Out There: Runner Rehab

An e-stim machine, aka modern day torture device.

I’ve come to the realization that people who help with injury rehabilitation are really just a bunch of masochistic freaks.

It’s a sad but inevitable truth that at some point in an endurance athlete’s career, injury will strike. Sometimes it’s our own fault, and sometimes it can be caused by circumstances out of our control. Whenever and however it strikes, the response is always the same: the sooner we can rehab the injury and get back to training, the better.

One would think that sports doctors, physical therapists and massage specialists get into their field out of kindness and a desire to help athletes perform at their highest level. While recovering from a knee injury, however, I’ve come to the realization that people who help with injury rehabilitation are really just a bunch of masochistic freaks.

Tell a massage therapist you’re an endurance athlete, and you can see a light ignite in his eyes. “Runner” apparently registers in a massage therapist’s brain as “I like pain,” and “triathlete” equals “go ahead, hombre…make my day.”

While getting started with a new massage therapist, a lanky, mohawk-sporting kid named Roberto, I mentioned knee pain that had sidelined my run training. Roberto gave me the once-over, touched my knee, and confidently traced his fingers along the back of my leg.

“I don’t think it is your knee that is the problem. I saw you walk in. Your gait tells me the real problem is riiiiiight…there.”

Roberto stuck his thumb in my left butt cheek. I yelped.

“The <bleep>, ROBERTO?!?”

“Yup. That’s it,” he said, pressing with an amount of strength far greater than his skinny arms appeared to contain, “You said on your intake form you are okay with firm pressure. I will be doing Active Release Techniques. This requires very firm pressure. Is that okay?”

“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled. Face-down in the padded donut of the massage table, I winced and hoped Roberto couldn’t hear me whimper. If I had to do endure this in order to get healthy enough to run again, I would.

The next 90 minutes resembled a game of “Cry Uncle.” Limbs were twisted. Tendons were squished. Knots were pinched. I vaguely remembered a time when I believed a massage was something that was supposed to feel good. Gosh, I was so young and innocent then.

The next day, I walked down the street to my first appointment with a physical therapist. As soon as I walked into the office, I froze. On one side of the room, there were multiple athletes being contorted into various awkward and painful-looking positions. On the other side, an athlete was laying under a blanket with multiple wires coming out from her legs. The walls were lined with various strange ropes and straps. A fluorescent light in one corner flickered eerily.

While nervously waiting for my appointment to begin, I sent a text message to Coach Dude. “My PT’s office looks like a torture chamber.”

“Embrace it,” he replied. I silently cursed his name, adding “running coaches” to the list of masochistic freaks.

After an initial assessment, my physical therapist began sticking sensors on my leg.

“Have you ever had e-stim before?” She asked.

I shook my head. She smiled a strange grin.

“Okay, don’t be alarmed, but this is going to send tingles into your leg.”

With the press of a button, the machine hummed to life and sure enough, tingles appeared. I leaned back and closed my eyes. This isn’t so bad, I thought to myself.

“I’m going to increase the intensity. Tell me when it hurts.”

My eyes shot open. “Umm…hurts?”

“Yes, tell me when it hurts.”

The tingles increased gradually, until my toes curled and released with each set of emitted by the machine.

“It hurts! OKAY LADY, THAT HURTS. LET’S STOP! Are we done now? Am I cured?”

The physical therapist’s strange grin returned to her face. “Not quite. I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

She then walked out, probably to laugh with her fellow torture enthusiasts and, I don’t know, bite the heads off bats or club baby seals. As I sat there, cringing every time my muscles twitched with the vibrations of the e-stim machine, I felt pathetic. Gazing out the window, every healthy runner passing by seemed to throw confetti on the pity party I was throwing for myself.

It was in that moment that I realized Coach Dude was right: I have to embrace it. Every single ART session, e-stim, strange contortion, boring rehab exercise or piece of obnoxiously-colored KT tape stuck to my leg was one step closer to getting me back to what I really love – running. I can’t rush rehabilitation, and it will be painful at times, but I will embrace it. Heck, I’ll also caress it, fondle it, and kiss it with tongue…whatever it takes to get me back into a pair of race flats.

So go ahead, hombre…make my day.


About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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