Apparently trail races have become somewhat of a theme for me this year so far. In some ways, this is not a bad thing. What better way to break up the usual road race routine than to get out in nature and run through the woods for a little while? Plus, the ground is softer and is supposedly better for your joints. A win-win situation.
Though all of this is true, part of the issue for me when it comes to trail running, which became abundantly clear to me in Delaware back in March, is that my usual training routine is grossly inadequate. Add on top of that an ankle injury that still isn’t 100% healed, and trail racing becomes an exercise in mere survival. When it comes to training, though I try to throw in some hill sprints and stretches of beach running to break up the monotony of running through the flat, concrete jungle of Chicago (lovely as it is in its own way), the reality is that I’ve yet to find a good way to train for the particular set of challenges posed by trail racing. There just doesn’t seem to be a substitute for practicing the kind of footwork needed to navigate a rocky, root-littered wooded trail, or a substitute for steep uphill (and downhill!) stretches, at least that I’ve found.
For my Alabama race, the Trussville Trail Run 6K (that is not a typo, it was actually a 6K), it wasn’t really the distance or the hilliness of the trail that got to me, though. In that respect, despite the humidity and somewhat slippery trail conditions, the race was completely manageable, even despite the race director’s admonitions that the previous day’s rain had rendered the rockier sections of the trail “slick as a snot-covered doorknob.” I took the warning to heart, and ran a good 2 minutes per mile slower than I might have expected otherwise. At that pace, distance and hills hardly felt like an issue in and of themselves.
Unfortunately, slowing down and proceeding with caution still didn’t help me too much in terms of my ankle issues on the more uneven parts of the trail, and no matter what I did, I felt like I kept landing funny on it. Though it didn’t stop me from running (save for the final time it happened and I walked for a short stretch to avoid aggravating it any further), I felt as if landing on it wrong one more time would result in a nasty sprain, or worse. Mostly my ankle just didn’t feel stable, and I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as the race went on. I couldn’t really get into a groove, and though I finished more or less uninjured, I ended up taking two weeks off from running afterwards in the hopes of letting everything settle.
Long story short, that’s where I’ve been since checking Alabama off the list. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve continued walking (sometimes absurdly long distances, thanks to the encouragement and conversational abilities of a very good friend from work). I’ve also kept up with foam rolling, tennis ball massaging, and my PT exercises. I learned following the race that at least part of why I had so much trouble out on the trail was because (fun fact!) once a sprain or tendon injury heals, it messes with your proprioception, i.e., your perception of where your body is in space, making it extremely easy to re-injure yourself. So, I’ve added some moving balance exercises to help with that. As the cherry on top, my aforementioned work friend challenged me to a 30-day “Squat Challenge,” progressing from 20-150 squats per day, so I think I’ve covered all of my bases in terms of continuing to build my leg strength and balance back up.
The good news is that it all seems to be helping. Today I ran in the local YWCA Race Against Hate, and though I can’t say I’ve yet achieved painlessness, I definitely felt better after finishing today than I did after the Alabama race. I also managed to run under 30 minutes for the 5K despite the heat and humidity this morning, so a win all around! My hope is that by the end of the month, if I continue with my self-massage and PT exercise routine, my ankle will be significantly less cranky. Given the last few weeks, I may avoid trail races at least for the remainder of this year, but hopefully, given enough time, I will be back out there to give it another go!