Case Study: working through the pain with Nick Atkins

Nicks 30/30 challenge

A bit of an unusual blog from us, but I hope its as popular as our previous ones due to the message it contains. A very good friend of mine is undergoing a year-long series challenges to help raise money for a cause very close to his heart.

Below is a summary of the 30 challenges that Nick Atkins is doing, having turned 30 this year.

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Nick Atkins 30 / 30 challenges

I’m sure a lot of people will question the management of some of his injuries I’m detailing here because I’ll admit its not how I would typically manage these problems, so let me explain quickly why rest is not an option here:

Nick, along with his sister Jen & brother Jon, very sadly lost their mum, Judith Atkins, to pancreatic cancer in 2013. Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of any cancer. Doctors believe there is a period of remission around 5 years that if reached, the risk of the cancer returning is negligible. Judith was a few months short of this milestone before the pancreatic cancer aggressively returned. While we are generally winning the fight against cancer, pancreatic cancer remains the outlier and part of Nicks aim is to not only raise money for research, but also awareness. (Nicks justgiving page here). For this reason, he is displaying an incredible amount of grit and determination to complete these challenges, despite his body saying otherwise.

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Nick, certified drinking athlete. Pre-challenge training

A quick background into Nick, he is what his friendship circle would describe as a “drinking athlete” and certainly not a runner. So while some endurance junkies out there may do physical challenges like these regularly, Nicks starting position was certainly not one built on endurance.

Nicks injuries to date:

 

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Disclaimer – I have permission from Nick to share these details regarding his injuries.

 

The nature of Nicks challenges meant the timeframes were dictated by inflexible dates, making it very hard to periodize any training. So load management became critical, forecasting time periods where we could off-load but maintain a crucial level of fitness.

The first problematic injury(ies) was the bilateral plantafascia pain with right sided calcaneal fat pad irritation. This was the first time we had to make decisions about the program. Previous aches and pains in the lower limbs and back were manageable and its not in Nicks nature to complain. But this pain in his foot was affecting ADL’s as well as training. Typically inflammatory in nature and progressively increasing pain, it took him to the point where he couldn’t weight bear through his heel – but was still completing physical challenges.

Controlling the controllables:

Dropping or moving a challenge was not an option, so we had to sacrifice road running training and hockey for a period of two weeks. Nick maintained fitness via swimming and cycling (a lot) in the mean time we addressed some biomechanical issues in the foot. I say this very tentatively, because in fact it was a lack of biomechanical issues that we had to address. Nick was prescribed some permanent orthotics when he was about 16 for “collapsed arches” – in fact these orthotics were probably causing more problems than solving. Nick had good active control of the medial and longitudinal arches in both feet, so no evidence of a collapsed arch. These orthotics were encouraging him to laterally weight bear via some high density medial posting of the calcaneus & preventing any medial rocking after heel-strike. We removed these, added some gel heel cushions to his work shoes to help offload the fat pad and temporarily reduced running training, which seemed to resolve the pain after two weeks. Instead, nick ramped up the swimming and cycling as part of his triathlon training.

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Nature of the beast:

There have been times recently however where we can’t modify load. Nick is currently running with right sided Achilles pain and in the last week has developed sharp pain in his left groin which is present following a rest at the end of a long run. This presented us with a problem; a month of 10k’s, with half marathons immanent and full marathons on the near horizon. Nick can’t afford to rest.

Typical management of tendon problems would be modifying load along with addressing strength. There was a dramatic difference with single leg heel raise between left & right. Temptation would be to add some exercises here to address this, but we need to acknowledge the accumulative load and consider if there would be any benefit. We decided that the back to back events could in themselves serve to maintain fitness, so we could drop a training session during the week.

The other consideration is where & when Nick is getting the pain. The Achilles pain is only present with compression, so with full plantaflexion – recreated both actively and passively, which makes me suspect a retrocalcaneal bursa involvement. We know that tendons don’t like compression but the absence of any Haglunds deformity and with adequate, well fitting running shoes there is reason to think the tendon may not be a source of symptoms. (See my previous tendon blog here with references).

The pain has stayed at the same level for over 4 weeks now, so we have identified an upcoming gap in events as a window to unload and reassess. In the mean time we can achieve short term relief with soft tissue massage to the gastrocs and some tib-fib, talocrural and subtalar mobilisations.

The groin on the other hand presents like a classic tendinopathy and we were able to exclude any pubic synthesis involvement via a series of tests. This injury was a lot more acute in nature compared to the Achilles. We tried some isometric adduction through different ranges of hip flexion and achieved some short term reductions in pain. Once again, we had to sacrifice some hockey training to try and reduce load and cutting actions in the groin, but in place of this we added isometric groin squeezes into Nicks program.

What’s next?

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Nick & his wife Cat, who has done every challenge with him so far & ironically is conducting her PhD in tendon pathology.

At the time of writing, I have my fingers crossed as Nick is running a “True Grit” obstacle course with his dedicated wife, Cat, who has done every challenge with him so far! (Except the 100 different beers in a year).

With some half marathons and marathons coming up, along with long distance treks I’m anticipating an update to this blog in the summer. Like I said, the plan now is to highlight a window of relative rest where we’ll do some detailed analysis of the right leg in particular. Overall though, I’m incredibly impressed that someone with no endurance running experience has had so little problems. It wont be typical management that’s for sure – while there are long term goals to be met, performance is not the main driver. I’m used to managing similar problems with a view of being pain free, able to perform at high level and minimising the risk of re-injury. So some of this management may not appease the purists, I understand.

For Nick, however,  there are no specific performance targets to be met, it is just essential that he finishes. He’ll do that without my help because of the level of determination he has, but my job is to try and keep a lid on the severity of injury (he insists 90 days without a hot drink is harder than any marathon or combination of marathons).

But the description of Nicks injuries & management are secondary to the fact that hopefully I’ve helped promote Nicks challenges and ultimately an awareness of Pancreatic Cancer. For that reason, if you’ve read this far please help share Nicks challenge.

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Nick & his mum, Judith.

https://www.justgiving.com/nicks3030challenge/

On behalf of Nick, yours in sport

Sam

ps – the 30th challenge is yet to be decided, Nick wants to make it something special so please send us your suggestions!!

 

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