Racing while injured
Racing with an injury is gamble, so you have to evaluate the risk and the reward carefully, as well as looking for mitigation.
1 The Reward
There are many reasons to want to run a race.
- If the race is a once in a lifetime opportunity, there is a huge incentive to race. The extreme example would be racing in the Olympics, where there is not another opportunity for 4 more years. Another examples would be running the Boston Marathon, where qualifying again may be difficult.
- Money you've spent to race can give a significant reason to run. The costs may be in race entry, but the additional costs of travel and accommodation are often much larger.
- Making commitments to run a race, be it to a charity, friends or family give emotional incentives to run the race.
- If your training has gone well, other than the injury, you may feel that you have the chance of a particularly good performance.
2 The Risk
Racing with an injury is likely to make the injury worse. There are questions that can help you evaluate the risk.
- Is the injury likely to cause long term injury? A tendon injury could become a rupture for instance, where muscular damage is less likely to cause long term problems. A problem with the nerves in the back on the other hand could lead to being permanently crippled.
- How hard is the race compared with your training? For instance, if you're racing a marathon and have been regularly doing 23 mile training runs with the injury, then you are in a much better place than if you've only been managing 16 miles.
- How long have you been injured? If the injury has been going on for some time and you've been able to continue training in spite of the problem, it may be more stable. A new injury has more unknowns.
- Can you compensate for the injury? For instance, compression tights might help with muscular pain. However, this approach is difficult, as many types of compensation can cause other problems.
- How familiar are you with this type of injury? If you've had this injury before, you may have a better feel for how it will bear up on the race and what the warning signs are.
- What other races are you putting at risk? If you have other races or events coming up, racing with an injury reduces the chance of completing those other events.
There are a number of ways you may be able to mitigate the risk.
- If you are willing to run the race non-competitively, perhaps taking Walking Breaks, then you may be able to reduce the stress on your injury.
- Racing requires determination and commitment, which makes it hard to drop out of a race. If you believe can define the criteria for dropping out of the race without otherwise losing the determination and commitment you need, you could reduce your risk.
4 Personal experience
Several times I have had an injury before a race and had to make the choice between racing and "Did Not Start". I've not included situations where the injury clearly indicated I should not race, such as Weymouth Woods 100K in 2010.
- 2011 North Coast 24 Hour National Championships. Three days before the race I cut my heel quite badly. I came close to bailing on the race, as I did not think I could wear any Shoes. I planned on some Extreme Shoe Modifications, but in the end, I was able to heal the wound sufficiently to wear my usual Modified Nike Free. I did try to compensate for the damaged heel by loosening my Shoes, which cause other blister problems, but I came in second.
- 2011 West Highland Way Ultra. This was a race where I suspected my skin would have blister issues given the rugged course. However, I'd travelled to Scotland for the race, and I wanted to run at least some of the race. In the end things went worse than I expected and I only completed 27 of the 95 miles. However, they were some beautiful miles, I was able to drop out before I was seriously injured and I don't regret the decision.
- 2011 Hampton 24 Hour. I was recovering from blister issues and nearly didn't run this race. Unfortunately the course was not as kind to my feet as I'd hoped and a rainstorm after 13 hours made the blister issues worse so I had to drop out. I'd made the blisters worse, retarding my recovery and completed a rather insipid performance. Apparently the race director was upset with my decision to bail on the race, perhaps feeling I should have continued until I was in need of medical attention.
- 2010 Freedom Park 24 Hour. I started this race with a Mortons Neuroma and the expectation of only doing a couple of miles. As it turned out, the pain eased off after a few miles and by 18 hours into the race, I had a lead that assured victory. I stopped running at that point, with a request to the race director to wake me if my lead became endangered. Much to my surprise, I had no ill effects from the race.
- 2007 Midnight Boogie. I was diagnosed with mono a few weeks before the Midnight Boogie, one of my favorite races. I was probably healthy enough to race, but I was concerned that it would delay my recovery and I was helping lead a major backpacking trip that I did not want to jeopardize, so I was DNS.
5 Final Thoughts
This is a tough decision, and you may find yourself vacillating between deciding to race and deciding to DNS. I would recommend talking things over with other runners. They won't be able to give you a clear answer, but they can help you think it through. Medical advice is also useful, especially if you can find a doctor who is also an athlete.