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Return of the Piriformis: The Best Run Under the Worst Circumstances

Posted Jun 01 2012 7:01am

On Wednesday night, after a glass of white, a glass of red, and a highly indulgent 10pm dinner at The Smith that left me in severe belly pain (why can’t I seem to ever have leftovers when I eat there?), I got in bed only to realize that something was very, very wrong—and it wasn’t my grumbling insides.

The first time I Googled what’s become a recurring pain in the ass (literally), I had no idea what was going on with my body. Worse yet, I figured I’d only come up with porn while searching for my answer since, what else would Google find for “deep ass pain?”

Surprisingly, the answer was both obvious and appropriate: I was dealing with piriformis syndrome, a sciatica-like condition and a symptom of running on uneven, concrete surfaces (thanks, NYC street pavers).

Piriformis syndrome can feel as though there’s a boulder lodged somewhere within your lower back, hip and ass cheek (cheeks, in my case, since I have it on both sides). The tricky part is that you don’t really feel injured while running, at least not during the early stages of piriformis syndrome — but it’s more than obvious that you have an issue when walking, sitting in a chair, or even simple laying on the couch. I know; it makes no sense.

To alleviate some of the discomfort, it’s natural to want to knead the area with your fist or a household object. After all, it’s more of a soreness than a tear or particular pain that would otherwise set off an alarm that you require medical attention. For immediate relief, you can use a tennis ball or a foam roller; if you have a significant other around, or a very, very kind friend, I suggest you ask them to physically locate the trigger points (translation: those especially tense, tight areas that elicit a reaction when touched) and massage the area manually.

The main problem with piriformis syndrome is that, while the short-term remedy — essentially a massage — doesn’t sound so bad, the moment you stop kneading the area that’s bothering you, it may also begin to worsen, sending the pain shooting from the rear to the hip to the lower back. That’s what I was dealing with last night.

Fortunately, after working with physical therapists, massage therapists, movement educators and other alternative wellness practitioners throughout Manhattan since discovering the condition (the perks of my job, no doubt), I’ve also learned how to manage it like a champion. I promise I’ll write up a post about what I’ve learned one day soon, but today’s not that day. (Though I will scatter this post with a couple of yoga poses that offer a tremendous amount of relief. Like this guy to the right, for example.)

Today, I feel like talking about Thursday morning’s run, which turned out to be the best run I’ve had in a long, long time despite drinking two glasses of wine and dealing with my achey backside.

In most cases, I’d take a day off to rest my muscles when piriformis syndrome becomes an issue, but Thursday’s sunshine was far too tempting. Ultimately, I think this worked to my advantage; looking back, my theory is that I was so scared of hurting myself that I was able to maintain full-on concentration and a steady, easy pace.

After a week of relentless humidity, Thursday’s run was perfect. The sky was clear, the air was crisp. New York City was packed, as usual, but I managed to Frogger my way in and out of aggressive commuters until I found myself at the 72nd Street entrance of Central Park. Even the uphill battle of getting to Central Park couldn’t ruin my run. No, I was feeling indestructible. I wanted to race. I wanted to run forever. I wanted to pick up my speed and cross some imaginary finish line somewhere off in the distance. But instead, I plugged along, conscious of my muscles.

Here’s where prudence comes in handy. In those moments when you’re feeling really good during a run, it’s only instinct to try to avoid anything that could interrupt your pace and flow. Rather than force myself through all 5 miles of Thursday morning’s run without a break, however, I stopped after a couple of miles at the Bethesda Fountain —one of my all time favorite spots in New York City — to stretch out my glutes and to ultimately check in with my body.

Even if I didn’t want to, I know that my pit stop was the intelligent thing to do. (You can tell from my enthusiastic expression, right? Though really, I was incredibly grateful to be in Central Park at that moment, pit stop or not.)

I dropped down into a figure 4 stance, sinking deeper, deeper, deeper into the pose until I could feel that the muscles and nerves were calm and happy. Only 2 minutes later (yes, I timed it), I was back on the road and heading home, enjoying the last couple of miles of one of the most meditative runs I’ve experienced since before my unforeseen half marathon streak began in August 2011.

When I got back to my apartment, I foam rolled right away – one of the most important habits that anyone with piriformis syndrome — or addiction to running, for that matter — should take up.

As I write this now, my hip still hurts, and I know I have to be cautious in the coming days in order to avoid aggravating my muscles further. I’ll also be doing a lot of impromptu yoga poses that specifically target the area and feel incredibly good for the affected muscles. Consider this your warning: If you get embarrassed easily, you may want to avoid me for a couple of days.

On another note, my favoritest supermarket in the entirest world—Agata and Valentina—just opened right below my office, which means I’m pretty much never leaving Union Square again. Look how big and spacious and clean it is!

Random, but I felt the need to throw that in there out of excitement with the week coming to an end, so take it.

Have a great weekend!

  • Have you ever dealt with a recurring injury that you’ve learned how to manage? Do you run through it?
  • Isn’t it weird how the strangest of circumstances can result in the best of runs? (This isn’t yes or no question; I’d like your examples here, such as, “I had my best run after drinking a pitcher of sangria the night before.”)

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