running trail

On pain and steep learning curves

As you start this week, may you learn to appreciate the purpose behind your pain. I know that’s what I’m learning right now.

I recently started running again after a year hiatus, when I tore my ACL and needed complete reconstructive surgery (it was a doozy). Most of last spring I was in regular physical therapy, followed by a slow but steady build back up to basic life skills like climbing stairs, straightening both legs to the same degree, and sitting in a tiny airline seat all the way to Syndey, Australia. Stuff like that.

The rules were: no trail running, yoga, pilates, or sports that involved a back-and-forthness for one year (because of all the knee twisting). No skiing or snowboarding for two years (because that’s how I tore my ACL in the first place). But after a few months in to therapy, I could ease back in to stationery biking, swimming laps, steady track running, and easy weight lifting in order to build strength.

Can I just admit right here that I did almost nothing for a year? That’s right. I went from running several miles a day, several times per week, to nothing. That “easy weight lifting”? Nada.

Needless to say, my strength went downhill pretty fast in 2013. I turned in the Blue Bike manuscript on January 31 after nonstop writing for a month. I tore my ACL on February 9. It was a super-active year for me.


So now that we’re back from our travels, I’m back at running. It feels amazing. But not only have I needed to start slowly because of my knee and general pathetic weakness, I’ve also decided to try out minimalist shoes, taking all the precautions I’ve both read about online and talked through when I was fitted for them.

(Minimalist shoes force you to run differently than with regular running shoes; as though you’re running barefoot through grass. It takes time to get used to them. But that’s a different post for another day.)

And even though it does feel amazing to be back at running, I’d be seriously lying if I didn’t tell you: I’m also in complete pain. I feel every single muscle down both legs and throughout my feet. My upper arms ache. My core, shoulders, and neck are sore. My toes are okay, but that’s about it.

I’m learning the consequence of negligence, of physical idleness, and I’m paying for it now. It sucks, to be perfectly honest. But I know it’s not without meaning. It serves a purpose.

I’m learning the benefit of pain right now. I’m learning that pain is worth it because it’s a symptom of progress. It means I’m farther than I was yesterday. It means I’m trying something new, I’m learning, and that new often equals pain in the beginning. It’s good, I’ve learned, to always have something in my life with a steep learning curve.

She stopped making excuses and started making progress. (Print by Pen & Paint.)
Art from Pen & Paint

This doesn’t mean pain is a skip through the meadow. I’m still in the early phase of forcing myself to get out the door to endure it all. But I know it’s worth it, and both my future goals and the daily joy of completion and progress are helping me run through the pain, one step at a time.

If you’re enduring pain right now, step back and reflect on its purpose. Do you see any? Even if it’s no fun, are you able to wade through the Hallmark-card thoughts about pain giving you strength, and unearth the truth that pain isn’t meaningless? It’s not. I promise.

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. As a PT myself this post reminds me of Wolff’s law which basically states bones get stronger the more stress that is put on them. Hmm… a metaphor for life perhaps? I hope your knee continues to heal and get even stronger than before! 🙂

  2. After a 3 year painful period that included a VERY steep learning curve (leaving a “successful” ministry to start something new and feel like a total FLOP), I totally agree that pain isn’t meaningless. But when you’re going through it, that’s so hard to see. Only afterwards do you see the growth it brought you.

    Good luck with getting back to running. (This may be cheeky of me, but I LOVE your cute, new hair from your new picture. :-))

  3. My earlier comment didn’t go through. Just wanted to say you are brave and strong! I hope you can forget distance and speed and time and just get out there and enjoy yourself.

  4. Oh wow. I needed to read this today. I didn’t even know it. I was in a car accident and my recovery has been slow. Or felt slow. But my goal is to get back to running. I miss it so much. I’m getting there. But thank you so much for putting your heart into these words and reminding me to find the purpose in this pain. Thank you. Ps. Your book has had a profound impact on my marriage in the most amazing way. I’ve been sharing it with my husband and it has really helped us focus our life and goals. Thank you!!!!

  5. Wow – how timely. I tore my ACL skiing 6 weeks ago. I have already learned so much from this injury and I think I have a long road ahead to learn a whole lot more. Thanks for sharing your story. As I struggle with being sedentary and not being able to care for my family I need to constantly look for meaning in the pain. Thanks for giving me some more meaning.

  6. I hear ya. I just picked it up again after being inactive for nearly two years because of pregnancy/ newborn / sleepless baby. It’s so easy to stop when you have an excuse and painful to start again. I especially hate the point during a run when you remember how in shape you used to be.

    Good things come to those who work though, right? 🙂 good for you for starting again.

    • “I especially hate the point during a run when you remember how in shape you used to be.” <-- Ohmygoodness, YES. 🙂

  7. I wish I could express how much these words ring true for me in so many areas. Everything I experience seems to be with huge learning curves. And for this post to happen yesterday, a day with a very painful learning experience, means so much.
    All I can do is look forward, and just do the next right thing.
    Thank you for your words Tsh.

  8. So glad to hear that you’ve been able to begin again! I so love how running meets us where we’re at, welcomes us back after an injury or a pause, and congratulates us, no matter how far or how fast we’ve gone.

  9. And I was beginning to be desperate because of my 6-week break! Thank you, very timely.
    And bravo for the minimalist shoes. i t will get better, and quickly I made the switch last year, and there is no turning back.

  10. After a year of physical therapy, I’m transitioning to working on my own. Last week, I was “strong.” This week, ten laps across an Olympic sized pool (which used to be really easy) is agony. I remind myself that a year ago, 2 laps would have been impossible. But it’s like grade school: I finally completed it & then found myself at the bottom of the class. It’s work & it hurts. But it’s possible & I’m happier & healthier when I just push myself to the pool. I want to dance again. I want my body to feel as it did before I was ill. So, I’ll pretend I’m a high school freshman as often as necessary.

    Thanks for this lovely post. Am so happy to have found your blog.

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