Have you ever taken an unforced running break? I just did, and it was pretty scary. This was the last running pic taken of me before I took a forced 6 week-long running break.
Chest Pain Freaks Everyone Out
600/400/200 times 3 on a hot, humid, mid July night was what did me in. I was on round two of this track workout, breathing heavily and working way too hard when I felt a twinge in the middle of my chest. Thinking I should probably slow down a bit I took the last rep a little easier and went home to recuperate in the cool bliss of central air conditioning. Three days later I still had dull chest pain but it came and went, so I thought I was just overtired. Later that week I ran an 8 mile race up in Stowe, VT and somewhere in mile 6 after lots of short steep hills my chest discomfort came back. When it was still there 20 minutes after the end of the race I consulted the nearby EMTs. Next thing I knew I was whisked away into the ambulance with leeds put on my chest and undergoing an EKG. So began my 6 week no running episode which was in part terrifying, confusing and stressful.
I didn’t have a heart attack during that race but my EKG results were abnormal and so I was ordered to go see my Doctor immediately. Since my chest discomfort was brought on by exercise I was ordered to stop doing anything more strenuous than walking until the issues could be ironed out. I also mentioned to my Doctor that along with the chest pain I had been unusually fatigued for the past several months. We’re not talking a little tired after a long run, we’re talking about the kind of fatigue that makes you foggy, gives you trouble when you try to concentrate, and makes you want to lay down for hours after a run or workout. In addition to the fatigue I was feeling chronically sore, like my muscles were never able to recover. I remember asking my trainer, after one particularly painful week, if it was normal to be feeling so sore and so tired all the time. Her response was short and sweet – nope, not normal. Blood tests were ordered up along with some cardiology exams.
I’ve Got to Start Pumping Iron
To make a long story short, after extensive cardiology work ups it turns out that my heart is in pretty good shape. I have a somewhat higher heart rate than other runners but it’s not out of the normal range and I have no heart disease issues or blockages that they could detect. Clean bill of health as far as the old ticker is concerned. What a relief! The blood work results were a different story. My Doctor wisely tested my iron levels as one of the primary signs of iron deficiency is fatigue. Turns out I am borderline low on my blood iron levels and some of the other metrics associated with iron deficiency. One result stood out in the extreme and that was my ferritin level. My Doctor told me that the range for acceptable Ferritin levels are anywhere from 10.0 to over 100 but that anything below 30 or 40 would be considered low. Mine was 2.9. (Ferritin is a way to measure how much iron your body is storing. Here’s a link to understanding Ferritin Levels: http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/ferritin-test/basics/definition/prc-20014449). Given my test results I was ordered to start taking some heavy-duty iron supplements and told to eat more iron rich foods (hello juicy steak!). After just a few short weeks on the Iron supplements I felt so much better, like the fog had lifted and I could function more normally again. I was allowed to go back to running and advised to take it slowly at first. For a couple of weeks I did a run / walk at a slow pace before building up to 3 miles and then to 6 for my “long” run. I’m now back to running regularly and am feeling pretty good. I had to drop out of the Baystate Marathon because my 6 week running break took place in the middle of the training cycle but I should have enough time to prepare to run the half marathon instead. We’ll see how well I am doing with regards to my iron levels when I start doing longer runs again this weekend.
What I Learned on My 6 Week Running Break
I’ve learned a couple of important things from this scary episode. First, when you are a woman over 40 and you tell a medical professional that you have dull chest pain they will all freak out. Apparently women have very different heart attack signs than men do and many times those signs go unrecognized. Check out signs of heart attacks in women here: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/WarningSignsofaHeartAttack/Heart-Attack-Symptoms-in-Women_UCM_436448_Article.jsp.
Second, you have to listen to your body. When you are feeling chronically tired, sore, burned out, unable to complete workouts consistently, or are not improving even though you are working hard please do not assume it’s because you are lazy, or out of shape, or not well rested. Go get yourself checked out by your Doctor because you may very well have a medical issue – these symptoms are not normal.
Third, don’t fear taking a running or exercise break. I was very worried for most of my 6 week break that I’d turn back into my formerly lazy and inactive self. (Of course, jetting off to Italy mid process and eating tons of Gelato / Pasta / Red Wine, while extremely fun, does not help to fully alleviate this particular fear). When I was able to come back to running I found that I hadn’t lost that much fitness. While I was a bit sore for the first couple days my legs still remembered how to run, my lungs still handled the effort and my body felt so good being active again. I knew then that I’d be ok. I’d never really stopped being an active person. I was still a runner even though I had to take a break for a short period of time. A friend said to me, you’ll be a runner and you’ll be active (barring any major injuries) as long as that’s what you believe you are. Well now I’m a believer, so don’t call this a comeback because I never really left!
I”m crediting my coaches at Runners Connect for helping me craft a plan to get back into running safely after my hiatus. You can check them out here – there are lots of great articles and other content on the website. www.runnersconnect.net
I’m also crediting my local running club and running friends for urging me to come back to group runs after I’d been gone for a while. (I just went back for my first run with them in 2 months tonight – felt great to be back out there with the group.) You guys know who you are – thanks for the encouragement and for caring. Runners make the best friends.
Lastly, if you need a distraction during your running or exercise break I highly recommend going to Italy and indulging in all the things you normally don’t let yourself do. Sleep really late. Eat gelato – twice a day if necessary. Inhale pasta – I am still dreaming about that pasta with truffles. Hang out with friends into the wee hours of the morning talking about nothing and everything – it’s balm for the soul. If you can’t find your way overseas, here are a few gratuitous shots for you to enjoy.
Until next time, you all stay healthy ok?