Those of you who know me well know that I am a runner. In fact, I have been a runner for 22 years. Running brings me to different places, both literally and figuratively; I have run in races and just for fun in many states and multiple countries, and when I run, my mind goes into a state of meditation and sometimes into that coveted runner’s high. Running connects me to the world around me, to nature, to the city, and to a community of friends and fellow runners. But about eight years after I became a runner, the activity I had grown to love so much, that I depended on for my physical and mental well-being, had become a source of pain and frustration almost every time I laced up my shoes and stepped outside. This pain and frustration came in the form of chronic hip pain that often flared up into full blown bursitis*.
After trying to manage the situation on my own for some time, I finally went to see a doctor. He took x-rays, told me that one leg was longer than the other, and gave me orthotics to help correct the leg length discrepancy. Still, a couple of years later, I was still experiencing pain while running. And so I limited the frequency and distances that I ran, as I’d discovered that running two days in a row would almost inevitably provoke a bursitis flareup. Still, the pain was an almost constant part of my life.
I became frustrated and went to a sports medicine physician, who – ironically – told me I should stop running so much. Needless to say, I had already figured out that running wasn’t helping the issue, but obviously one does not choose to give up something one loves as much as I love running. So, I began to see a physical therapist, who worked with me on strengthening my core and hip stabilizers, but I didn’t see significant results. I was, it would seem, stuck with this bursitis for the long haul.
After almost a decade of running through the pain and taking breaks as needed, I began to see a massage therapist, Susan, regularly. I was mostly just looking for some relief from the pain, which had increased to a rather alarming level after almost 10 years of an on-again off-again relationship with bursitis.
Communication, growing awareness, and a strong motivation to run pain-free led to several discoveries both on and off the massage table. I learned on the massage table that even the lightest massage of my iliotibial (IT) bands** was almost unbearable. However, by breathing through the pain I was able to tolerate Susan’s work on my IT bands, and she was able to reverse some of the damage that had been done. With her understanding of anatomy and kinesiology, she explained the nuts and bolts of what she thought might be contributing to my hip pain and bursitis flare-ups. She taught me about foam rolling, and I was able to maintain much of the progress so that I didn’t return to “square one” between massage appointments. Slowly, and with Susan’s guidance and knowledge, I became more aware of connections between various aches and pains in my lower back, thighs, hips, and knees. Feeling hopeful, I finally became motivated to buy a book based on the principles of Chi Running, which a friend had long ago recommended to help me improve my running form and reduce pain and injury.
Through those appointments with Susan, I was able to tune in to my body on a deeper level, and I began to understand the root of the pain that I had been experiencing for so long. After much focused effort, I can now run as far and as often as I want to, and I have completed two marathons with no recurrence of the dreaded bursitis.
So what’s the moral of the story?
Pain is information; my body had a message for me, and it was trying to help me connect the dots. On a physical level, I needed to work on releasing years of built-up constriction in the fascia of my iliotibial (IT) band. On both physical and mental levels, I needed to understand how the way I was running (my running form) was impacting my body, and I needed to figure out how to literally change the way I ran – not an easy feat.
And, on a non-physical level, I needed to learn a lesson about slowing down and taking the time to listen to myself. For years I had just run through the pain and tried whatever it was that someone (a doctor, physical therapist, fellow runner) suggested, but I hadn’t taken the time to really connect with my body and myself. This lesson is one that can be applied to life more broadly, and it is perhaps the most difficult lesson to master.
*Hip bursitis, also known as trochanteric bursitis, is an inflammation of the bursa sac that sits between the trochanter (top of the femur or thigh bone) and the iliotibial (IT) band (see explanation below). Bursae are basically fluid-filled sacs that help provide a cushion between muscle and bone. We have them throughout our body, most notably in the elbows, shoulders, heels, knees, and, you guessed it, the hips. When one of these little guys get inflamed, it feels not-so-good because there’s just not room for the bursa to expand and take up extra space in there.
**Iliotibial bands are often referred to as IT bands. They are bands of thick, fibrous connective tissue that run along the outside of the thigh from the hip area to just below the knee. If you’ve ever used a foam roller on the outside of your thigh, you’ve probably felt your IT bands, and there were likely sweat and tears involved, whether you’re a marathoner or a couch potato. Contracted IT bands can lead to all sorts of symptoms, most commonly in the knees and in the hips.