How injury can make you a better runner and a happier person
If you are runner and you plan to be running for a long time then it is almost certain that you will, at some point be dealing with an injury. Not because running is bad for you, in fact some injury is part of the normal process of training and becoming stronger.
If dealt with appropriately we can view small injuries, not as set backs, but as part of the process of getting stronger. However, the reality of our modern lifestyles is that whilst we understand that health is wealth, most of us are walking around with overdrawn accounts. The result is that our systems do not have surplus time or energy to heal and further breakdown occurs meaning an injury or illness that prevents us from running! End of the world? It doesn’t have to be. I wanted to use our recent experience of coaching an athlete with a pelvic stress fracture from diagnosis through re-introduction to running to demonstrate how serious injury can help you become a better runner, and happier person. Additionally we would like to help non injured runners understand more about recognising, dealing with and coming back from injury so we can better support our running buddies when injury strikes.
A small note. This article is about the mental and emotional aspects of the injury process and how to deal with them. Peppered throughout are actual excerpts from our athlete’s coaching diary to help illustrate how she was able to use the injury process as a vehicle for empowerment and self exploration. I will not describe what training principles and methodologies we used throughout the process of recovery, cross training and re-introduction to running. (If readers are interested in that we can write it up in a future blog post - let us know).
“There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.” Rūmī
So how do we differentiate between run-outable niggles and an injurious one? How do we know if we are tired because of a busy work/life/training/family schedule or pushing ourselves through a wall of fatigue toward illness?
Most injuries don’t sneak up on us and instead can be traced back to stressors, niggles or coughs that were too long ignored or insufficient rest, recovery and nutrition. Practice checking the health bank balance regularly. Ask, am I hungry? Am I sleeping enough? Am I in pain? These are alerts that your bank balance may be going into the red.
Health overdraft checklist
I’ve been tired for a few days and I don’t feel like running?
I’m not eating well?
I tried going for a run anyway and it didn’t give me more energy?
I have discomfort when walking
I have pain in my bones, feet, chest
I tried going for a run and I feel worse now
If you answered yes to any of these questions. It is time to un-lace the trainers, throw your legs up the wall (https://youtu.be/uOfgUbuN1YU) and take some rest. So we know there is a problem - how do we turn it into a positive.
What would Bing Crosby do?
You've gotta accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
Make the decision right now to be the athlete who responds to challenges with positivity and learns from each new experience. Understand that this injury or illness does not define you. It does not obliterate the identity you already had of yourself as a runner (or an individual). You ARE a YOU. This is a unique, once in a life time event. You are also a runner and a part of an amazing community which you will never lose. The more you can enjoy the process and make it work for you - the more you will get out of it for longer.
“I am getting better at accepting the reality of my injury and conceptualising the time off running as time to become a stronger athlete & runner and "reset" the way I go about training. I also have begun posting "100 Days of Gratitude" as a way to remind myself that life is still good & running will come back”
(Week 1: Diagnosis)
Take this opportunity to re-connect to why it is that you run. It is likely that you will find your answers lie not in outcomes, podiums or hours, minutes and seconds but in community, nature, freedom and joy. So why not use this time outside of running to give back. Volunteer at races. Cheer on friends. Explore other sports or activities that give you those same feelings of exploration, freedom, joy and community. Stay resolutely optimistic, curious and open minded in finding different things to fill your happy cup and when you do return to running, with less pressure on it to provide your happiness - you may find your relationship with running has vastly improved.
“I really enjoyed spending time outside and finding physical activities to replace running that allowed for the same sense of exploration & freedom (such as hiking!).”
(week 4 - cross training phase)
After rest, comes cross training which although a definite sign of progress can be fraught with frustrations and feelings of loss, can’ts, never wills. We focussed on a can do approach - look to what you CAN DO and celebrate the small victories of progress along the way. Instead of comparing each cross training session with running and hating every moment, talk to your coach about cycling, aqua jogging and elliptical sessions that mimic the demands of running. Try looking for how your new found cross training fitness is making you stronger in areas that you’d previously neglected such as core and back.
+ve “I have been engaging with people about my injury / experience as an injured runner, which has been very therapeutic & inspiring. I am also enjoying others' interest in joining me during cross-training sessions!”
-ve “The feeling of physical improvement while not being able to run - these healing stages are hard because I feel like I can head out for a jog (though know that I can't - yet)!”
(week 5 - cross training phase)
There will be inevitable frustrations along the way as you begin to feel stronger and the mind is willing to run but the body is not ready. Try to understand that you are always going to be on this continuum of working hard and wanting to be better .... it is a really valuable lesson to learn to manage that self talk now so that it changes from self aggression to appreciation. You are in a really good position to learn to appreciate where you are right now, work hard and trust in yourself.
“Enjoying the few minutes of running I was able to do! The anxiety of re-injuring myself is definitely present - I notice every sensation”
(week 11 - re-introduction to running phase)
And finally when the long awaited return to running date does arrive - it may not be the chariots of fire moment you had been picturing all through those aqua jogging days.
“Recognising that running again is new territory and understanding that recovery is not A to B but rather a long, meandering journey.”
(week 13 - re-introduction to running phase)
The re-introduction to running phase is a very long and careful one. The mind is willing but the body is not ready to jump back into pre-injury mileage or pace. Running economy needs to be built up again after such a long time without practice and the musculoskeletal system needs to be slowly introduced to loading again. There are wonderful opportunities to consolidate worthy lessons of patience, acceptance and learning how and what the body needs in terms of recovery. The trick is that once a runner returns to running - it is hard to remember all those wonderful sentiments of the past weeks or months of recovery and cross training. It is difficult for the runners’ brain not to take over and fall into familiar ideas of cadence, volume and racing. It is also difficult for the fiercely supportive and essential running buddies who have watched you sidelined for so long. However, with a love of running at heart we must remember that we want to be running for the entirety of our lives. We want to run joyously and healthily and with that in mind we must remember that further is not better. Empowerment is not defined by the number of miles a person runs but by the smile they have on their face long after everyone has gone home. It is imperative that we all share the message of safe progression, good nutrition and happy hearts. Remember health is wealth. Check you balance and sometimes take a little break in spending to keep the account in check. By doing this you will find your become rich in miles and happiness!
“I think being injured has taught me a lot about how running is actually as much an art as it is a sport; of course it's exercise + competitive, but it's also about the process / patience / inspiration required to be "a good runner". I am definitely returning to training with a slightly different mindset that I had before! “
In bringing this post to a close i’d like to refer you to our athletes own words above once again in a recent training log entry. The drive, energy and perspective that she has used to turn this process into one of self growth will help to empower and enrich her for many years to come both within and outside of the running community. I am sure you will agree that if everyone could face challenges with a little pinch of this in our own lives, the world would be a better place. We congratulate her and we hope it empowers our readers to consider running obstacles in a different light.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to know your thoughts or experience of dealing with injury or illness and running.