07 March, 2009

Sacrificial Calves

I was born in 1968.

And when I was born, I had a minor birth defect: a very subtle form of "Clubfoot". The example below is far more severe than what I had.

Although it was not severe, it still required treatment. That consisted of my feet being put in casts for some period of time as a baby. I do not really recall how long this lasted. The only remaining visual evidence that I ever had this problem is that my feet do want to fold inward, instead of straight, when they are relaxed.

As far as I knew, there was no lasting biomechanical deficit, but that turns out to probably not have been the case. The first time that I sprained my ankle, I was under ten years of age. I was jumping down the steps of the bus, coming home from camp at the end of a hot summer day. And when I landed on the sidewalk, my ankle turned, and it was sprained. Pretty badly. I had some trouble walking for awhile. That is not a very typical injury for a 9 year old, I don't think.

However, that was it, for awhile. So maybe it was just an isolated incident.

Then, in high school I joined the track team. And it was there that sprained ankles became a rather routine occurrence. Almost every couple of months, I would turn an ankle while running. The ankles would get very swollen, and I would miss several days of running. But it never was debilitating. Pretty much just a nuisance.

Senior year of high school, I was in a car accident, where I severely sprained my right ankle, while crashing into a telephone pole (and I'll save that story for another blog, when I'm really desperate for material). That time, the sprain was so severe that they told me I would have been better off if it had been broken. I couldn't walk for almost 3 weeks, and couldn't even bear any weight on it for over a week. Really bad.

After that, I kept running, and kept turning my ankles. It got to the point that my ankles had become "rubbery". I could literally snap my ankle over to the point that I occasionally had scratches or cuts on the outside of my ankle bone, and I would just keep running, and it didn't even swell anymore. There was nothing left to sprain! And though the right foot was worse, there were plenty of times I sprained the left ankle too.

So, nothing left to sprain... problem solved, right?

Unfortunately no. When I was about 25 years old, I was back into running pretty seriously again, and one day I was running 4 or 5 miles, out along some railroad tracks. And I must have stepped on a railroad tie just the wrong way, and I felt my calf muscle "Pop!" and had to immediately stop running. It was a severe muscle pull. I could not run back. I could barely walk. And I ended up having to ask a person in their yard if I could borrow their phone to call my roommate to come pick me up. It was that bad. And that was my first calf strain.

Since that first injury, I have never been able to run regularly, for any period of time. I will run for a few days, weeks, or sometimes months, and then, as soon as I feel like everything is "in the clear", there goes the calf pull again. And it's not always one side. Pretty much random. I have tried stretching. I have tried anti-inflammatories. I have tried strengthening exercises. I have tried ice. I have tried drinking lots of water. I have tried physical therapy. I have tried taking vitamins to avoid cramps. I have tried resting. I have tried alternative means of exercise. All to no avail.

At one point I went to an orthopedist who, of course, wanted to do surgery on my ankles to rebuild the damaged ligaments. I opted not to do so, because it seemed there was a chance I would end up worse off than I was already.

So, consistently, for the last 15 years, I have gone from running, to not running, to running, to injured, and back. I've repeatedly sworn that I would never bother trying to run again. But the problem is that I really love it. It's my favorite form of exercise. It is extremely frustrating to have the cardiovascular capacity, and strength to run forever, but not have the calf muscles to deliver me there. 

I have a theory about the cause. And, of course, no doctor is interested in my theory, because most doctors are not particularly curious about much of anything. But the theory goes like this, and I'll tell you here, because it's my blog, and I can write whatever I want: 

I think that when I finally damaged both of my ankles to the point that the ligaments were no longer capable of stabilizing my feet, which was already a predisposition due to the clubfeet, that my body began compensating by using calf muscle flexion to hold my feet in the proper position while running. And it's not something I can control, because it's about basic posture and stability. So, when I run, I am constantly applying much greater forces to my calves than someone who has good ankles. And thus, the low endurance, and tendency toward calf pulls.

It gets really old hearing people ask the question "Do you stretch?" or "Are you drinking enough water?", because I've been dealing with this for fifteen years now, and I know what works and doesn't work. The only thing that works is not running. Everything else doesn't work.

This past week, I guess I'd pushed it too far again, and both of my calves are on the verge of strain. So I'm doing kooky exercises like jogging in place. Maybe I should have done the surgery when I was 27. But I think it's a little late for it now. Better to just work around the problem and enjoy what I can do, instead of worrying about what I cannot do.


  1. have you tried stabilizing running shoes?

  2. Rrrrrrrrooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!!!