Don’t be hamstrung! Learn from my Hamstring Mistakes
The following story is a case study of my life as an injury prone athlete. I have decided to share my personal experience as an athlete in the sport I love. My hope is you will learn from my mistakes. Both athlete and coach take responsibility when something doesn’t go to plan. In the following story, I have boldfaced different ideas through my experience have allowed me to ponder the best routes personal performance.
Growing up, I was a gifted sprinter blessed with a powerful nervous system, swagger, and hitting puberty before all of my classmates. At the youth level, I set many area and age group records. I enjoyed the feeling of running fast as the air whistled past my ears. I never worried about injuries or warmed up. My only goal was to beat the fastest kids in my neighborhood. Daily I would explode out of my front door in an attempt to beat my friend Todd to his front door four houses down just after hanging up the phone. I did not know at the time, but I was developing my maximum velocity at a very young age. I was also developing muscles that were very hard and significantly reduced my mobility. At a young age, I had no one to teach me about proper mechanics, flexibility, or warming up. My future injury troubles had deep roots I was beating all comers and felt there was no reason to do anything outside of running fast because it seemed like a waste of time. Little did I know my bad mechanics, lack of flexibility, and warming up many years down the line would spell disaster for my hamstrings. Lack of knowledge in pacing during workouts would become another problem. I didn’t understand how to train at the right pace for interval training. I knew one speed ALL OUT. Early on I was fearless and would push my body to the limit. However, that meant I never could complete a practice because I had no clue how to pace an interval. One of my most embarrassing memories I had was trying out for a select track and field team. I remember treating the first intervals of the practice as if it was a track meet. The coach was very impressed as he had never seen anything like the times I was running. However, after the third 200-meter interval, I hit the wall even though I won by over 30 meters. I could not go one more step. More embarrassing then rolling around on the ground with severe booty lock for ten minutes was the trail of puke I left in my wake as my dad helped me from falling back down the stadium steps as we worked our way back to the car. I knew nothing about cooling down.
In high school, some issues were exacerbated. For example, after a tough workout, I would lay flat on the ground as the world spun around my head like a carousel. My teammates love how hard I worked to keep up with multiple state medalists during intervals. Many of my teammates on the varsity team were four or five years older. However, because of my lack of pace and cool down my body took a beating. Without the cool down my muscles would be sore and less flexible because I would never do my post-practice stretches. Additionally, after brutal training sessions, my post workout meals would be less than perfect. Often my starving body would go looking for vital nutrients from a post workout meal would have to wait for hours after the workout. Post-practice my stomach couldn’t tolerate any food because all my systems were on edge because of my lack of proper pace or cool down. My lack of nourishment after every practice meant my body was always in a calorie deficit. My times hit a wall, but still very competitive for a freshman in a talented region. I finished my freshman year as a qualifier for the state championship as part of the 4×400 relay. In the following summer, I was working, going to football conditioning, and staying up way too late chasing the ladies. No recovery and no sleep became my new normal. The next school year I was the number one running back on the football team, still working, and going to school with a full load of classes. I started to lose weight rapidly and having problems with the bathroom. After some visits to the doctor’s office, they discovered that Crohn’s disease was causing my physiological problems. After a series of tests, it was confirmed I had a large number of dangerous ulcers causing serious problems with my GI track. Crohn’s meant rapid weight loss, loose stool, minimal absorption of vital nutrients, increase the chance of injury, and illness. Thankfully with the help of the help of expert doctors and my mother’s research on holistic methods, the crises was averted. Modern and holistic medicine working hand in hand I did not need to have surgery. Once my systems got back to normal, I was able to return to a healthy diet, and my weight stabilized. I still can’t help but think the lack of rest pushed my body to the limit and exposed my system more to Crohn’s. I returned to play as soon as I could to the football team but due to the residual fatigue from the effect of Crohn’s took a beating in practice and separated my shoulder. All things considered, the football season was still fruitful, and I won my team’s offensive MVP.
The following winter I wanted to specialize in just two sports and decided I was going to quit basketball to concentrate on track along with football. At the time while I was at high school there was not an organized off-season winter conditioning program. Recently, expert coaches like Vern Gambetta have warned early specialization can limit career sports outcomes or leave athletes injured from overuse of repetitive action. Needless to say, quitting basketball to focus on track during the winter was a bad idea, I did not get a lot of work in that winter leading me to come into track season in worse shape than I left football season. I did not do the consistent or correct training to replace the fitness being a part of a team sport would have provided me in the winter. Adding insult to injury, I lost a lot of functional movement that basketball provides from running back, forward, side to side, jumping up and down.
My sophomore year I became a centerpiece of the track team. I was a year older and the most talented athlete remaining from a team graduating a lot of seniors from the previous season. My coach put me in a significant number of events including the triple jump, long jump, sprints, and relays. I was leaving practice beat up and sore but still had yet to learn my lessons about how to stay healthy under large volumes of racing or training. As a high schooler, I was afraid to advocate to my coach that I needed more rest or back down the number of events I was contesting. Practices were tough especially when we started some practices with considerable weight and plyometric circuits as a “warm up” before starting the main part of a training of session. The fatigue opened people like myself who didn’t do the right things outside of practice to injury due to the amount of work we did before running our intervals for the day at maximum effort.
Additionally, my father thought I was not getting proper training. So he found a personal trainer to coach me on the weekends because my coach’s philosophy was never to run on the weekends unless forced to by our state championship series. Every Saturday and some Sundays I would meet up with this trainer. My personal trainer was often late to our training sessions, and once he arrived, we would run very long with no sense of the specificity of the session. In hindsight, these workouts were not very specific to enhancing sprint performance and did more to wear me out than fit my high school training plan. The additional training went a long way to making me even more fatigued and prone to a severe injury. Looking back, I had yet to learn the lesson that rest is just as important as training.
It happened right before our first track meet of the year. I had just finished an arduous jump session and had already cooled down. I was putting on my sweat suit and walking off the track to leave. My coach told me at that point I still had to do handoffs for the 4×100 relay. So instead of warming up again or advocating to my coach how beat up my body felt I strapped up my spikes, grabbed a baton, and starting working handoffs. Handoffs did not go well because our timing was off due to fatigue from the day’s training. Our lack of timing led to us doing too many practice handoffs. Handoffs are a high-intensity activity and should happen at the beginning of practice before other types of training initiated due to the highly neural requirements along with the necessary timing required to execute a proper baton exchange. Somewhere in our seventh to ninth attempt I felt and heard my hamstring burst! It was a sickening feeling, and I immediately knew something was terribly wrong. Even one of my teammates said he heard it pop. As I left practice, it became apparent my track career was entering a place I had never been, an athlete with a serious injury. It was scary, and I was emotional a wreck. Adding insult to injury literally, the coach from the girl’s team asked me, why are you limping so bad? I told him, “coach I think I tore my hamstring.” He laughed and unkindly responded, “well I guess you’re out for a long time.” I thought to myself “wow what a jerk!” In a weird twist of fate, he would eventually be my assistant track coach, and I still give him trouble for his lack of judgment. Coaches should be very careful what they say to a young person in crisis because that critical moment could play a pivotal role in how well the athlete overcomes their difficult situation. Choices under and not under my control were responsible for tearing my hamstring.
As the season progressed, I tried to come back too soon and reinjured my leg. I did physical therapy but wasn’t fully invested in the process because emotionally I felt doomed. Additionally, I did not know rehabilitation needed to be taking as seriously as training. In the end, my physical therapy was incomplete as I stopped going once my season was over. Going into the summer, my father set up work for me at a landscaping company leaving no time for me to train for the upcoming football season. The days were hard, hot, and long leaving no time or energy to get me back into shape. I used the situation as a crutch for if and when things didn’t work out after my poor preparation. I came into the junior football season as the starter with doing little or no training the summer before. Mind you this was a time that our governing body of high school activities did not allow sports related training outside of one camp a summer with our coaches. Needless to say, I was not only one out of shape starting each fall. The preseason was going well, and then I pulled the opposite hamstring in the practice before our team’s scrimmage. Naturally, the accumulating injuries on my left side the lack of completing my rehabilitation, and general fitness created an imbalance. The imbalance opened me up to an increased chance of harm to my right side. The injury to my right hamstring injury was not nearly as severe as the one affecting my left side. However, the injury kept me out long enough for me to lose my starting position. I had little playing time until again my senior football season. The rest of my high school career was full of similar experiences showing promise, making progress, getting hurt, and starting over again. Fortunately, I did play a significant role in our football teams conference championships as a change of pace running back and hit a district plus standard in the 100 dash.
In college, I was hoping for a fresh start and new beginnings. Sadly I ran into trouble quickly. Shortly after getting to college and starting classes I came down with Mononucleosis probably from sharing water bottles with teammates at practice and wounds in my jaw from an oral surgery. Thankfully, I went to a small college who understood my situation giving me time to recover and allowing me to continue my education. No longer being allowed to do contact sports football was off the table for the season. I decided to put forth my efforts into preseason training for track. The season went well running numerous personal bests, but the conference championship schedule was brutal. We had four rounds of the 100 dash and 200 dashes each to make the finals I also was a member of the 4×100 meter relay. All of these races were smashed into two days (a total of nine runs). I made it to the final of the 100 dash but twice needing a last second lean to make it to the next round. I ran a PR each of those rounds. Meanwhile, I also had to run the rounds of the 200 dash. Again fatigue played a significant role in my effort, and I was only able to make the semi-final round in the 200 dash. It was disappointing not to be All-conference in both sprints, but I was pleased to know no matter what I would have a chance to score a lot of points for my team in the 100 dash. Unfortunately, before the 100-meter final, I had to compete in the 4×100 meter relay and disaster struck again. My teammate running the leadoff leg clipped my heel as we exchanged the baton and I took an awkward step pulling my hamstring once again. I was in a rock and a hard place emotionally wanting to score points for my team and be all-conference, but I didn’t mean to go further through the embarrassment of limping down the track while everyone watched. I decided to swallow my pride, get the points for my team, and earn my all-conference medal. I did everything possible to give a real effort in the race but after a few pushes out of the blocks, I knew it wasn’t in the cards. The pain was excruciating, and my leg just wouldn’t work. After the race, I was emotionally and spiritually broken. I shed many tears and of course, some teammates thought I just “flaked” out not fully understanding my injury riddled history. Sometimes it’s better to sacrifice a few team points to keep a few more athletes healthy. A race load is very individual and today I still struggle with what is the right balance.
After deep self-reflection, I decided I was going to do everything I could to prepare myself for the upcoming track and field season. I ran in some summer meets, trained after or before work daily to stay in shape, started researching training theory, and lifted weights religiously putting on 25 lbs. of muscle since my senior year of high school. My sophomore year in college I was very focused and had finally bought into warming up properly, stretching, and strength training. Unfortunately, my training was not as well designed. Some workouts in the offseason required long road runs topped off with repeat 200s, no active recovery days, and surprise extreme workouts that did seem to figure into a solid plan. I was starting to understand what we were doing might not what people would consider is best practice. So I would do what I could to work with the training. I had a great indoor season running a huge PR in the 55, 60, 200meter dash, my teammates and I even set a school record relay. However, I was still just a young man with a limited understanding of training and how to maximize my potential. Early in the outdoor season, I ran a huge personal best in the 100 and 200 dash. However, my coaches caught on to the fact I might have been making excuses to avoid certain aspects of training. They held me more accountable to finishing out all the training no matter how poorly constructed. I was limited in my progress, but once away from the official training schedule I was able run another personal record in the 100 dash. My junior year did not go well starting with a severely injured ankle in the fall during football. Effectively, ending my career on the gridiron. After a lengthy recovery from having my foot folded back to the Achilles’ tendon during a high-low tackle, I started training for track again in earnest. Karma will get you one way or another early in my coaching career I had difficulty disciplining athletes like me when I first started. I have shared numerous stories in the Sprinter’s Compendium that deal with coaching less the kind personalities. My payback for my behaviors would last a long time and even now as I write there are new situations that present challenges.
I had goals but allowed for myself to be distracted. I was too focused on what my teammates were doing and not enough on my success. Our team had gotten a lot better, and now I was putting pressure on myself to perform at a high level. I never felt relaxed when I race and now because of my on-campus competition, my runs became even tighter. Along with the pressure, I was feeling I couldn’t make a significant number of practices because of my responsibilities as being the student body vice-president and president during my last two years in school. My campus leadership positions cost me, time, effort, training, energy and I needed to pick just one politics or sports. Unfortunately, once again I had overextended myself. Predictably halfway through the outdoor season, I was hurt again. I was able to salvage my season once again running another PR but this time, I had just after coming off an injury. Running PR after coming off an injury was curious, to say the least, and it became clear there had to be a better way to train sprinters.
The repeated nature of my injuries and a weird permanent lump that seemed to crunch in the back of my leg had me questioning “was something uniquely wrong with my leg?” After six years of doctors, coaches, and their opinions a doctor had the wise idea of taking an x-ray of my leg from the profile position. Doctors couldn’t see the damage in my muscle because it was in line with my bone. The problem didn’t appear until they changed the angle of the image. Understandably, most of the time an x-ray would uncover nothing from soft tissue damage. However, I had torn my hamstring and then reinjured it on so many occasions tissue in a significant portion of my muscle had calcified. The calcification on the x-ray looked as if I had a bone floating in the back of my leg. Once discovered I was working on a limited timeline and need to get surgery as soon as possible if I was planning on racing my senior season. The surgery went well; the doctor removed the calcification, and allegedly gave my hamstring “slack” to reduce the chance of future injuries. I never injured my hamstring on that leg again and was at peace with the fact I had something wrong in my body needing fixing. The weird crunchy feeling was real, and my performance issues were not all in my head.
Recovering from surgery, I made another major training mistake by weight lifting my upper body with a focus on hypertrophy. Thus, creating more weight in my upper body than necessary and again my frame unbalanced. My entire track career I was chasing an elite time in the 100-meter dash. I thought the stronger I got the faster I would run. Often increasing strength does make you faster but not when the only lift with improved numbers is the bench press. Unfortunately, I still had not learned the most important lesson. I wasn’t built to run the 100 dash. I should have been a 400-meter specialist. Remember, the 4×400 was the event I qualified for as a freshman. If you would go back and look at my numbers, the long sprint was my best individual event my freshman high school season. Training for the 400 I could have stayed healthier and racing down to the 200 dash. My career would have been more productive with a lot less hamstring injuries running 400 based workouts with slightly lower intensities place on my temperamental muscles. Sadly my career ended unceremoniously with one more final injury on my “healthier” leg. In an ironic twist of fate, my last injury happened in a similar fashion to my very first hamstring tear. I had just finished an exhausting training session. I had already cooled down, had put my sweats on to step off the track, and my coach called me back to do handoffs.
As sad as this story might have been for me it fueled different aspects of my sprint coaching development. I never wanted a sprinter who I coached to go through what I had gone through. In the beginning, a lot of my ideas to reduce injury looked more like throwing knives in the dark. However, as time went on I figured out ways to improve as a coach. I tried my best to learn from my experiences along with predecessor’s mistakes and successes. At times, this is tough but further, in this book, I explain the process we have developed to keep our sprinter’s healthy. Over time, we have refined our program and can boast only one pull or hamstring tear in the last six years. It is my hope and mission to provide the means for you to limit your athlete’s injuries. There are many different paths a coach can take to reduce injuries. To avoid having another athlete like me in your program remember to do the following things:
- Make sure the athletes do the small things well. Include your athletes in planning their training, prehabilitation, and rehabilitation.
- Do your research and develop a team to support your athletes.
- Clearly explain expectations in your training, communication, and culture.
- Do your best to be the best coach you can be by practicing proven training methods.
- Try to mentor your young people to be well rounded but also don’t let them abuse your kindness.
- Over the long haul discipline, with practical options, clear expectations will contribute significantly to healthy, happy, and dedicated athletes.