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Burning Runner: Rising From The Ashes Of Injury

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published Jan. 5, 2011
  • Updated Jan. 5, 2011 at 4:26 PM UTC

Kelly Starrett is the physical therapist helping put Burning Runner back together again.

The more I looked into Crossfit the more interested I became, the more I couldn’t help but wonder if it could save me. This was all before the most recent injury. Even without the injury I felt myself gravitating to try it—the main reason being that despite 50 to 60 miles a week over the last year, I had hit some sort of ceiling. I just couldn’t run any faster. It was talking with another triathlete who had converted to Crossfit, Brittany Rutter, who embraced CrossFit Endurance after a long stale period in which all of her high-volume work was netting little in the way of improvement.

As much as I have been one of the most stubborn traditionalists when it comes to training for distance running—my early success in the 1990s came from standard Lydiard-style training programs—it would be a joke to not admit that what I’ve been doing the last 10 years has not worked out very well, the punctuation mark being the knee injury that killed my 2010 half-marathon goal five weeks before the starting gun.

The protest to the shift has been proffered by several of my running buddies: You’re going to get hurt doing this Crossfit thing. I had this concern as well. But then I thought: Hell, I’ve been getting hurt every year NOT doing it, right in line with ASCM’s stats about how most runners get hurt every year. What’s that saying about insanity and doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? The possibility that Crossfit Endurance could help me prevent injury and increase performance deserved at least an honest try.

Talking with Brian MacKenzie, I basically said, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” When later I was looking at the Crossfit.com Journal I found a video of Brian teaching at a seminar. He talked about how many runners have come to Crossfit Endurance because they’re exhausted of being broken down. I was one of those guys.

First thing Brian did was recommend that I see Kelly Starrett in San Francisco. Starrett has a doctorate in physical therapy and with his wife owns and operates Crossfit San Francisco. He also has established a global following via a daily (and highly entertaining) video reel on mobility called “The Mobility Work-Out of the Day”– http://mobilitywod.blogspot.com.  Starrett has recently been working with a  number of world-class cyclists, including Levi Leipheimer, and before we started any form of training, MacKenzie wanted him to evaluate my situation.

On December 15 there I was in San Francisco, still limping like a dysfunctional robot, creeping my way across the broad truck lot behind the Sports Basement in the city’s famed Presidio, toward Crossfit San Francisco. To be honest, for many years I’ve become pessimistic about physical therapy—countless times I went into various offices, got the blast of ultrasound, muscle stim and stretching advice—and rarely achieved any results. Starrett’s approach is radically different within the realm of my experience. Rather than investigating the specifics of the injury itself, he approaches you as a whole-body problem to be addressed and solved, dwelling on the health of your movement and seeking out deep-seated problems that need to be shoveled into. Rather than asking me where the pain was, he had me perform a simple squat exercise—in seeing how I moved through the exercise he began to get an idea about how limits in my mobility and range of motion were poisoning my running. He talked at length about the genius of the human body to figure out ways around long-lasting problems—in my case a major knee surgery that occurred when I was a teenager playing football. And what had happened to me, Starrett postulated, was that my knee could no longer handle the punishing stress I flowed through it each and every time I forced it through a distance run. I was at the brink, he said, and perhaps on my way to a knee or hip replacement.

He then gave me homework—two of his mobility exercises along with the following advice—hydrate well, take fish oil supplements, do the mobility work daily, and start taking glucosamine to help loosen up the joints. He had me do the mobility routine and, I’ll be damned if I didn’t walk out of San Francisco Crossfit without a limp. I had limped each and every day for six weeks and I haven’t since meeting with Starrett.

And I’ve since become a mobility addict, reading about it, learning about how the body functions, and watching every Kelly Starrett video I can find on Crossfit.com. I also purchased a Trigger Point Performance Therapy kit (www.tptherapy.com) after seeing some of the items in the background of the videos. Do you want to work you hip flexor or IT bands? Get it. It’s incredible. Not to mention incredibly painful. But you can feel the looseness seep into the areas you work.

It’s just been a few weeks now but I’m stunned to be getting out of bed in the morning, not stiff, not beat up, not limping around. I can’t remember that ever happening. I doubt I was 20 years old. Starrett told me that age is not the barrier to mobility and to trash that conclusion, and then he talks about his 65-year-old aunt who reels off Ironman triathlons like games of bingo.

There’s nothing like a bit of success to make you hungry for more. With the change in my joint health, I talked with Brian MacKenzie about what’s next: how to journey properly and safely journey from the world of being a broken down runner into the Crossfit Endurance world. He’s told me it’s going to take some time and will inevitably confront a range of challenges—the brand of candor I appreciate.

So while last year was typical of the last 10 years of my running, my goal for 2011 is to give Crossfit Endurance my absolute best effort, with the idea of reconstituting myself as an athlete who can run rather than a broken down runner. It’s clear there are runners who have achieved impressive results with Crossfit Endurance—that sounds great, too. But right now my goal is to build a foundation of health that allows me to enjoy running again. That’s what I’ll be reporting on in 2011.

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T.J. Murphy is the Editorial Director of Competitor Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.

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Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College in 2003, he now coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica's 2012 Olympic team. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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