Coping with Injury
On a Saturday morning not too long ago, I was joyfully hiking with friends when I took an
awkward step and turned my ankle so far that the side of my foot was practically flat on the
ground. As I hobbled back to the car, I always already thinking about the miles, races and
workouts to be missed in the coming weeks.
As my ankle continued to swell, so did my disappointment. If only I had taken that step
differently, if only I had ridden my bike instead that morning, if only it was a mild sprain...if only,
if only, if only. If you’re familiar with the stages of grief/loss -- denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, acceptance -- I had already blown through the denial stage to anger within a day.
For endurance athletes, our sport becomes woven into the very fabric of our lives; it dictates
when we get out of bed, what and when we eat, when and where we plan our vacations, the
social activities we choose and even our budget. Losing something that is so integral to our
daily rhythm can lead to listlessness and loneliness. Not only does running/triathlon afford us
the achievement of better, faster, stronger, but these things also offer deep connections and
friendships. For many, it’s time away from phones, computers, obligations -- and a chance to
get outside in nature. Coping with injury can be incredibly difficult, but here are some ways to
soften the impact and return to your sport strong!
Take your time, and allow yourself to be upset. Rushing through this stage can cause feelings of
hopelessness, profound sadness and anger to linger as you are trying to heal, which can greatly
impact your recovery. Talk to friends and family who understand your loss and ask for support.
Avoid any judgement of your feelings--it is completely normal to feel guilty, regretful and stuck.
Find ways to move your body that are non-painful.
Cardiovascular exercise releases endorphins and can help with any remaining grief and grant
you the exertion you crave. If your body tolerates it, you can mix up your exercise to mimic that
of your previous training routine, alternating days of long/easy, high intensity intervals and
“tempo,” where you hold a comfortably hard effort for 15-30 minutes. Switch up your routine as
much as possible to avoid boredom and help your sidelined time go by quickly.
Spend active time with your training partners.
Personally, my favorite activity to do when I’m injured is to plan walks with people I normally run
with. This way, we can get caught up on each other’s lives in a way that we are used to: while
on the move! I also like this option because I can choose to walk my running routes and visit the
landscape that I’m accustomed to seeing several times each week. I can see if that plant has
bloomed yet, if the cat is on his usual perch or if that building is finally finished. You’ll get to
spend time outside and feel the accomplishment of traveling somewhere by foot -- which I think
is a big part of why we run!
Another option is to invite a friend to join you at the gym, at a yoga/spin class or on a bike ride.
Maybe even try something new that neither of you has done before! It will make the experience
less scary and certainly more fun.
The ideal time to seek medical attention is if you have pain that keeps you from running for
more than two weeks; however, it is very common for us runners to be stubborn and “wait and
see” if the pain will go away. No matter where you are in your injury journey, just the act of
seeking guidance and taking the guesswork out of recovery can have a profound impact both
mentally and physically. A physical therapist can not only assess what the injury is but also why
it happened. Getting to the root of the problem faster leads not only to returning to running
sooner but also to preventing injury in the future.
Remember that recovery is not linear.
As athletes, we love to see progress. In the beginning of the rehab process, it is common to
notice some big changes rather quickly, which can be encouraging. However, setbacks are also
common and are no cause for alarm. Worsening symptoms oftentimes do not mean more
damage to an injured area; however, this could potentially indicate that you might have done an
activity that you aren’t ready for yet. This is another reason why it is valuable to have a physical
therapist on your recovery “team,” because that person can help pinpoint symptom causes and
explain why your progress has slowed.
Focus on what you can do.
It is a natural tendency for us to get stuck thinking about the things we can’t do, especially since
our daily structure is different during times of injury. Personally, I’ve had more time and energy
to devote to strength training, which has been an intention of mine for a while. I’ve noticed a big
difference in the way the rest of my body feels, and I know that this foundational strength work
will pay off when I start running again. The type of strength work you do will vary depending on
your injury, but there is always something you can do to benefit your return to running, whether
it be core/abdominal, hip or even upper body strength. You can set strength goals, like you do
with running, to help get you excited to hit the gym.
For triathletes, this can mean focusing on the other two sports -- which can actually become an
advantage in the upcoming season! This mental switch not only improves motivation to cross
train and work on other aspects of a sport, but it also cultivates a positive attitude, which
releases feel-good neurochemicals that can help with the recovery process.
Take a social media break.
If you’re anything like me, your social media feeds are full of runners, from your friends to
professional athletes. This constant bombardment of people doing an activity you can’t currently
do may bring up feelings of jealousy, impatience and frustration. While it is important to continue
to support your training partners in their physical endeavors, it is also totally okay to distance
yourself a bit.
If you’re injured while reading this, hang in there, friend! There is no better feeling than lacing up
your running shoes after an unplanned break, and it is truly worth the wait! I’m never more
grateful for my body and my abilities than the many times I’ve had the gift of running returned to
Keep going: you’ve got this!
Kacy Seynders PT, DPT