How To Go From Zero to 5K After an Injury

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Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

“That’s perfect!”

That was the last thing that went through my head before my life was upended.

In the time it will take to read this sentence, I had gone from having a great game, to blowing out my knee.

This is the story of my road back, and how it can help you.

I am part of a local pickup soccer group. We have a long-standing weekly game. We’ve played for long enough now that many of our kids are now old enough to join us.

On this night, my team worked the ball out of our end, beat a few defenders, and were on a breakaway towards the goal. One of my teammates sent a beautiful pass across the field to me. It came across my body from the right and onto my left instep. Running full speed, I did the only thing I could do and took the shot…

… and then I was on the ground, pounding my fist into the turf. As I struck the ball, my right shoe caught in the turf, my right knee bending completely inward. That hurt, but my foot hurt worse. I’d learn later that I had also fractured my foot in multiple spots on the way down.

I managed to get off the field and get to my car. Fueled on adrenaline, I somehow got home, where my wife helped my get my shoe off. It looked bad and felt worse.

I saw a specialist the next day, and they tentatively diagnosed a sprained MCL. It was still too swollen to see if it was torn or not, so I was fitted for a Bledsoe Brace and sent home to wait for my MRI.

Waiting became almost unbearable. The pain had ebbed a little, but I didn’t know exactly what I’d done. And without knowing what was wrong, I couldn’t start working to fix it. I’m impatient on a good day. Having nothing to do but wait was its own kind of hell.

Three weeks later, I got my results. My MCL wasn’t torn, (good news!), but I had a severe sprain (ok). I also had a completely torn ACL (wait, what?!), and it apparently had been that way for a while.

Convinced they’d sent me someone else’s results, I called back. They assured me that they were correct, and I went from mildly annoyed at being in limbo to scared.

Would I ever get to play again? What would life look like if I couldn’t? Soccer wasn’t just a game I loved, it was also the nexus most of my social life was built around. Picturing a life without it was tough to take.

I realized that some things were out of my control, but that if I was going to be kept off the field, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

My rehab plan was built around NOT repairing my ACL — given that I had been without it for some time, we would instead focus on the surrounding muscles to cope.

My first exercises focused simply on regaining strength-it’s amazing how fast everything atrophies. Leg bridges, walkouts, and more filled my days. Later, I progressed to lateral movements, and working with resistance bands. There was also a horrible attempt at getting back on a treadmill. I tried to tell myself it was progress, but really it was just a dumb move on my part, and about 90 days too soon.

At the 4 month mark, my therapist and I decided I was ready to try and run. I started small. 1 minute on, 4 minutes off. Repeat three times. Seemed simple enough but was anything but. Still, I kept going. Thanks to COVID restrictions, we had shifted to tele-visits, with my son filming me running up/down the street so she could see my form.

All seemed okay, and I got the greenlight to keep pushing. Our visits ended, with her wishing me well, but also leaving my case open for 90 days- a lifeline, just in case.

At this point, I’d hit a crossroad. I was “healed,” but not better. I needed a simple path forward, something that would let me focus my energy on getting better. Below are the steps I used to get on track.

1. Have a plan that removes friction.

I would try and run, but it was inconsistent, and I didn’t have much of a routine. What I needed was consistency, and a clear plan that did not involve a lot of thinking.

Hal Higdon. By total chance, I saw his training programs in a newsletter I get, and decided to check it out. The 5k “novice” was just what I needed. The program’s secret weapon is that it removes the friction of decision. Each day has a specific training; some days you run, some days, you walk/run, and 1 day a week you rest.

Your only job is to look at what day you’re on, and do whatever it says to do. That’s it.

2. Use small steps to build a streak.

You may have heard of the “Seinfeld Strategy” before, where the comedian talks about the power of building a streak, and how seeing visual proof of that streak builds momentum.

After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
— Jerry Seinfeld

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Actual sheet I used. Photo courtesy of author

The first week went as expected. When I hit a mile-and-a-half, I yelled. Completing 2-miles felt like winning a gold medal. As they days roll on, it’s important to celebrate each new win, in whatever form that may take for you.

Real progress happens when you focus on more on “finish” and less on “fast.”

3. Support will come from places you least expect.

I have been floored by how supportive the running community has been. Many may have simply been passing along a kind word. Some were likely paying forward the support they’d received.

All played a role in my recovery.

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Screenshot courtesy of Twitter

From comments here on Medium, to encouragement at the gym, to tweets from people I’d never met, the support was invaluable.

If you’re in the same spot I was in, my advice is simple: when you see support, grab it. When it’s your turn, give it freely.

4. Come for the rehab, stay for the mental clarity.

When I started to run, I had a reasonable idea of what to expect physically. I knew I’d be sore, get winded a lot, and that persistence would beget endurance.

What I never saw coming were the psychic benefits. I’m much calmer on days that I run. I feel that I’m on a much more even keel than I was when I first put my shoes on.
With my mind free to run (no pun intended), all kinds of ideas spring up. I wrote much of this article while jogging. I won’t dare to try and explain the neuroscience behind it, but can tell you I feel amazing. To be able to say that in a year like this is something.

I’m still running and have almost completed another 8 week cycle. My times are still terrible, and I sweat way too much, but I don’t care. The feeling of accomplishment outweighs both of those.

It will be there for you too.

Summing Up:

  • Find a plan that removes friction/decision making
  • Use small steps to build a streak- focus on finishing, not how fast you can run.
  • Use your streaks to build momentum.
  • Support may come from where you’d least expect- when you see it, take it with gratitude.
  • Return the same support back next time you can.
  • The mental benefits will rival the physical ones.

2 thoughts on “How To Go From Zero to 5K After an Injury

  1. What a great post. As someone who’s just torn his abdominal wall, I do find myself discouraged to get back on the exercise train, but like you mentioned, small steps really do help me a lot. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for reading! I had to learn to be patient with myself (still a work in progress) and keep things in perspective. Small steps build momentum. Best of luck with your recovery!

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