”God, my legs are killing me.”
I was at Mile 5 of the Philadelphia Marathon, but it felt like Mile 25. Every step felt like a vise was squeezing my thighs. I slowed to a crawl, then a walk. Luckily that year, the Philadelphia Marathon allowed competitors to cut from the course at the half way point if they weren’t feeling it that day. By Mile 7, I knew I was feeling something, and it wasn’t good. I gritted my teeth and walked, hobbled, then ran the last 200 yards to the half marathon finish to spare my pride.
Good gravy! What happened?
I had been running competitively since Junior High all the way through college and beyond but had never experienced this type of pain. I had run an excellent 20 mile speed workout just a month prior: 20 miles starting at 30 seconds over marathon pace then slowly advancing to 30 seconds under marathon pace, taking a break every 2 miles. Excitement took over as I felt great! I was going to slay this race! But here I was barely able to make it half way.
Overtraining. That was it.
I was in my late 40’s and no longer gliding along at a 5:20 mile pace on long runs when I was a 19 year old college runner. I had to moderate my workouts, give myself more rest, provide for more recovery. An athlete never wants to hear that they’re getting older, that they need to slow it down, but my legs were saying otherwise.
I had just started the Pittsburgh Fitness Project (or PFP, as we now like to abbreviate) with my personal trainer, Tom Duer. We had envisioned our fitness business as a place where we could help people not only get in shape but also meet their recovery and wellness needs by providing a full range of services including nutritional advice, massage therapy and personal training.
I now needed to live what I preached!
My workouts were modified. I got massages. Proper hydration became a priority. I stretched more often. The Pittsburgh Half Marathon was in the spring. I was ready to rock this race. I started out with a friend at a moderate pace, planning to build and then take off. But again, my legs started failing fast. Just like the Philly Marathon, my thighs were hurting about 5 miles into the race. The pain became excruciating by Mile 6. I stopped and took a short cut across the Smithfield Street Bridge to meet my friend at the finish.
What the heck?! Something still wasn’t right.
I spoke with my work colleague. I’m also a pediatrician so we had two knowledgable MD heads to put together. Compartment syndrome? My fascia, the thick layer of tissue surrounding our muscles, was scarred and compressing my quadricep muscles? I had been running for 35+ years, so maybe. I went to a sports medicine specialist who noted that my thighs and hips were weak. As a result, I went to a wonderful physical therapist who noted weak glutes and hips and gave me exercises to strengthen both. But she didn’t feel it would account for my thigh pain with running.
She was right.
Runs were no longer “highs” but exercises in pain. Could I do this anymore?
My collegue jokingly said, “Well, maybe you’re just getting old.” Well, yeah, but I refused to believe that was the primary issue. A trip to my own doctor to check for evidence of systemic muscle inflammation was normal. Made sense since the primary issue was my thighs and not generalized soreness or weakness. Around the same time, a friend started doing Functional Medicine and an evaluation with him to look for dietary triggers got me started on a new track. An elimination diet made me realize that alcohol might be a factor.
After a few weeks of abstinence, I added alcohol back in to my routine, The next morning after just a few drinks the previous evening, I felt like I had run into a truck. Looking back though, it was probably dehydration-related. And the pain was still a problem.
Still no answers. Frustration had set in.
I began to consider the structural issues at play. The breakthrough came when we hired a new trainer, Jake Boyer, at the Pittsburgh Fitness Project. He was also a previous collegiate runner and did some coaching. He was young and fast. Could he help? A running evaluation showed over striding- a common runner’s flaw. I needed to pick up my knees then push off using those previously weak glutes and hips to drive me forward instead of using my thighs.
It finally came together: A while back, I started having hip discomfort which over many years lead to piriformis pain. (The piriformis is a muscle deep in the buttocks) I had modified my running gait to alleviate the pain and began using my thighs to drive my runs instead of my injured hips. As a result, my hips and glutes became tight and weak.
Eureka! The answer!
Tom gave me more exercises to strengthen and increase the mobility of my hips and glutes. Jake continued working on reminding me how to correct my gait and to do running exercises to activate the correct muscles before a run. All that combined with help from a wonderful massage therapist here at PFP, and I’ve gone back to pain free running! I’ve had some running success: An age group win for the Swissvale Mile on a tough course. I’ve had some failures. A last place finish at an open track meet in the summer. (A look at a photo from the race showed a return to pre-recovery form: not picking up my knees to generate power)
I’m 51 now. If a busy work schedule limits my activity, I have to be careful not to reactivate my old hip discomfort. I still need to work out, stretch, get massages, eat healthy. But now I know the answer to my running and recovery story. My Pittsburgh Fitness Project home had led the way.