Trying, failing, and succeeding at running after a brain injury

Almost 4 years ago I suffered from a grade 3 concussion and a related neck injury. Two summers ago, my rehabilitation team suggested that I was finally well enough to start running again. 

I waited about a few weeks before I tried. It was a warm day toward the end of July. I decided to get up early and just give it a shot. I dragged my partner along with me for support. Despite my deep desire to run, I was terrified by the thought of running again. I was afraid it would send me into a downstream of brain and neck injury related symptoms. 

Things started out well. I ran at a decent pace and felt very little strain. In fact, my cardiovascular system seemed to be fairly intact. Being the type C person that I am, that is, a type A person with a strong shot of optimism (see here), I decided to push a little harder and to run up a hill. By the time I was up the hill, I was in pain. Trying to be breezy about it all, I simply told my partner that I was ready to stop. 

It was only when I went back home and grabbed an ice pack that I realized just how much I had overdone it. My optimism had led me to push it too far. It wasn’t the mild neck pain that I had been battling for months. It was the “I’m on fire” and “I need it stop now or I am going to totally freak out” sort of pain that I dreaded. The pain downgraded to a bearable level after I continued to ice it, have a few hot showers, and take some pain meds. 

The pain continued to irk me for another month or two. At the time, I was going through some pretty big life changes (moving, starting a new job) and so I decided to delay my return to running.

A few months later, after I was more settled, I essentially did the same thing. I started a run, this time without my partner. Things went well at the beginning, but by the time I was done I was in pain and the pain lasted for another month or two. This was enough to turn me off running for another two years.

More recently, after the semester ended this year, I decided to try again. This time around, I decided to try a treadmill. It was clear that when I was left to myself I pushed too hard. This time I promised myself to run slowly and to start with two-minute increments alternating between running and walking. 

After the first run, I had a major migraine, which completely knocked me out for a day (think nausea, light and noise sensitivity, and dizziness). I wasn’t sure if it was related to the running or something else. Mustering some courage, I waited a day and then tried again. It went well enough. I was optimistic and I continued running in the same way, keeping my speed slow and alternating between running and walking. 

By the end of the month, I was able to run every other day, increasing the time I spent running while also increasing my speed. Now, a few months later, I’m able to run around a 5k continuously at pretty decent speed and with little to no pain.

In some ways running on a treadmill isn’t what I was aiming for when I started running again. I love being outside, in the breeze and under the blue sky. But try as I might – and I’ve continued to try – when I run outside, I don’t do well. It’s likely because I’m still battling some balance and vision issues that stem from my head injury. Being outside, with many visual focal points, somehow complicates these issues for me. 

As time has passed, I’ve come to be happy with my treadmill in the basement. It took numerous tries, and I’m not running what I used to be able to run or where I’d ideally like to be running, but I’m happy. I’m doing something that I love, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to do again.

Meena Krishnamurthy is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.  She can be seen walking or sometimes running slowly in the lovely neighborhood of Kerrytown in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She is often accompanied by her reassuring husband, spunky 9 year-old daughter, and extremely cute dog.

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