How to Recover Quickly from a Running Injury

I was running in the Norfolk Freedom Half-Marathon. A few miles in, something felt wrong in my left knee, as though my left leg had suddenly grown a half-inch or so. Soon it became worse, with an internal “clicking” or “catching” sensation in my knee. By mile nine, I was reduced to mostly walking. I finished in pain, wishing I had been smarter and dropped out when I realized something was wrong.

The next day, I saw a sports physician who informed me I had a torn meniscus, cheerfully handing me a depressing pamphlet on meniscus surgery. He prescribed a painkiller and a month of physical therapy visits, and a follow-up visit for possible surgery. I had some dark thoughts before I was able to begin therapy … would I need surgery? would I be able to run again as well as I had before? Or would I become one of the many people I’ve met who shake their head sadly and say “Yeah, I used to run, but then my knees gave out…”

My fears were allayed as soon as I began therapy. My PT told me that he also has a torn meniscus, and that surgery didn’t help him but he was going to show me what did.

Over the next four weeks I had nine sessions of physical therapy, doing exercises designed to strengthen my muscles and align my joints properly. I learned a quad press to provide quick pain relief after the knee has been stretched. I learned the world’s greatest stretch for warming up which is widely known as—wait for it—“The World’s Greatest Stretch”. And I learned that I had to get out and start run/walking again with very gentle paces at first, gradually working up to my previous level.

The results were amazing. One month later, and I am back on my marathon training schedule. I’ve already nearly equaled my previous best Cooper test, and I’m doing speedwork better than ever before. I’ve also acquired valuable skill and knowledge in self-care and injury prevention and recovery.

What should you do if you become injured?

1. Don’t panic. Sports medicine has come a long, long way. Very few people should ever need to say goodbye to running due to knee injuries. Physical therapy can assist with a tremendously wide variety injuries, and when surgery is truly necessary, it can help in most other cases.

2. Get qualified help as soon as possible. Don’t wait, don’t be a “hero” (a fool) and continue to work out knowing that something is seriously wrong, without knowing what it is or how to cure it. Also be aware that sports injury and rehabilitation is not your family physician’s field of expertise. “Qualified help” in this case means an expert in the kind of injury you suffered.

3. Take charge of your recovery. “Hire” the therapist or other sports-injury expert to guide you in rebuilding your body to health and fitness. Many people take a passive role as “patient” in the healing process, and most health-care providers are accustomed to that. Don’t be passive. Break the pattern. Actively engage the expert you’ve hired in how to get back to doing what you want to be doing, as quickly and safely as possible.

4. Follow the treatment. Don’t slack. If you have a concern about the appropriateness of a specific movement or exercise, or if it causes unexpected pain, ask about it. But your recovery time is not “rest time,” but time to devote yourself fully to task of repairing your body.

5. Ask questions. Communicate. Ask your therapist for what exercises you can do at home to assist with the healing process. When is appropriate for you to begin training again, and at what level of intensity? Ask for what you can do after the therapy ends to continue to improve. Ask what exercises will help prevent future injuries.

6. Make the new routines part of your overall training. Some may be appropriate for warmup/cooldown exercises, while others might be better at other times. But the important thing is to continue with the exercises that help you as long as you benefit from them, which in some cases, may be the rest of your life.

7. Expect the best. Eat right. Gradually increase your activity level. Go forward, slowly and cautiously. Listen carefully to your recovering body.