Monday, 7 September 2009

Surviving the Aging Body's "Tectonic Shifts"

Somewhat like the planet on which we live, the substructures our bodies are constantly shifting and changing, in spite of the day-to-day surface appearance of stability and fixity. And, as with the plant, these shifts can have fairly sudden and dramatic consequences. The aging/maturing process is sometimes punctuated by a coalescence of changes in our body's basic balance of strengths, tensions and angles which can temporarily overwhelm its capacity to adapt, resulting in the fairly sudden onset of pain and dysfunction. I suspect this is true of all aging/maturing bodies; but, in the trained body, these "tectonic shifts" are bound to be a little more complicated, both because they are influenced by the training process itself, which is actually designed to promote such shifts in some form, and because of the degree of disruption they can cause for their owner. When runners experience these shifts, they can feel like victims of a body snatching; a fairly predictable and reliable vessel can feel suddenly transformed into something wholly unfamiliar. In fact, runners in the throes of such transformations will often report feeling like they are "in someone else's body". Sometimes, of course, this can be a positive experience, such as when our bodies suddenly become better able to do what we want them to. More often, though, such sudden shifts are for the worse, rendering us suddenly unable to do what we have always been able to.

In my own athletic life, I have gone through several rearrangements of my bodily "geography", with the most sudden and disruptive of which occurring after the age of 35.

In the early phase of my athletic life, most of my bodily changes were of the slow and adaptive kind, although I do recall moments of sudden awareness that my body could do things it could not only months before. My first major disruptive shift, however, occurred when I was 16, and resulted in my first real injury-- a bout of the dreaded Ilio-Tibial Band Syndrome. I had just undergone a period of fairly rapid growth, which I'd managed to train through without incident. Then, after a couple of weeks of feeling tight in the quadriceps, I experienced a sudden and very sharp pain on the lateral side of my left knee. Baffled, I struggled through a couple of painful 15 minute jogs before giving up and allowing the condition to run its course. Three weeks later, and with little or no therapy besides icing, I was able to return to my normal running schedule. I did not feel so much as a twinge in this area until more than 30 years later.

My next physical "earthquake" occurred in my 27th year. A decade of higher running volume associated with my shift from the middle to the longer distances had left me with a body somewhat weaker and tighter in what were later to become popularly known as the "core" muscles-- those that stabilize the low back and pelvis. In an era before Pilates, Yoga and instability boards, most runner's strength work consisted of some basic upper-body lifts and some sit-ups or crunches, if that, and only the odd middle distance runner did any lower body work at all. As a result, those of us on high mileage programs tended to be at greater risk for low back, hamstring and other related problems, particularly as we aged. Thus I was to develop a sudden and very stubborn injury to my left hip-- a complex and undiagnosed dysfunctionality that caused diffuse pain and tightness in the entire area. After struggling with this problem for the better part of 4 months, during which I was slowing groping toward the kind of solution that I would, years later, discover to be the most effective approach to this kind of ailment, I was eventually able to resume a full schedule of racing and training. In the end, however, I felt as though I had not so much cured the problem as developed a new balance of strengths and tensions-- a new basic "geography" in my body that subtly allowed me to bear the load of my training elsewhere. I may not have looked much different to the outside observer, but I felt suddenly and permanently different inside.

My internal plates where to undergo one last major shift-- this time under the weight of my marathon preparations-- some 10 years later. Once again, a gradual tightness in the low back and hips erupted into sharp pain in the low back and upper hamstrings one early winter day while doing intervals on the gently sloping section of Toronto's famed Beltline Trail. I was still able to run, although my stride became much shorter and tighter for a few weeks after that, and, in fact, would never return to its full length and fluidity again, even though I would go on to record a few decent results, including a 1:04:42 Half Marathon and a 2:17 marathon, in the months that followed. A year after this shift, I would be deep in the throes of the back problems that would effectively end my open running career. In the 3 years between my marathon and my entry into the masters ranks, I would work hard on my core strength and stability, such that I would eventually become able to run (not to mention sleep and put my socks on!) without constant pain and discomfort; but, my body would never be the same as it had been. Once again, the lay of my bodily land had changed and I had merely learned to adapt and adjust.

In the 9-10 years since this last shift, I have live through several smaller "aftershocks", including another bout or ITBS and, just this past year, a very chronic and painful hip/hamstring/knee problem, similar to the one that afflicted me 20 years ago. I have attacked these problems with all of the new modalities I have learned about since developing my back problem-- especially eccentric loading of the affected area, which seems to mimic "active release therapy" in its effects. While I think I have now worked through this latest problem effectively, again, I do not feel as though as I have so much "cured" it as learned to move subtly differently in order to carry my running load in a more sustainable way, given the realities of my aging body. I thus now appear to be now moving into yet another period of relative "tectonic stability"-- I am now a little more like the Canadian Shield than, say, the San Andreas Fault!; but, I fully expect more, and probably more frequent, quakes as I continue running through my 40s and 50s.

What is my advice for negotiating and surviving these shifts? First of all, in certain instances, it's not possible to work through them. The onset of serious osteo-arthritis, for instance, can spell the end of our running days (although reliable research now indicates that instances of this problem are actually less common in serious runners than in the general population). Such conditions are relatively rare, however, and all too often, runners, and older runners in particular, will simply give up in the face of a seemingly intractable problem (how many times have you had a conversation with an ex-runner that began with the phrase "I used to run, but...[insert chronic injury problem]). My experience as an athlete and coach have taught me that even the most stubborn problems can be overcomes with persistence, patience, and ingenuity. As one of my favourite sports therapists (Greg Lehman, MSc, DC)once put it, "the body is not stupid, it is smart", by which he meant that, given the opportunity and sufficient time, it will solve most problems on its own, and all the better if we can figure out best how to help it along. We may end up with slightly different body at the end of the process than we had a the beginning, but our bodies can usually adapt to their own aging process as well as to the demands we make of them-- albeit within limits, of course.

At the age of 46, I'm thankful that I did not give up in the face of any of my body's big realignments. It would have been very easy to do so at the time, and many of my friends and competitors did just that, leaving the sport years before they would have preferred, and depriving themselves of much subsequent joy and fulfillment-- to say nothing of some fantastic physical, psychological and emotional side benefits. With each of these challenges, I have had the feeling that "this may be it", that I might never be able to run as well again, or without pain. Each time, however, I have fought back until, gradually, my body has regained its equilibrium and begun to move again in something approaching its old familiar way.

Finally, an omission from last week's post: Below is a link to Dylan Wykes new site, which will offer, among other things, more of the great blogging for which he is becoming known!

D. Wykes Page


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