MRI for another month. :-/

  5. 1) That sucks. Hope it heals quickly!
    2) Glad that you own it and are willing to let it recover. People who ignore doctors and keep running/whatevering on injuries give me the rage. I probably would have done the same thing because NATIONALS woo. Congrats on a couple of really fast races on a broken foot!