A culture of injury

The endurance running hypothesis submits that humans evolved as desert persistence hunters—fast, long-distance running machines. Contemporary research has found no relationship between running and knee osteoarthritis. And the Tarahumara—the Mexican tribe of running people also known as rarámurihabitually run hundreds of miles per week while sustaining only a modicum of injuries. All of this raises the following question:

Why do we continue to insist that running is bad for the knees?

The most immediate answer is that, for a critical mass of westerners, running has actually created a variety of musculoskeletal and metabolic problems, enough so that it’s gotten a bad rap. However, especially in light of the above data, this doesn’t mean that running is bad. What it does mean is that we’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

Like most systemic problems, it has more than one source. Consider this: not only do we run in biomechanically disadvantageous ways, but we’ve done that for so long that the cultural consciousness has internalized this as the notion that running is somehow inherently injurious. Once this idea has been internalized, we lose any incentive, and any reason, to change incorrect patterns of motion. Because we’ve operated for so long under this conclusion, chronic injury and dysfunction becomes not only the standard, but also the norm.

However, it does more than that: chronic injury becomes the badge of the runner—a badge worn with pride. It is at this point that the culture of injury becomes fully cemented. If you aren’t injured, you’re not a “real” runner; you don’t share the burdens that we all share. You don’t go through the constant rite of passage that we all go through. You’re an anomaly, an exception. You’re special. Good for you.

With most runners, injury is the way of the world. Injury is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has everyone singing its virtues. If you aren’t injured yet, you keep training. It’s almost as if you look for injury. Why? Well, because if running is inherently injurious, if you’re not injured, you’re not doing it right. If you don’t have to constantly stretch and rehabilitate and ice and elevate, maybe it’s time to train a little harder.

So, what do we have here? A self-fulfilling prophecy, one which for the majority usually removes the possibility of running completely pain and injury free. The world in which we don’t have to RICE it up all the time, and foam roll our IT band isn’t one we’re used to considering.

Think that this world is a fantasy? Return to the evidence above. You’ll likely find that your skepticism is far more a function of the story we’ve been telling ourselves (and the socio-athletic system that’s emerged from it) than a function of the actual capabilities of your particular human body.

The first step to change this feedback loop is not, of course, to just go out and try to run like the rarámuri. That would be silly. Mere wishful thinking cannot ever replace good biomechanics and great training volume over the course of a lifetime, not to mention the benefits of being steeped in a culture of running. Most of us don’t have that, and never will.

But what we could do is to believe that it can somehow be different. We can believe that, given the evidence above, it makes sense to try and create the world in which we’re not plagued by injury, and beset by the notion that it is somehow an inevitability. Once we believe that, we can realize how antiquated the notion of “pushing through the pain” actually is.

If the plantar fascia begins to hurt, why not change something in our stride so that it stops? Change what? Go figure it out. But the injury is not inevitable. Only the notion of pushing through it—that useless phrase that our athletic culture has given us—makes it a certainty.

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