Physical Therapist’s Personal Journey from Injury to Ironman

Physical Therapy, Stress Facture, TriathalonsPhysical therapists are the go-to experts on recovery from sports injuries. We know when to push through the pain and when to back off. I’ve helped hundreds of athletes return to their sport quickly and have taught seminars on how to avoid sports injuries.

So when I suffered a stress fracture in my left foot’s 2nd metatarsal, I figured recovery would be a piece of cake! I’m a physical therapist and I know how to take care of it. Plus, I had been injured before and always managed to jump right back into my training and racing routine.

I decided I would keep on training without interruption, and just manage my symptoms. I had a full year of triathlon races on the calendar, and I was going to do every one of them. Like many other triathletes, I am as stubborn as they come and as a physical therapist, I was doubly bull-headed about healing quickly.

As it turns out, injuries don’t respond well to will-power alone. My stress fracture resulted from a combination of overuse and, as I later found out, severely low levels of Vitamin D. So, naturally, the recovery did not go as I planned. Even with rest and orthotic adjustments, my stress fracture could never fully heal because I would increase my mileage as soon as my foot felt a little better.

Triathlon-photoWe tried to manage it conservatively with immobilization and I continued to train and race in triathlons. The pain only worsened, and then the injury evolved into a plantar plate tear on my 2nd toe with a hammertoe. I also started to suspect a neuroma was forming in the same foot. After almost a year of trying to conservatively manage the injury, it got to the point that I could not make it through a day at work without pain. That’s when I decided to have surgery.

I underwent surgery for 2nd hammertoe repair and plantar plate repair in December of 2011. No surprise to anyone that I wouldn’t let anyone operate on me but Dr. Franson. He is the best.

Dr. Franson did a great job repairing my foot, but my patience quickly outpaced my recovery. I did everything I was not supposed to do. I went back to work after just a few days after surgery. I found ways to ride my bike even with the pin sticking out of my toe using all sorts of contraptions. As soon as my pin was removed, I started training again, medicating to manage the pain instead of just letting the foot heal. All the while, I could hear Dr. Franson’s and my own disapproving voice in the back of my head.

But I just thought, I’m a PT, I know what to do. They say that healthcare providers are the most non-compliant patients, and it’s true: I denied my injury so much that only three months after surgery, I raced Oceanside Ironman 70.3 and continued to train for Ironman Canada scheduled for five months later. I would have smacked myself, had I been my patient.

I pushed my foot too fast, too soon, and refractured my 2ndtoe. But even then I continued to press on. I was too stubborn to slow down and there I was, 6 months post-surgery, in a cam walker boot, explaining to my patients what I had done.

However, not even that convinced me to stop training.

Triathalon, Stress fracutre, Foot injuries and runningUltimately, I completed my Ironman in Canada, 8 months after my surgery. I crossed the finish line proud of my accomplishment, but deep inside, I knew that the hardest part of recovery was just beginning. I finally had to completely give up running to address the pain in my foot, knees and back that I had been ignoring. After 3 months of true rest and physical therapy, all the swelling and pain in my foot disappeared. I went back to swimming, biking, and running pain-free.

In hindsight, my recovery would have been so much smoother and faster if I wasn’t so stubborn. If I only listened to Dr. Franson and heeded the common sense directives that I give to my patients every day, I would have been so much better off.

To date, I have completed 3 more Ironman races– all without any foot pain. I can say from first hand (or is it first-foot!) experience that the physical therapist in me just wanted what was best for me all along!

Physical Therapist, Stress Fracture from RunningSuzanne Hawson, PT, MPT, OCS

Suzanne Hawson, PT, MPT, OCS is a Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Orthopaedics by the American Physical Therapy Association. Her primary interests are in sports medicine & biomechanical evaluation. She is also part time faculty in the Physical Therapy Program at California State University, Northridge and teaches injury prevention seminars to local running groups. She has rehabilitated athletes at all levels from recreational athletes to professional & Olympic athletes. In her spare time, Suzanne enjoys travelling, triathlon, yoga and Pilates.

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