Weird, thought Linsey Corbin. I’ve never had shinsplints before.
Indeed—weird is right. Aren’t shin splits an injury that strikes high school freshmen in the their first weeks of their first track season? As opposed to a professional Ironman specialist—with a college track background— who has raced the Ironman distance 15 times and never dropped out? It was in the spring of 2013 when Corbin, at 32 years of age, felt lower tibia “shin splint” pains stirring as she prepared for Ironman St. George 70.3. Grinding her teeth—Corbin had to talk herself down off of a cliff— she reluctantly withdrew from the race.
In June, things were looking up when she won Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant in Quebec. But at Vineman 70.3 in July, the pain inflamed. Corbin came off the bike in fifth—and that’s where she finished. And with a cost.
“I full on broke it,” Corbin says. She knew going into the race that afterward she would need to take some serious rest time, but she had put too much pressure on the foot and leg. She registered this fact after she had cooled off from the race. “I couldn’t walk across the street.”
The diagnosis was either a stress reaction or a stress fracture, but no matter, the severity of the problem had become a rolling storm front over her plans to prepare for and race the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The heart of Corbin’s season was in jeopardy, symbolized by the boot she had to wear for six weeks.
Enter Jay Dicharry, physical therapist and author of the book, Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed and Injury Prevention. Dicharry’s home base is in Bend, Ore., where he has set up shop at Rebound Physical Therapy. Corbin and Dicharry talked in September, where Corbin—as dedicated and stubborn as a triathlete goes (which we all know is saying something)—asked Dicharry if there was a chance in hell she could be repaired well enough to at least consider showing up in Kona.
Which prompted a rather audacious reply:
“We’re totally going to fix you,” Dicharry said with fire. “You’ll be ready to run a sub-3 marathon.”
Was this guy nuts? Corbin wondered. The closest she’d come to running had been the six weeks she’d spent clomping around the house with the boot on. But the physical therapist’s enthusiasm won her over.
“He was such an optimistic, positive influence. Just unbelievable: so much contagious energy. Most doctors would have insisted I take time off. Jay said, ‘We’re going to make you as strong as possible. Your form will be so strong throughout the entire run.’”
Dicharry’s approach with any athlete is to essentially turn them into a study of one.
“I love scientific research. As a matter of fact, I conduct research studies,” he says.
But there’s a limiting factor when it comes to being governed by research studies, Dicharry explains, which lies in the gray area that is created when study results are the average of a group, where some runners are simply more efficient than others, ultimately skewing the data. Dicharry prefers to make the athlete who comes to see him for help a study of one.
This is the approach he would take with Corbin. Although Corbin’s situation wasn’t an ideal scenario: He was just seeing her for the first time with a seven-week deadline to hit. It was a rush order where the stakes were high. As to what first caused the shin splints-type-pain early in the year, he didn’t have any data that would support a hypothesis as to why the injury first occurred. Corbin thinks it might have had something to do with going to a zero drop shoe, but Dicharry waved it all off as speculation. And since, for the most part, Corbin ran through the injury for several months, the specific damage roiling in Corbin’s foot and lower leg had become too messy to search for valid clues. It was as if there had been a fire in a house, but before investigators could have a chance to examine the evidence, a bunch of Dr. Seuss characters had several dance parties inside.
Dicharry’s plan? To not worry about what caused the injury at this point, but rather just rebuild Corbin’s running ability. “I knew we’d be doing a lot of things to get her to a place where she could run 26 miles.”
One of Dicharry’s main tools is a force plate set up on a treadmill, where he can glean information about an athlete’s foot strike. He had Corbin try different types of running shoes in a search for the best individual outcome. Dicharry also looked at Corbin’s gait and stride frequency. He put together a plan that incorporated soft tissue work in her feet and lower legs, skill work, and finally strength training on Wednesdays and Sundays to spark better hip and glute activation.
In that time period, Corbin’s longest run was 9 miles—a bit of information that was hard for Corbin to process, given that in the past she’s done things like bike back and forth across states over a 3-day weekend to get in some decent mileage. “How do you run an Ironman marathon when your most recent long run is just 9 miles?” Corbin said, confused by the notion.
Dicharry pointed out that more endurance was the last thing Corbin needed. Not only would she get that from long rides and swimming, she had an aerobic foundation about equal to the expanse of Montana.
Dicharry’s focus was in helping the musculoskeletal system help itself. For example, let’s say you’re a 45-year-old Ironman triathlete who, over the course of two decades, has slowly been grinding down knee cartilage, molecule by molecule, cell by cell. This cartilage, AKA meniscus, serves the knee joint by cushioning shock and enabling smooth movement in the joint. If the meniscus is no longer able to do this job, there’s no healing it in a 45-year-old—but Dicharry says this is where muscle can come into play. By strengthening the muscles, tendons and ligaments, the work of the meniscus can be redistributed to tissue that can be trained to take on the extra load. The answer? Strength and weight-training work.
After six weeks of working with Corbin, Dicharry made the trip to Kona to help see the 2013 Hawaii Ironman through for her. This included a visit to the gym just days before the starting cannon.
“While others were at the pier, I was in the gym doing push presses, squats and bench presses,” Corbin says. As unorthodox as it was, she basically shrugged and said, Jay, I’m all in. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
It required a level of surrender, for sure. Corbin was not new to lifting weights, but her routine was more in line with sets of 12-15 reps at moderate weights—an ancillary component of her training. Dicharry believes that weight training should be integral to a triathlete’s program. In Kona, Dicharry had Corbin “max-out”— in other words, perform sets of six or less reps as heavy as Corbin could handle.
“I had worked with Linsey long enough to know her rates of recovery,” Dicharry says with a laugh. “I knew she would be fine by race day.”
Which she was: Corbin uncorked a 3:04 marathon, her best marathon split ever in Kona.
It didn’t turn into the survival slog she initially feared because of the lack of any long runs. “My last 10k,” she says, “was my fastest of the day.”
Dicharry’s work with his new athlete—a research study of one—didn’t stop once the race began. Despite the road closures preventing access to the course, Dicharry hopped on a mountain bike, road 25 miles out of his way over hill, dale and across a lava field, and was able to cheer Corbin on for a few seconds of time on the Queen K. He then hauled ass to make it back into town to see his athlete make the top 10—salvaging a tough season.
Since then, Corbin has made some big changes. She and her husband Chris have moved from Missoula, Montana, to Bend, Oregon. Dicharry wasn’t the original inspiration for the move—Bend is where Corbin grew up—but it may have latched the plan. She has also parted ways with coach Matt Dixon, and is currently tinkering with a new approach for 2014.
The one thing she has figured out is that Dicharry will have a lot to do with things. The experiment continues …