Our brains go with us when we run, for worse and for better.
About two years ago, I was having some knee pain I’d been getting physio for, and going through a slow process of retraining my muscles to work differently so I could run again. I would often have low level pain while at the gym during the phase, which I worried about a lot.
Then one day I noticed something odd. The pain started up as soon as I put on my workout gear. Well before I'd done anything more strenuous than stroll around my apartment. I thought it was a one off. Then it happened again. And AGAIN. It was like once my body felt my gym leggings, it decided it was pain time. My sister said, "Maybe your workout shoes are doing something to your balance?" And I said, "DUDE IT STARTS WHEN I AM STILL WEARING MY SLIPPERS." She said, "Oh. Oh no. That's a whole different problem."
She was right. There was only one logical explanation: my brain actually predicted the pain was coming and got started all on its own
I don't go to the gym anymore because, you know, global pandemic. But this experience made me more mindful about the way my knee issues weren’t solely about nerves in my knee but also about all kinds of stuff my brain was doing around having this problem.
Recently I had a big breakthrough on this. I had gotten to the point of being able to run SLOWLY in short distances, but several weeks ago I was having trouble getting my stride right and started to have the pain issues again afterward. I tried doing barre, which had helped me a lot with strengthening, and I was getting pain during class doing stuff that hadn’t been an issue before. I was freaking the fuck out.
I gave it a rest and then tried running again, and that’s when I had a breakthrough. I noticed that in order to get my stride right, I needed to relax the muscles around my knees more. As I did this, I could feel that I had been doing the opposite, that I had been super-clenched around my knees, probably because I was fearful of pain and wanted to “protect” them.
The more I relaxed all the muscles around my kneecaps, the more I could run the way the physio had trained me to run. The more I did that, the less pain I had. It felt like rather than scraping around, my kneecaps were moving fluidly in all the directions they needed to. Like my glutes and abs were supporting me and my lower legs were just kind of lightly stepping along beneath them. The next day I tried barre again and concentrated on relaxing my knees. I had the same feeling of lightness and rubbery mobility through my knees/lower legs and NO PAIN.
Amazingly, it turns out that the thought that my knees were in trouble was leading to my knees being in trouble. My fear made me hyper-vigilant, hyper-vigilance lead to clenching, and clenching led to pain. Which then made me hyper-vigilant. Hyper-vigilance led me to find more evidence, which just reinforced the thought that my knees were in trouble. A perfect feedback loop for chronic pain.
Whereas if I thought instead "a little twinge is nothing to worry about," I was able to relax the muscles around my knees, which led to more focus on the parts of my body that needed to be fully activated (glutes, abs) and let my knees move as they needed to. More relaxation led to less pain and less hyper-vigilance, which led to more relaxation. I switched the feedback loop from one that would generate more pain to one that could help me continue to progress.
In workouts since realizing this, I’ve noticed I am sometimes moving back and forth between these two thoughts: "oh no, I'm having pain!!" and "a little twinge is no big deal." I am mostly focused on latter but sometimes still bounce back to the former. When this happens now, though, I just remind myself that there’s nothing to worry about and that I know what I’m doing. I concentrate on relaxing, and I get out of the negative feedback loop of the first thought and into the positive one of the second.
One of the things I love about running is that it gets me out of my head and into my body. But my brain isn't just along for the ride. It's still actively making contributions, some pretty helpful and some definitely not. Someday I really am going to be able to run half marathons again. And it'll be partly thanks to physio, but partly thanks to listening to my thoughts and choosing which ones to cultivate on purpose.