I’m writing this amidst the most debilitating and longest-lasting injury of my 20-year running career. I’ve always considered myself one of the few, the proud, the uninjured — and haven’t had many physical setbacks. The biggest challenges have been the mental and emotional impacts of being sidelined.
After the first few weeks, feeling sorry for myself started to seem lame. Eventually, I recognized what a gift this down-time is and I began to embrace it. As a coach, I’ve helped many athletes navigate the mental challenges of dealing with and returning from injury. Until now, I haven’t experienced it firsthand. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Treat it as a Gift
You don’t have to be happy or thankful that the running gods handed you a stress fracture or, in my case, a nasty case of IT band syndrome. You’re allowed to be upset and frustrated. But, if you treat the injury as something you just need to tolerate and “get through” until things feel better, you might be missing out on a powerful lesson. Every injury is teaching you something about yourself. Actively target the weaknesses that landed you here rather than letting yourself be a passive participant. Shift your mindset into recognizing that you can take control of the situation.
One of the hardest parts of being injured is that you typically don’t have any idea about when the injury is going to heal. The uncertainty of when you’re going to be able to train and race again can be tortuous. It’s anxiety-evoking to think down the road to a goal race, consequently forcing your injury into an arbitrary timeline. Usually, nothing good comes from that approach. Take it one day at a time, meet your body where it’s at, and count the small victories. You’re finally able to walk pain-free? Yay! Finding joy on the stationary bike? Heck yes! Slow progress is still progress worth celebrating. By being too future-oriented you risk wasting a lot of mental and emotional energy on things that you can’t control. The only moment you have any impact over is the one you’re in. Don’t waste it.
We all have triggers – those pesky little things that once we are exposed to them send us spiraling down an unpleasant and unproductive thought pattern. Yet, we rarely take the time to recognize them and remove them from our world. Checking Strava to see all the miles that other athletes are logging while you’re banished to the bike is definitely not going to help you recover faster – and, it probably won’t make you feel any better either. You have control over what you let into your environment. If it’s not having a positive impact on you, get rid of it.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Support or Set Boundaries
Support is crucial when experiencing an injury. It can feel isolating when you’re on the sideline but don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and fellow runners about the struggles you’re experiencing. Not only will you find that most athletes can empathize with the difficulty of being injured, but they also might be able to lend advice on some strategies that have worked for them in the past. It’s also completely normal and valid to need to “check out” and focus on recovery, or other important parts of being a person. If you’re not feeling psyched to talk about running or upcoming races, give yourself permission to set boundaries. Let your friends and running partners know what you need and allow them the opportunity to be there for you.
Invest in Other Parts of Yourself
Being a runner has been the biggest part of my identity for over 20 years, so it’s not lost on me how hard it can be when it’s taken away. But, nobody is just a runner. We are all so much more. During the brief and difficult moments when we are denied the ability to foster one of the most powerful ways we define ourselves, we have the opportunity to invest in other aspects that make us who we are. Whether it’s focusing on your career, spending more time with loved ones, or engaging in another passion or hobby, empower yourself with other things that fill you up. It is difficult not to run with training partners or join friends in races (FOMO is real). Not only are you restricted from doing the activity that you love, but you can feel disconnected from your community – but, you don’t have to be! Take on the role of support crew for a friend. Volunteer at the next local race. Get out and do some trail maintenance. Use this as a time to give back to and connect with the sport in other ways.
As hard as it can be to see in the moment, injuries do serve a purpose. It’s okay to be bummed, it’s okay to be a little sad. Make sure you don’t stay there, and you move towards uncovering the lessons that are hidden within the struggle. The only thing worse than being injured is letting that sentence be served in vain. Allow yourself the space to be frustrated, but not at the expense of using your body’s feedback to return as a smarter, stronger, and tougher version of yourself.
Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance.