Q - My questions are why is it that despite my very hard training during injury (yes, I did all kinds of intervals! and wore my hr monitor to ensure) I have not attained the benefits that others have from pool running, although I certainly felt very fit & much stronger from the pool training.
Why is it that I am starting back at square one? I've talked to several people who came back stronger or equal after having cross trained in the pool. I hear stories of people setting PBs in races & doing the same times in their intervals when they return to the roads.
My dilemma is this is not my case. What would be reasonable to expect and how long should it take to get back even to close to my previous level. My fear is that I will spend the entire year "catching up" to last year, not building on past training & accomplishments and not moving forward. What should I be doing?
A - Many issues related to cross training are raised by this query. Dealing effectively with the specific questions is somewhat limited since I am unfamiliar with the details of the case, but let's see what we can do here for this obviously exasperated runner.
Generally speaking when training and/or race performances become puzzling or disappointing, I request a blood test to see if there's any sign of infection or low levels of iron (essential for oxygen transport). Another key factor to investigate is body weight, since a gain in fat of 4 lb. on a person weighing 120 lb. will slow their 5,000 meters by over 20 seconds.
Another crucial aspect in the aftermath of a severe injury is whether there exist any limitations whatsoever. If there is any abnormal sensation even remotely achey or bothersome, then there's likely to be inhibition mechanisms at work. The body's neuro-physiology is designed to protect you from motions that are associated with discomfort.
For example, if you're in barefeet and step on a sharp object, muscles which are acting in a way that will result in pain/injury are instantly inhibited - hence the foot is drawn back and body weight is shifted in an effort to avoid the threat.
Keep in mind that this process is governed by reflex - you're not having to think it out. So unless you are completely free from discomfort, your movement might be affected to some degree, and this in turn can result in imbalancing and altering the normal running mechanics, which might cause what are termed "compensatory" injuries.
I also firmly believe that even the mental anticipation or expectation of a discomforting sensation at the site of injury can result in the inhibitory actions occurring, which is why it's sometimes a good idea to run with someone so as to distract your thoughts. Of course imbalances can result even after the injury is "healed" with absolutely no discomfort present. This might occur where the injury has resulted in a permanent alteration of bone or tissue.
Now if the aforementioned issues are judged not to be the culprits, then we have to be suspicious of the actual cross training that was engaged in and for what duration. Duration is obviously a factor since afterall it makes common sense that, in order to best train for running, a large part of your training must involve actually running - for how else will all of the specific muscles used in that action of running be trained?
If all one did was pool run with the feet not ever touching the ground then the key muscles that are located below the knee such as the soleus (muscle underlying the gastrocnemius, and attached to the achilles tendon) would never get trained. Not to mention all of the other smaller muscles that contribute to balancing and impact absorption.
So over the time of cross training by just pool running there occurs a gradual reduction in the running fitness of the lower leg muscles. If the period of time is just a couple of weeks, it might not be that big a deal; however, if it's in the order of 4 weeks or more there's going to be deterioration.
So, if possible, it's best to combine biking with pool running - but even then it's not quite the same since, for example, there's still no regular absorption of impacts going on. But cross training does maintain the fitness of the heart muscle, and some of the larger muscle groups in the leg, and the butt, and is helpful in managing body weight, so it's definitely better than moping and twiddling thumbs, which, back in the 1860's, er, I mean the 1960's, is what many of us did if we got injured.
So if you've trained as hard as you described, you should not be starting at "square one". You mentioned hearing of others that had successfully retained their fitness. And, I too can give examples of folks that were restricted to cross training returning to the "arena" very close to where they were, although never better.
Of course the event involved can make a difference - something like the 800 meters, which depends to a significant extent on basic speed, may not be nearly as obviously affected as something like a 5,000 meters, since basic speed which is related to power and strength, is relatively slow at deteriorating vs. aerobic capacity.
In 1991, I was coaching a 1,000 meter runner who incurred a foot injury requiring about 3 weeks in the pool. Within a month of returning he won the Canadian University 1,000 meter title in a time close to his best. (Note - the questioner is a 10,000 meter runner and the duration of her injury was 3 months and her post injury 5 km time has been slowed by over a minute.)
Without knowing the details of the cross training, it's impossible to judge whether the training you engaged in was truly close to being on a par with the regimen you followed in your usual injury-free state. For the same reason, I can't assess why your cross training associates with whom you've compared notes seemed to have enjoyed more success at retaining their capabilities.
I will say that when you're looking to maintain your fitness through cross training, that you should strive to simulate the normal workouts as much as possible. So if, for example, you were doing interval workouts of 8 x 800 meters, you would do 8 repetitions of whatever time it took you to accomplish them.
I even had a marathoner who when sidelined thought nothing of doing his 20 miler by pool running for 2:40 minutes. Now that's tough!
But never fear. If your health is ok, and your weight is ok, and your mechanics are ok, and you still have the same DNA, then you can be back. However, remember that you did get injured and so YOUR NEW TRAINING REGIMEN SHOULD CLEARLY INCLUDE SOME CHANGES, otherwise it's highly likely the same thing will happen again. Weight training designed to strengthen the area that was previously injured should be given serious consideration. And in the meantime, avoid thinking negatively about where you are right now in comparison to where you've been, and positively and methodically begin anew. As that sage said: "Today is the first day..."