The painful reality of being an ultra runner

One of the hardest things about being a long distance runner is that more often than not you don’t feel too special. Mornings begin with sore feet and Achilles and a slow shuffle around the house. A bit of knee pain makes stairs seem like a mountain trail and then there’s the stiff back and hamstrings making the simple task of tying up your shoelaces a major effort. Throw in some chaffing and you’ve got a world of suffering….and all that’s just the start of the day!

As the hours pass you warm up a little. The tightness largely disappears, the soreness reduces and you feel pretty human. Then you get up from the office chair to grab your lunch. All of a sudden you’re reminded of your mortality. A loud groan makes co-workers heads turn and ask “Are you alright? Aren’t you meant to be fit and healthy?” The sad reality is, you sure are in great shape but it comes at a cost. Not so much when you’re a young buck. When in your youth it seems as though you can beat the crap out of yourself and bounce back 12 hours later. But once you’re beyond your youth and into your 30’s suddenly your body takes a whole lot longer to recover and a busy life starts to get in the way of the recovery process. I’ve found this phenomena also occurs with alcohol consumption.

So what do you do to survive the daily grind? My approach is to accept that sometimes pain isn’t injury, it’s simply getting old. Knowing the difference between the two is difficult. I gauge it by how long new pain hangs around, how it comes on and how much it impedes performance. If a new sore spot appears as a result of a fall or an awkward movement, and it hangs around for more than a week, I call it an injury and have a few days off to let it settle before testing it again. If a sore bit makes me run too wonky or doesn’t warm up very well, I’ll address it with a visit to the physio or other medical professional like Google. For the most part, even if I keep running, 95% of the time the pain disappears after a week or so. That said, the morning grind never subsides. The lesson here is that not every bit of pain is an injury. Once you’re experienced and understand your body well, to a certain extent you can work out the difference between the two. I do this on a daily basis and push through most ‘soreness’ because if I didn’t, I would barely run a stride again.

Another way to address the getting old factor is to be more disciplined. I’m not at all good at this. Recovery work, rehab, prehab, healthy eating, sleep, massage – they’re all foreign to me! It’s a strange thing to consider that an ultra runner can be too lazy to do the easy stuff. However if you have the time and are motivated, then by using the aforementioned elements on a regular basis you can largely manage the declining recovery rates. Have a light stretch and do some prehab exercises before training. Eat well, drink plenty of water and have lots of sleep where possible. Chuck in a fortnightly massage and you’re well on ya way to being pain free – well at least you’ll be able to walk down the stirs a little quicker of a morning.

By Dave Byrne