Recovering from Injury - the Road Back

December 13, 2016

Mike Ricci


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In the fall of 2013, I wrapped up my 25th season of racing triathlon and over the course of those 25 years, I can only remember one stretch of time, in 1995, that I was injured and unable to run. I’ve taken time off from running when I was healthy, for various reasons (simply taking a break, or focusing on another goal at the time). However, I’ve never had a running injury so severe it stopped me in my tracks, until this spring. I’ve had a history of calf issues in my lifetime, usually a pull or a knot that I can recognize pretty quickly and alleviate with a short week or two of rest. As things would go, this spring I pulled my calf severely and wasn’t able to run consistently for 6 months. I could hobble through a few miles of 9 or 10 minute pace, but it wasn’t fun or easy and I thought about just not running for a month, or 6, or even a year. My mood was always determined by how bad I felt running, and running is something I LOVE to do. As I’ve told my wife countless times over the last few months, “I love to swim and I love to bike, but I can live without both. I can’t live without running. I’m just miserable when I can’t run”. Her reply was “I’ve noticed”.

When I was first injured, I tried some ART (Active Release Technique) and I was able to get my calf loose enough to run for a day or two, but it wouldn’t stay healthy. Meanwhile, I continued to swim and bike, some days with passion and other days, going through the motions, not knowing if I’d be racing in 6 weeks or 6 months. My emotions would swing from ‘Yeah, I was able to run almost pain free today’ to ‘If I have to hobble through another run then I’m going to quit running for a year’. I’d go from feeling good to terrible within minutes. It was pretty unbearable. Of course this trickles down into the rest of your life too – your spouse, your work, your kids – no one getting your 100% attention, because all you can think about is, ‘How long do I have to endure not being able to do what I love?’.

When the injury first occurred, I had some deep tissue massage done on my calf as well – and it seemed to help – temporarily. Needing a permanent fix on an old problem, I spoke with Dr. Martina Young of Altitude Physical Therapy. Dr. Young, is not only a Dr. of Physical Therapy, but also a triathlon coach (for D3! Coach Martina Young), and she’s certified in dry needling as well. While I’m not a fan of needles in general, she asked me to give dry needling a try. I had heard great things about it, so I figured I had to give it a shot!

I’ve had acupuncture in the past for vertigo, so I decided I’d give this a try. We worked on my calf once a week for a few weeks, and it was definitely better. But, I would slip into the old hobbling after 30 minutes of ‘not really running, running’, and then the next day be completely convinced I’d never run again. You see for someone who never gets injured, it’s even worse because they don’t know how to deal with all of the rehab.

By the end of June, after more regular needling sessions, I had a little breakthrough. I was running 4 times per week and feeling a little like my old self. I even jumped on the track and did a speed session once a week for 3 consecutive weeks. Unfortunately, the trouble returned when I tried to do 3 hard sessions in 4 days. I keep forgetting I’m not 25 or even 35 any longer and my body needs more rest than I’d like to give it! More needling sessions.

A little later into the summer, I was in Arizona, and decided I would run a track workout on a Thursday, and it went well. I didn’t push the pace and my legs felt fine. The next morning I started out on an 8 mile run, only to realize I could run to the top of Camelback Mountain in the same amount of time. So that’s what I did! I felt great and then to top the week off I raced an Olympic distance race on Sunday. My legs were trashed from the ‘normal’ week of running and by the time I got to the run, I was shuffling along. My pace was falling off as I was approaching the halfway point of the run, but my calf was holding together. I was really encouraged even though my run was just a quick ‘jog’. After a turn around at the bottom of a hill on the course, I felt a slight twinge in my calf and literally shuffled in. Ugh! Another setback, and I knew the Boulder Peak Tri (which was two weeks away) was out, and most likely any racing for the remainder of this year. I was back to “I’ll never be healthy again”. Up and down went my emotions!

I talked to Dr. Young and realized that seeing her once per week was good, but we hit a plateau and I assumed that I REALLY wouldn’t run for a year. I felt defeated thinking my race season was over in June, and there wasn’t a foreseeable way for me to get healthy, at least that I could figure out. As someone who’s been basically bulletproof over the course of his athletic career – and this goes back to playing baseball at 9 or 10 years old – it’s quite a punch in the gut when you can’t train like you want to, never mind race at the level you are used to. And I mean that on a personal level, not how I fare against others when I race. My goals are simple when I race – push the swim as hard as I can and come out near the front, pace the bike smartly in order to set up my run, which has been my strength my entire triathlon career. When I stay healthy and can run consistently, I’m happy with my results. When I can’t run consistently, I’m just a miserable person who isn’t fun to be around (once again, ask my bride of 12 years!).

Dr. Young made a suggestion that we try dry needling 2x a week for 4 weeks. I booked 5 weeks of appointments by mistake, but that was actually a good thing. We were going to get this injury put to bed once and for all. The first week was pretty painful as dry needling involves pin pointing the trigger spot and then wiggling the needle on that spot. It’s painful but only when you feel the jolt of electricity go through your body. And yes, I’ve had the needle in my hamstring and could feel a shock to my little toe. That wasn’t pleasant, but sometimes you have to go through hell to feel better. I’m ok with that, although I probably whined a little bit too much. My favorite appointment was when I was standing up leaning against the wall, face first and Dr. Young needled my hamstring and then my calf. My second favorite session was when she put 4 or 5 needles on the trigger points and used the electric-stim to send currents between the muscles. Good times (not)!

During the time I was getting the needling done I continued to run, and each week I increased the mileage, but kept the frequency the same at 5x per week. My 5 runs were as follows: an easy run Tues., then a short quick 15 minute run after dry needling. Then, I’d run again on Thursday, easy, and the same thing for Saturday and Sunday. The longer run was on Saturday and my ‘long’ run started at 50 minutes and really, no more than 5 miles. By week 3 my long run had progressed to 70 minutes, and I was up to 20+ miles a week. I also added in some of the safest intensity sessions that I know of: hill repeats. I started with 2x 2 minutes for the first week and then built those sessions up to 12×2 minutes. I’m not going to lie, in the back of my mind was the thought that the calf pull would be back. I think I proved myself wrong with the hill repeats and finally over came my dreaded fear of another pull.

All in all, I’ve been healthy for a few weeks now and I’m running around 28-32 miles a week, at a normal training pace for me again – 8:00-8:20 pace. My tempo runs are coming along slowly but surely, and my body is bouncing back with each workout. I even found myself at the start line of the SOMA in Arizona a couple of weekends ago, and it felt good! I was reunited with the sport I love, and my season while short, produced the mojo that I craved.

My take-aways from an injury, and for which I hope you’ll find valuable are:

Seek guidance from a physical therapist and don’t be afraid to try new techniques (and find a new professional if you aren’t getting results).

An injury can put you through the mental ringer. To deal with that roller coaster, talk to friends who have been through injuries. Talk to a coach. Don’t stay up on the ledge by yourself. It’s not fun. I know!

Don’t make assumptions about your race season, but make modifications in your expectations. Yes, I wasn’t able to have my best race season this year, but I had ‘a season’ and that was much better than nothing.

Mike Ricci is a USAT Level III Certified Coach and the USAT National Coach of the Year. He is a father, husband, business owner, brother and friend, and just like you, he gets injuries. He learns from the situation, and implements new strategies with the athletes he coaches. To learn more about how Coach Mike can help you balance your training with injury and responsibility, click the link below.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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