There was a brief time when I didn’t run all that much. I ran my way through college, playing club field hockey and running two half marathons. Lifelong knee problems really kicked in my last year of college. The summer before I did a NOLS course, backpacking for weeks in the Lemhi Mountains in Idaho with a huge pack on my back. I had a brace with me, but that didn’t stop fluid from building up in my knee, causing some pain on the three week trek.
After spending July in the mountains, I returned for my last year of university. Two of my running buddies from my half marathon in Lisbon decided to run another: the Battleship Half Marathon in Wilmington, NC. Training went well, the race went well, but my knee never really felt the same after that.
I finished out the school year running and playing field hockey. The summer after I graduated I completed my 220-hour yoga teacher training. I decided to devote the summer to yoga and swimming. Well, a physical therapist told me to. But still, I was thrilled that for the first time I got into really good lap-swimming shape!
That fall I moved to Colorado. I dove headfirst into the “ski in the winter, hike in the summer” lifestyle. The town of Breckenridge is at 9,600′ elevation, making anytime I attempted running, even on the treadmill at the gym, really difficult. I continued to swim laps (um, SO hard at altitude) and cross-train at the gym, but just wasn’t running all that regularly. For about two years.
I would run when I was home in North Carolina or traveling, but honestly thought maybe I was beyond my running years. At 24 years old. HAH!
After my third winter in Colorado, I was nervous for the summer. I’d fallen in love with uphill skiing, one activity that gives me a rush very similar to the runner’s high. I love hiking, but it’s not quite the same. I was nervous about missing that level of adrenaline and exertion over the summer.
My knees were sore after skiing 90 days in six months, so I turned to physical therapy. When I made the comment that I used to run all the time and assumed I’d passed my running prime, my therapist scoffed at me. He was determined to help me recover from skiing and get me back running.
We started a regimen of Graston and dry needling (holy hell the pain!), gave me a taping technique to keep my kneecap in place, and assigned me exercises to do to strengthen my glutes, hamstrings, and quads. I left for a month in Costa Rica, where I ran and did my PT every day.
Upon returning to Breckenridge, my roommate Misty announced that she was going to train for a trail half marathon and invited me to go on a run with her. I was hesitant as I had never really done any trail running and was nervous about slowing her down. But it was beautiful out and she was insistent. It was only three miles, but kicked my butt regardless! And absolutely hooked me!
All summer long I ran the trails. I discovered a trail system near town that had some long flat sections, a rarity for Colorado trails that are known for being straight uphill / downhill. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely still hills, but I could find my stride on most of this loop.
I ended up doing quite a few training runs with Misty. One was on the Colorado Trail at Copper Mountain. 6 miles there took us into a section of the woods covered in ferns and moss that made me think of the PNW. Foreshadowing!
One of the most memorable was her long 10 mile run. If you’ve been to Breck, the route will make sense to you. We ran up the Burro Trail, connected to Wheeler, crossed over the saddle of Peak 10, and down the access road. A lot of the Wheeler section was a hike as it was super steep. But at the end of the run, we felt SO accomplished! And sore. And starving. I ate so many sweet potato tater tots and cheese curds while lying prone on our living room floor.
I’ll forever be indebted to Misty for motivating me to get out running on the trails.
I’ll forever be indebted to Nathan, my physical therapist, for making it happen! His work got me running 3-7 miles probably about 5 times a week, plus running stairs at work at the restaurant and summertime hikes.
How did he do it? Here are my go-to PT exercises to keep my knees happy and my legs strong!
To kick these up a notch, stand on a step to dip down further in your squat!
Warrior 3 dips
Hover your right foot off the ground. Keeping your left leg straight and strong (no hyperextension in the knee), move fluidly into a warrior three position. Rise back to standing, engaging your standing leg hamstring. 8-10 reps, switch sides.
Walking lunges with a twist
From standing, step forward into your lunge, and then twist through the thoracic spine in the direction of your forward leg. Step your back foot up and lunge on the other side.
Side steps with a band
Break out the resistance band! Lower the booty into a squat, and step out to the side with your band around your calves. Keep moving in one direction for 8-10 reps and then switch to the other direction. Keep the squat the whole time.
Standing leg raises with a band
YAY glutes! You might need to grab a counter or a wall to help balance here. Stand upright with the band around your calves. Slowly kick your right foot back at an angle against the band. 8-10 reps and then switch.
I no longer have access to a leg press weight machine, so I have to find creative ways to get these in. 😉 Thanks, Nic!
Keep in mind, the exercises were given to me by my physical therapist for my specific knee issues (aka, I am not a trained PT), but they’re good exercises to add to anyone’s, especially runners’, strength training routines.