Injury is like a black hole. It sucks in your dreams, your goals, your fitness, your positivity, and your sense of self as an athlete. Okay, for some this may seem slightly dramatic or a bit of an overstatement. However, I can assure you that those who have been injured can relate.
Runners love to set lofty goals. They strive for endurance, strength, and personal bests. That is why injuries can have such an impact on athletes in the midst of a training cycle. So much time is spent planning and training for the ideal season when everything should naturally fall into place. Then suddenly, it doesn’t. A torn plantar, pulled muscle, fractured metatarsal - take your pick. If an athlete is really passionate about their sport, they have most likely incurred some sort of injury along the way. If not, they are one of the lucky ones. So, what’s next? The season is out of the picture, and a shiny, new set of crutches makes it possiblee, but a challenge to walk. Most often, eight to twelve weeks of cross-training lay on the horizon.
What did I do? I cried. Oh yes, it was messy and it was ugly. However, once I decided my pity party was not going to heal my broken foot, I picked myself back up and took it one day at a time. I cannot lie and say this is ever easily accomplished, but I believe you are capable of growing more as an athlete and as a person from the obstacles you overcome than from the parts of life that come easily.
For those that need it, this is my guide for surviving the different stages of injury:
*Please note (And a serious one): By no means have I, as an athlete, perfected any of the stages or actions mentioned below. Like many know, life is a series of ups and downs and the advice I present serves as idealistic goals to strive for amidst the chaos of being human.
Just recently injured – This is a time where feelings of despair are common and understandable.
Action: Cry, cry a lot. Appreciate the people who reach out to you to give their support (Sometimes literally, because you might fall on crutches!) and remember to pay it forward. When you are ready, put yourself back together, power pose, and get ready for the journey ahead. I gave myself no more than a week to wallow and be frustrated about getting re-injured before realizing that the only direction I could move was up.
Time on crutches or in a boot – This is a time prior to being able to cross-train and even walking is difficult.
Action: Enjoy the downtime, invest in some new hobbies, delve into both friendships and work, and stay positive. In addition, come up with an easy ‘auto-response’ to questions like: “What happened?” or “What did you do that for?” (My personal favorite response: “I wanted attention.”) I used this time in my newly freed up schedule to spend with family and boost my social life. Instead of languishing alone, it was helpful for me to surround myself with a positive support network and gain a broader perspective on my situation.
It’s time to cross-train – This is a time where the boot is off and you are cleared to start cross-training.
Get into a schedule: the more it becomes a habit and part of your daily routine, the less it becomes a choice.
Get your heart rate up: the benefits of cross-training are helpful for your overall fitness, but you have to work hard to stay in shape.
Don’t forget to switch it up! Adding variety to your routine reduces the monotony of cross-training. My go-to was a combination of biking, hopping on the Elliptigo, and swimming.
Lastly, don’t forget to rehab. It seems minor at a time where you are unable to run, but spending a few extra minutes every day building strength is crucial to staying healthy further down the road.
This can be a difficult stage to deal with because cross-training isn’t always the most enjoyable task. I definitely experienced days when only ten minutes on the bike felt like an hour. However, I found it most helpful for my training when I planned out my workouts for the week on a calendar. That way, everything was already scheduled and no amount of excuses (as much as I wanted to make them) could deter me from getting my workouts in.
Cross-training fatigue – By this point, the weeks of bike workouts have felt like a lifetime. Action: This is where you let your future running goals provide you with some much-needed motivation. Why are you even cross-training? The goal is to maintain fitness in order to sail back into running, get that new 5k PR, and tell everyone you rode that comeback train all the way to the podium. I personally made it through this stage by writing down a goal and a motivational quote and carrying them with me throughout the day; these served as positive reminders to stay focused and stick with it.
Easing back into running – This is the last stage where you are finally able get your feet back on the ground and ease back into running.
Action: I must stress the word ease because exhibiting patience at this stage is the most important trait you can maintain. The last thing you want to do is fall right back into that injury black hole. Be patient, trust the process (and your coach), and enjoy running. Trust in the fact that you can and will reach your peak fitness again while being even more mentally and physically stronger. To be honest, this is one of the stages I struggled with the most. Attempting to go from zero to full speed ahead seems like the most efficient way to get back into shape, right? Theoretically, yes, but that is simply just not how the human body works. It was always a constant battle, but I used this time to try and focus less on pace or mileage and more on the simple joy of running.
Take this guidance with a grain of salt; overcoming injury is no easy task. However, if there is one thing from which you can gain during that time, let it be a stronger and renewed drive to follow and reach your goals–whether it be to finish a marathon or qualify for the Olympics. Injury is not an ultimatum, it’s a stepping stone to growing as an athlete and coming out stronger on the other side.