Effect on Running Pace and VO2 Max After 6 Weeks Off Due to Sciatica From Injury. If you are here, it is because you have had to take time off from running due to injury or some other reason; or you are wondering what it will be like if you do have to do so. There is hope!
A little background if you have not reviewed my website at www.runwithdoug.com – I am a 62-year-old male that has qualified as a USATF Masters All American road runner for the past ten years from 2012 through 2022. My USATF Masters PR’s – after 55 years old – are 6:11.6 for the mile; 21:01 for the 5K; 35:22 for the 8K and 45:36 for the 10K. Most recently I ran a 21:48 at the USATF certified and chip-timed Myrtle Beach Coastal 5K race in October of 2022, finishing 1st for all runners 50+. All of my race results are posted here – https://runwithdoug.com/race-results/
Until this injury, I had not had more than a two-week running layoff for any reason since 2011.
On Saturday, November 19, 2022, I was in the gym pushing myself harder than I should have and I was injured while doing barbell squats. I herniated the disc at L5-S1 which put me into a very bad situation resulting in sciatica that severely impacted my lower back, glutes, left piriformis, both thighs, left calf and my left foot.
The First Few Weeks Post Injury
For the first two days after the Saturday injury, I had to mostly lay on the ground on my back with my legs elevated on a chair in the “static back” position. It was the only way to get out of pain. I could not get more than a couple of hours of sleep due to the pain. After a trip to the emergency room on Monday, November 21st, I was prescribed steroids and Valium for a week, while also taking twelve Advil, two every four hours, for two weeks. This enabled me to sleep better, which helped greatly. At that time my short-term goals were to be able to sleep, walk, sit, and stand without pain. The basics! I thought my running career might be over.
Initially after being hurt, I could not walk for more than a few steps without help from my wife as a crutch. By the end of the first week after the injury, I could walk for three minutes with a heavy limp before my left leg, piriformis and glute would seize up from sciatica and the pain got to be too great, driving me to the ground into a static back position.
Two weeks after the injury I could walk with a limp for six minutes before seizing; by the end of four weeks, I could walk 2 miles; and at the end of six weeks, I could easily walk 3 miles with only a slight limp.
I started going to my local chiropractor after the first week and that did not help much. I continued to go three times per week for the next six weeks until I was somewhat pain free; and then once weekly or every two or three weeks for three months after that. I am not sure if most of the pain resolved by itself or via the chiro care, but it did not matter to me.
VO2 Max and Resting Heart Rate
How about VO2 Max? Before the injury, during November of 2022, my Garmin would tell me after each run that my VO2 Max was between 47 and 51, which are great numbers for my age. By January 12, 2023, my VO2 Max was down to 43 or 44. Supposedly, according to online sources, I should have expected to drop nearly 20% from where I was at pre-injury, so my approximate 10-16% drop was not so bad. My resting heart rate at January 12th, which I check at least weekly while sleeping, had crept up to 40, after being 38 for the past couple years.
The Road Back to Running – Month One – January 2023
The online sources all said that it would take me 60-90 days, or about two days for every day off, to get back to where I was before my injury. Why? Decreases in aerobic fitness, muscle strength, circulation, flexibility, etc. That suggested it would be about April 1, 2023 before I had recovered fully, and this would be a good test and case study to see how accurate these estimates are.
At the start of the 7th week after my injury, on New Years Day 2023, my first day back running, I struggled to run 2.35 miles at a 9:59 pace – just under my 10-minute goal pace. I still had a limp due to pain and tightness in my left calf muscle. My running stride and aerobic capacity were impaired.
On January 12, 2023, in the middle of my 8th week after the injury, I ran a 2.35 mile time trial at the fastest pace I could muster at an 8:55 pace, dropping more than a minute in the 11 days since January 1. The pain in my left calf, and the tightness, was nearly gone. The only pain was a slight pain and tightness in my left ankle when rotating it clockwise and counter clockwise. I noticed that my quads were smaller, and the skin was loose and wrinkled around my knee cap. Six weeks off had cost me muscle. My left calf muscle was also not at 100% – I could do a calf raise using my right calf but not my left one, without helping it by taking weight off it.
On January 13, 2023, I ran an easy 5K training run. My VO2 Max was 44 and my pace was 9:58 per mile. I started to get some feeling in my quads and a decent pump which felt great, but my stride and aerobic capacity were still way off. My “easy” run time pre-injury was an 8 to 8:30 minute pace and now it was nearly 10 minutes. Here is a look at my Garmin for the January 13, 2023 training run.
On January 19, 2023, exactly two months since my last 4 mile run, I ran an easy 4 mile training run. Easy to me is I am not working very hard and I am focused on keeping my breathing easy. At two months post injury, this is a good time to compare my “easy run” performance pre and post injury. What you will see in the graphics below is that my easy 4 mile run (total) time was about 5 minutes slower after the injury, due to weakened leg muscles and my left calf nerve issue. While my cardio was worse, in terms of both heart rate and VO2 Max, (from 50 down to 43), I did not feel as though I was working harder. The run felt good aerobically, but it did not feel as good mechanically.
Pre-Injury Easy 4 Mile Run – November 17, 2022
Pre-Injury Easy 4 Mile Run Stats – Pace, Heart Rate, Cadence – November 17, 2022
Post-Injury Easy 4 Mile Run – January 19, 2023
Post-Injury Easy 4 Mile Run Stats – Pace, Heart Rate, Cadence – January 19, 2023
January 30, 2023 – A 4 mile run at a sub-9-minute pace
This was a good day for me! I wanted to complete my run without any walking and for the first 2 miles I felt good and knew I could do it. My splits were 9:02 and 8:52 so my new goal for this run was to go sub 36 minutes for the entire run, which I did. My last 2 miles were completed in 9:00 and 8:53 with a final tally of 35:51.5 at a pace of 8:57 for 4.01 miles.
My VO2 Max seemed to have consistently bottomed at 43 after being between 47 and 50 pre-injury. I was happy with these results!
Month Three – March 2023
On Monday, March 6th, I felt better than I had felt since my injury on November 19th. My pain was way down and my leg strength and cardio were coming back, but slowly. I went on a training run with the goal of running slow and easy and keeping my heart rate down as low as possible. I had a productive run, with an overall pace of 9:06 and a VO2 Max of 47, which was up nicely from the end of January when it was 43.
I also kept my heart rate under 150 for the entire run, with an average heart rate of only 131 – much improved since the run January 30th!
March 14, 2023 A Big Milestone! Matched My Time from November 17, 2022
On March 14th I went out with the goal of running a sub 8:30 and hit it with a 4 mile run at 8:27. That was big as I had not run this fast since before I was injured. My pace for this run was exactly the same as my pace for my pre-injury run on November 17, 2022.
That said, the effort required to run at this speed was quite a bit greater than the effort required to run it nearly four months earlier. My heart rate was about 10 beats per minute higher for the average and max and my stride length was shorter – my run in November was more of a slower, easy loping gait vs. the higher frequency strides I had to employ with a shorter stride for this run. Less power and a shorter stride.
This was an exciting day as I could now see a path forward to getting back into competitive racing in my Mens 60-64 age group. I reviewed the times required to get in the Top 10 in the Richmond, VA 8K in November and the Top 3 in the Myrtle Beach Coastal 5K in October and as of this run had confidence that I could achieve both. While I was not yet fast enough for a Top 3 finish in either, which requires something in the 7:00 to 7:10 per minute range, Top 10 is not bad given the injury and required rehab. Onward!
April 3, 2023
Well, it has now been 4 and a half months since the injury and I have been back running for 3 full months. It is at this point that I am supposed to be back to the point I was pre-injury, in terms of cardio and pace. What is the verdict?
VO2 Max and Resting Heart Rate
My VO2 Max has recovered nicely. Most recently I recorded a 51, putting me in the Top 1% of men in my age group and the fitness level of a 20 year old (both according to Garmin). However, I don’t feel like I have the fitness level I had pre-injury and I won’t know until I really push things in a race. My resting heart rate has also recovered to the point that each night I check it the minimum is 38 and I wake up at about 40-42.
I still have intermittent sciatic pain but it does not keep me from walking, sitting, standing, sleeping or running. When I have a flare up, it feels like my legs are heavier and they don’t respond as well as when the pain is not there.
April 2, 2023 2.34 Mile Tempo Run at 8 Minute Pace
This was my first attempt at a sub-8 run of 2 miles plus. It sounds really slow but for me it was a good milestone to hit. While I did not break 8 minutes, I ran it at 8 flat. I absolutely could have broken 8 minutes had I put the effort into it so it felt good.
My next attempt will be a sub 7:45 effort about one week prior to the April 16th race, with my race pace hopefully being in the 7:30 range for a total of 23:15 for a 5K. At that point I will only be about 30-35 seconds per mile slower than I was at peak fitness in October of 2022 and I will be able to get a Top 3 finish in most of the local races in my age group.
April 3, 2023 Easy 4-Miler at a Sub 8:45 Pace
The goal today was to see what I could do with a very easy pace and my “slow” Nike Pegasus 39 training shoes. I have not talked about it so far, but shoes make a big difference in my running times. When I am wearing my Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next% Atom Knit racing shoes that are much more comfortable and faster by at least 10 seconds per mile, going back to my Nike Pegasus 35/6/7/8/9 shoes are a drag.
I ran my 8 flat 2.34 mile Tempo run on April 2nd in my racing shoes.
April 11, 2023 Two Mile Tempo Run at 7:41 Pace
It is time to wrap up this Case Study so I went out for a 2 mile tempo run to see what I could do. I was pleasantly surprised at the 7:41 pace I achieved. I still had quite a bit of gas in the tank and easily could have dropped this into the sub 7:30 range had I been in a race.
April 16, 2023 Final VO2 Max Results – 6 Months Historical Data
Nearly five months after the injury, I can say that I have recovered most of my cardio and I can see a clear path to recovering the last of the lost speed. The graphs clearly show the effect that the injury and resulting six weeks off from running had on my VO2 Max stats. From November of 2022 through April 16, 2023, the numbers don’t lie. I believe that my age and the severity of the injury kept me from regaining all of my cardio and speed within the 90 day window suggested in online resources, but I am pleased nonetheless.
I am hopeful that the last of the pain will be gone soon and that my speed will return to under 7 minutes pace per mile for up to a 5K distance prior to my fall 2023 racing season when my big local and regional races occur. Thank you for taking part in this journey with me.