Since being able to run again I have desperately been searching for two things: pace and distance. Before the Achilles rupture I was clocking half marathons in 1:20hr and a marathon in about 3hrs. When I look back on this time I was running almost every day and playing basketball, football and tennis on an infrequent basis. I had built up a depth of endurance from this along with completing distance running events on a regular basis.
Regaining the ability to run decent distance and a respectable pace is something which cannot be rushed. Starting at 1 minute running, 2 minutes walking for 10 minutes I am now at stage where I can run for 18km without stopping at 4.30km pace. Whether this is good progress or not I am not sure but there are a few things I would suggest to people about to go through the same process of seeking to regain a running standard somewhere near where they were before the Big Bang happened.
1. Don’t worry about pace.
When you first start again don’t worry about raising your pace too quickly. Pace is dangerous for your Achilles and I found that focusing on distance was far more rewarding. Distance could be increased more systematically over the first few weeks as you start you start to run for five, 10, 15, 20 minutes without having to walk. The joy of this was the realisation that you can run again and that your Achilles does work. Having spent so long on crutches and in a boot you forget the reassuring feel of sweat dripping down your face as your legs creak into gear. I spent the first weeks and months simply raising the distance a few kilometres each week, building my confidence in the tendon and making sure any pain felt in it was “good pain”.
2. Continue with your physio exercises.
When you start running again it is easy to forget about the heel lifts you have mastered over the last year or so. You think, “finally, I’m back to normal”. You’re not. I quickly learnt that whilst your Achilles may be “better” the rest of your core and leg muscles have diminished significantly. Hip, knees, glutes, calves, I’ve had more niggling injuries post Achilles rupture then ever before. My bad leg resembled an emaciated twiglet when I started running again so these injuries were no surprise. These injuries have stopped me from running frequently since I started again and are a source of persistent frustration. I spent more time with my physio dealing with these then looking at my Achilles. The exercises prescribed, along with continuing the heel lifts were and are crucial in building core strength and keeping my Achilles healthy. As I write this the arch of my bad foot has just started playing up – I’ll add it to the list. I continue doing heel lifts now, a year after I started running again and have exercises for my hips (which caused me months of pain that) which I do irregularly. People often ask me, “is your Achilles better now?” and it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that will never be truly better, just as good as it can be and to do this you must continue your exercises.
3. Build pace gradually.
The dreaded Garmin. God, I hate that thing. I found mine at the bottom of the drawer a few months after starting to run again. There is no escaping the numbers on that thing. You think you’re flying along, on for a PB and then you take a look at the Garmin – nope, not even close. There is no escaping those dreaded digital numbers but they are crucial for building pace back into your runs. Much like with distance, small increments are important here to ensure allow your Achilles, and the rest of your body, to adapt to the new demands. One thing I have found that’s had a big impact on raising my pace has been 1km shuttle runs, repeated five times. Back in my glory days I could run 4.15 per km pace easily. That was just above jogging pace for me. After a few months building distance I decided to start focusing on pace. At the time I was able to run 4.45 per km pace just about comfortably but not for long. I decided to set 4.15 as my target for the shuttle runs. I found a flat, straight stretch near my home and quickly increased my pace until it read 4.15 on the Garmin. Get to 1km, stop, pant, kneel over, keep the vomit down. Repeat for 5km and you’ll quickly see the benefits but listen to your Achilles – if it’s not happy with the increased pace then ease off and find one that it is happy with.