Why It Hurts

Once upon a time, I wrote extensively about the anatomy of a runner. Not so much about the genius of the human anatomy, but what goes wrong. Back then, I thought my anatomy had suffered from almost anything that could go wrong, giving me expert insight. Then I turned sixty, and I suppose some of you entirely understand the remainder of that sentence. Nevertheless, my fascination with everything running has never waned, and I have at long last begun writing a book about runners’ injuries.

I created an outline of running-related anatomical topics pulling from the posts I’ve written – on the hips, knee, lower leg, heart, brain, pain, the wall, and so on. There were a few weeks of unauthorized confidence as I sailed through the chapters using previous research from these extensive blog posts. I figured I’d fill in the missing anatomical parts, verify and update the references, edit for clarity, and call it a day. But, of course, nothing is ever that easy.

There’s a flow in writing, a rhythm that comes from delving deeply into a topic, and the words tumble out effortlessly. This flow finally began after organizing the chapters and creating the narrative, starting with what I call the Central Governors. I would write this story using a top-down approach.

The brain has been one of my favorite topics. For me, the question of this chapter is not what can the human body do but what more can the human mind add to that. The answer is astonishing. I continued to sail through the Governors until I reached ‘Tendons and Ligaments,’ and flow came to a screeching halt.

Our understanding of human anatomy evolves at a sometimes slower pace than one might expect. For example, I’ve always remembered researching the IT Band. Studies had set out to prove the iliotibial band moves, except those studies contradicted other studies that concluded any motion of the IT Band is simply an illusion. A subsequent study examined whether the IT Band stored elastic energy, such as with the Achilles’ tendon. Still, that view contradicts all previous understanding that its primary function is stabilizing the hip. So naturally, this research reinforced the less-anatomy approach and more on why it hurts and how to fix it. Even still, tendons have become particularly peculiar.

It’s not that tendons and ligaments are that complicated. Initially, I had buried them into the chapter on muscle until I realized the ‘How to Fix It’ section was missing for the tendons, which meant I also needed to research ways to prevent the injury, and that’s when my world exploded. I discovered there’s new information on stiffness vs. flexibility of the tendons, how that affects distance runners vs. sprinters, and how we might adjust our training. Sixty-eight pages of new science. I lost my mojo, skipped to the end of the third section, and began editing a more comfortable subject, the runner’s high.

The fun thing about flow, as the ‘runner’s high’ is technically named, is that somewhere in this ideal Zone, runners lose themselves and reach a state where mind and body become one – the consciousness of running and the doing of it become indistinguishable. It is a state of sheer bliss.

But to achieve and maintain flow, there must be a balance between the challenge of the activity and a person’s ability. If the challenge exceeds ability, the activity becomes overwhelming and creates anxiety. If the challenge is lower than ability, boredom ensues. Apathy occurs when the challenge is low, and one’s skill level is low – producing a general lack of interest. In other words, a flow state occurs when challenge matches skill.

I was running in downtown Chicago when a fellow runner and I struck up a conversation while waiting to cross the street. He lamented how difficult it would be to get a runner’s high when stopping at every other corner. Then he laughed and admitted he had never experienced a runner’s high anyway. So, we could ask why achieving flow should even matter to runners.

It’s the same with writing my book. I’m in the Zone when my knowledge matches the challenge, and I am the subject matter expert. Flow abruptly ends when I venture into new territory and learn something new.

Learning more complex skills, however, gives humans pleasure and a sense of achievement, making us feel stronger and more confident. I always felt so proud of myself when I ran further than I ever had or achieved a new personal best time in a race. But to achieve these personal bests requires ever higher levels of training and commitment. Then flow occurs again at an even higher skill level, and our evolution continues – it’s become known as The Growth Principle. That’s not to say it’s an easy journey. It’s downright miserable sometimes, although the reward of sheer bliss is tantalizingly sweet.

Experts say those who enjoy mastering new activities in one area are more likely to begin finding flow in other areas. And when people derive enjoyment from their daily lives, they will spend less time feeling apathetic, anxious, or bored – and that’s pretty sweet too. This week my growth principle will involve tendons and ligaments. 😊