When Everything Hurts: Pain, Injury Prevention, and Starting Over

It feels strange to admit, but I have no plans to row in a boat this season. I’ve only gotten on an erg once since March. So this is not a story of my triumphant return to rowing after injury. Instead, it’s a look at getting older, dealing with physical pain and mental fatigue, being open to change, and making smart injury prevention choices that will pay off in the long term.

It probably started a lot farther back than I’m willing to admit, but after about 15 years of rowing and erging my body was falling apart.

I thought I was doing everything right: pre-workout dynamic mobility stretches, post-workout stretches and foam-rolling, incorporating recovery days into the schedule, eating (mostly) right. But my lower back started to hurt. And it kept hurting for months.

A long-overdue trip to the chiropractor honed in on the biggest problem: anterior pelvic tilt. Basically, my natural posture included sticking my butt out. APT is a muscle imbalance that “involves reciprocal inhibition, a process where muscles on one side of a joint are relaxing to accommodate contraction on the other side of that joint.” The chiropractor suggested one simple adjustment: “when you get in bed each night, tip your pelvis forward, squeeze your glutes, and press your low back into the mattress. Hold and release ten times.” I started making this pelvic adjustment every time I was standing – chopping veggies, in line at a store, in the shower …

My back was feeling good and then one morning, while warming up my shoulders before erging, I called up a shoulder stretch I used to do as a kid before swim practice. If you’ve ever watched a swim meet you’ll know the one: swing your arms in opposite directions across your body and smack yourself on the back. I came to regret it within a day when a pain started radiating from my under right collarbone. Another trip to the chiropractor suggested a possible sprain of the costoclavicular ligament which binds the first rib to the clavicle. Despite rest and therapy, it nagged at me for months, interfering with rowing, erging, swimming, and sleeping.

The costoclavicular ligament pain was noticable but minimal, so I persisted through nine weeks of training for the erg half marathon at MidAtlantic Erg Sprints in 2017. Another coach had seen me testing out an RP3 dynamic rower and suggested a change to my handle grip that could minimize the break in my arms at the catch. It’s a terrible old habit and I figured I’d have plenty of time to think about it during this training cycle. Several weeks in, with workouts stretching to 10k, 12k, and finally 20k, I developed carpal tunnel in my left wrist which I tie directly to the modified grip. I rowed that half marathon, but it was lackluster and uninspired due to the pain.

I’ve since gone back to my tried and true grip and instead made adjustments to my elbows as I approach the catch – the wrist pain has disappeared, and my splits have come down.

With a marathoner husband and a rescue dog full of energy, I was getting left behind on “walks” so in the middle of this never-ending cycle of injuries, I made a decision to stop rowing/erging to rest my back, shoulder, and wrist … and start running. Crazy or not, I was determined. By last summer, I was outside three mornings a week for run/walks with the dog, who, lucky for me, stops and sniffs everything, making my intro to running more manageable.

Three mile runs turned into eight miles and out of the blue I was sidelined with micro tears in both of my quads, on the same day. I was out of commission for six weeks, the first half of which I could barely stand up, sit down, or walk my dog.

When I finally realized I could step off a curb and jog across the street to avoid traffic, I decided it was time to give a run with the dog another try. The next four months I cycled through a couple of weeks of running, followed by back and hip pain, and a couple of weeks’ rest.

If you’re counting along, this makes five different injuries (back, costoclavicular ligament, wrist, quads, hip) in about two years. “Frustrated” and “annoyed” just scratch the surface of how I was feeling.

This is when I really started to get depressed. Mid-run pain led to to ugly crying on more than one occasion, and breakdowns sprawled out on the dining room floor when we would finally make it back to the house.

Why was my body rebelling?! Is this what I’m stuck dealing with for the rest of my life?

Weekly appointments with a  physical therapist supplemented weekly chiropractic appointments. I was beginning to be completely honest with myself about having to put rehab above all else. It stuck for a couple of months.

This takes us to last December, and an erg-based winter training program I coach for DC Strokes Rowing Club. All of my nagging aches seemed to be under control so I was determined to get back into the swing of things. Dynamic stretching, erging, post-workout foam rolling right along with the program members – reveling in the shared sweat and week-over-week improvements. Stroke rates started coming up, splits came down. Cardio endurance improved. Erging without a 2k goal or mid-winter ergatta on the calendar was mentally liberating. Six weeks into winter training I finally felt back in control of my body.

And then I over did it.

A near PR erg 5k in the morning followed by a 5k PR attempt in the evening. I don’t remember how far along I was in the second 5k, but I will never forget the sound of something in my back releasing and the pain that immediately followed. I could hardly get up off the Concept2, and it would be six weeks before I touched an erg again.

In the interim, I decided something – lots of things – had to change. If I couldn’t do any of the activities I wanted to, what could I do?

I scrapped all notions of rowing and erging and instead asked myself: “What do you need to do to make your body happy and healthy?”

I joined a gym and spent weeks slowly working my way through dynamic stretches and body weight exercises to strengthen my glutes and lumbar spine. I focused on strengthening my right quad and stabilizing the knee (issues that date back to surgeries I had when I was much younger.) I got back in the pool two days a week and instead of focusing on speed, challenged myself to be as technically proficient as possible. I tentatively added treadmill runs – mostly 3 miles of intervals, and then a weekend trail run.

Monday rest. Tuesday swim. Wednesday run. Thursday swim. Friday run. Saturday long walk with the husband and dog. Sunday long run. Always incorporating 15 minutes of pre-workout dynamic stretching and post-workout stretch/foam roll. I’ve kept up this schedule since January and – knock on wood – the body has not rebelled.

FAREWELL M&Ms (for a little while…)
With my sights firmly set now not on erg tests but instead on finding my best healthy body, there’s one more piece of the puzzle: nutrition. Whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats … I get it, I do it. But by mid-day I’m tired and I want to feel better/faster muscle recovery after workouts. So I’m committing now to learning more about tracking macronutrients, getting more antioxidants, and laying off the M&M habit. I’ve also been persuaded by a fellow rower to participate in a two-week nutrition challenge that incorporates Isagenix brand products like meal-replacement shakes for breakfast, and a proprietary botanical concentrate designed to combat the negative effects of stress, in conjunction with melatonin for better sleep. Stay tuned. Day #1 is Monday.