The Mental Side of a Physical Injury
by Gerard Connelly
Imagine this; You’ve been training for months for a marathon, executing your workouts week after week, gaining confidence with each run, and becoming the strongest version of yourself that you’ve ever been in your life. The race is in just a few weeks when… BOOM. Something pops up. Tightness that turns into pain, fatigue that turns into illness, an ache that turns into a deep ache. Regardless of the circumstance, your excitement turns into dread and your confidence turns into doubt. Your goal race is becoming seemingly impossible. Or definitely impossible. I’m sure that a lot of you reading this are all too familiar with this scenario. We are a physical therapy clinic after all, and some of the advice we hate to give is when we suggest forfeiting a race that you dedicated so much of your life to.
The reason I decided to write this blog here is because the above statement describes what I went through this past fall. I spent about 8 months taking a long term approach in preparing for the Philadelphia marathon. 3 weeks before the race, I sustained a bone injury in my lower right extremity that sprung up out of nowhere. Long story short, my leg hurt bad and all of my Physical Therapist coworkers suggested taking my goal marathon out of the picture.
The logical side of my mind knew it wasn’t that big a deal. There will be plenty of marathons in my future and this past year of training will not go to waste. But despite my logic, it still totally sucked to get injured. There was a physical aspect that needed to be focused on in order to rehabilitate the injury, but there was also a big mental battle that I needed to fight in order to stay motivated and just happy in general.
It took some serious work to make sure I didn’t totally lose my mind during the 5 weeks that I couldn’t run, so I’m happy to share some tips that helped me get through the emotionally draining mental aspect of the injury I went through.
Think big picture
How many years have you been running? How many months/years of consistent training have you put together? Whatever the answer is, even if you are relatively new to running, I am willing to bet that you have put in WAY more consistent training without interruption than the amount of time you will spend during your injury. I personally put in roughly 8 months of uninterrupted training before I got injured. It’s okay if I spend 4-8 weeks without training for such a big goal like a marathon. Not only will my body be able to fully recover from training for the first time in so long, my mind will also be able to reset and think about other things for a change. No matter how much we enjoy our routine, when our routine is preparing us for something as monumental as a marathon it requires a lot of focus and mental energy. Your body will appreciate the rest, but your mind will also appreciate the rest and be able to come back stronger next time.
Use your time to try other outdoor activities
I personally love riding bikes. Road cycling, mountain biking, etc. I grew up racing motocross, afterall! And generally, I just love being outside. But when I am running a lot to train for a race, I rarely have enough extra time to spend on two wheels – it feels like the only time I spend outside is while I am running. So as soon as I got hurt, part of me was excited because I knew I would have more time to ride my bike. I even went skiing for the first time in my life this winter! I didn’t even care for the cross training aspect, I just love the feeling of going fast and exploring new places that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to go while running. So as long as the activity won’t worsen your injury, I say go do something you’ve been itching to do but haven’t had time to because of your training. Any low impact outdoor activity that, with the approval of your Physical Therapist, anybody can do to spend some healthy quality time outside without the stress of achieving some predetermined goal.
You won’t lose fitness
Let’s be real here… are you really going to lose fitness after a few weeks off? Probably not. The way I see it is that we all have immediate fitness, then we have lifetime fitness.
- IMMEDIATE FITNESS is attained by specifically modifying your training load and intensity in preparation for a specific goal. The workout you do two weeks before a race (and the maintenance mileage surrounding that workout) has a direct impact on that race. That is why you may always hear so much emphasis on tune-up races and tune-up workouts. They are meant to prepare your body for a very specific all-out effort in the near future.
- LIFETIME FITNESS on the other hand, (which is arguably the more important type of fitness when referencing time off for injury) counts less in the moment but more over time. The more consistent miles you run throughout your life, the harder it is to lose lifetime fitness during time off. The more lifetime miles under your belt, the easier it is to feel fast again following time off due to injury. Also, the more miles you’ve run in your life, the more time you can take off before you truly start losing true fitness.
Long story short, two weeks off will likely have a significant impact on your immediate fitness. You may feel sluggish and easily fatigued for your first few runs back. Doing a 5k race right after this time off might feel pretty bad, not to mention the risk of reinjuring yourself. But! Two weeks off will have very little effect on your lifetime fitness. It may take a few days or weeks to get your body ready for a specific goal again, but underneath those first few rusty feeling runs is the same runner that put in hundreds or thousands of healthy miles before your injury. While an interrupted routine may feel scary, the reality is that a few weeks off won’t just erase months or years of healthy training!
Don’t be afraid to gain a few pounds
Injury is a scary concept for many reasons. While running is no longer possible, you may start to feel like a shell of your former self. In an attempt to hold onto who you once were (only a couple days ago before your silly little foot started doing that silly little painful thing that would be otherwise insignificant outside of being an athlete), you may try to maintain your athletic figure by keeping the pounds off. Whether that be excessive cross training or cutting the calories, or both, this is not a healthy habit to fall into. I know I have obsessively given into this urge more times than I would like to admit. Humans are naturally designed to fluctuate in weight throughout the year. Staying at a specific body weight all year long is extremely difficult under most natural circumstances. Not only that, but if you are injured your body needs fuel in the form of calories to repair the damaged parts of your body. Accept this as a time for your body to reset in all ways, and that may include the very natural process of putting on a couple pounds. My advice would be to just eat when you are hungry and cross train when you feel up to it, but I would also suggest seeking more legitimate advice from a registered dietician who can help you adjust your eating habits to fuel your rehabilitation process properly.
Grab a drink and be social!
While drinking and going out may not be for everybody, I think we can all agree that nightlife is something that must be sacrificed to a degree if we want to remain healthy while training heavily. Use your time off as a good opportunity to catch up with some old friends, make some new friends, and grab a drink! You have no runs to rest for and no races to prepare for. Celebrate your past and future accomplishments responsibly, and live your life! 😉
So you read this entire blog and you still can’t shake the fact that you still want to train. Maybe you have a race in a few months and you don’t want to totally reset your training for a break that will only last a couple weeks. I get it! I’ve been there! Cross training is a great way to keep your routine, and if your body is expecting that daily dose of endorphins then you may feel something along the lines of withdrawal symptoms if you cut out exercise entirely from your days. Some great ways to cross train are cycling, swimming, elliptical, rowing, and others. If you want some advice on constructing a training plan with your desire to cross train in mind, seek out the advice of any one of the coaches that we have on staff here at Finish Line PT. I happen to be one of them, so feel free to reach out!