You train because it makes you strong, healthy and fit. You work hard to become a better and faster version of yourself and you have progressed over time. Being faster or stronger makes you feel confident and proud of yourself. As an athlete, you get to set goals and experience significant accomplishments. Crossing the finish line in your first race, after months of training was a thrill that lasted for a week. Your month is carefully organized into blocks of work hours, family time and training sessions. With training you have a balance that gives you both a sense of purpose and makes your feel energised. Being fit is fun and you feel happy doing it.
And then, out of the blue one day your foot starts to hurt while running. You have a race coming up, so you continue the run (in denial) hoping it will go away, noticing the pain worsen as you go. Later that day, you can barely even hobble on a painful foot. After two days off running, you try again, but, annoyingly, it’s worse this time, and after several visits to your doctor and physiotherapist you are forced to accept that you have a foot injury and must take time off running to let it heal. In the space of 48 hours you have gone from being a strong and happy athlete in training, to what feels like a complete stand still. Your immediate plans to train have been roadblocked by the foot injury, and your goals to compete feel thwarted. It’s so unfair! There is no afternoon long run to look forward to: the 10 miles of solitude and peace that you love at the end of your day, where you glide along in a smooth rhythm made possible by the hours of training you have performed for the last six months. The mile repeats you had set up for the following week (where you were planning to hit a training milestone) are cancelled. Your ability to race is now in jeopardy.
The question is: if you are so happy while you are training, where does the injury leave you? While you feel frustrated and possibly angry, are you also supposed to be unhappy now because your training and goals have been taken away from you?
Emotionally dealing with injury is as critical as the physical assessment and rehabilitation of the injured body part. While some injuries are small and easy to get over, some injuries are much more challenging. They can last several weeks, several months, or end your season. Almost everyone who trains will get an injury at some point, so while it is valid to practice injury prevention in your training, knowing how to deal with one is something all athletes have to face. And like most things, the longer you train, and the more injuries you get, the better you become at coping and staying sane through the injury.
Understanding the emotional side of injuries is the best way to cope. When you are injured, something is taken away from you: the ability to train, and to be out there doing what you love to do. For most athletes who love sport and are passionate about their training, injuries bring a sense of loss. Just as winning and success being happiness and gain, injuries bring about the opposite: dealing with loss is generally more difficult than winning and that makes it as important a process to deal with.
Typically athletes will respond to injuries with some or all of the stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., outlined in her work on the psychology of loss. While each athlete is unique, the common reactions are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Injuries seem unfair but moving through the injury as gracefully as possible will help you become a more resilient athlete in the long term.
Understanding the loss is important. It is important to acknowledge that sport is meaningful to you and that your disappointment is real. Allow yourself the chance to feel that. Denial of the importance of the loss to your life is a dishonour to your passion. You can’t just ‘get over it’, but you can honestly tell yourself that you are disappointed. Psychology says that in order to move beyond loss, people have to be willing to move through it. This doesn’t mean that your injury should put you into a funk for a week; you want to keep your sport in perspective. It’s just that you have to admit that you feel disappointed, and then you have to take care of yourself and get through the injury in order to get healthy again and back to training.
Injuries can be viewed as learning opportunities and gifts. Use the time to reflect on your life in sport, the cause of the injury and from that reflection you can learn to ask the right questions: how can I avoid this again? What are my intentions in sport? What do I want to get out of my athletic career? How am I going to continue and keep finding happiness here?
How acceptance of injuries makes you a better athlete:
Acceptance is a more optimistic outlook than being negative. Acceptance is about the now and not about dwelling in the past and constantly rehashing how you got injured and what you did wrong. Neither is it a yearning for what you do not have. Athletes with positive outlooks face challenges more easily and rebound from disappointment quickly. Deciding to be optimistic throughout your injury is a chance for you to reinforce skills that will help you when you resume training and competing. Accepting the injury creates space for you to learn more about your injury and how it relates to your mindset, biomechanics and overall strength. You can reflect on your training and what lead to the injury in a constructive way. When something is temporarily taken from you, it gives you an opportunity to step back and create a strong vision of why you are doing that activity. This strength of purpose and vision is invaluable to athletes: like your personal mission statement, it will carry you through tough training days, and elevate your chances of success in big events.
Reframe the injury: The strongest athletes are always reframing challenges and obstacles. A rainy day becomes a chance to excel in adverse conditions (as opposed to a wet, cold, nasty day), and an injury becomes a chance to show grace and grit, and work on other skills. Decide to do as much as possible every day to solve your problem, even if that means, icing or stretching, getting to the gym for strengthening or merely resting your foot.
Stay involved in what you love: use your down time to support others, volunteer at a race or read more about training and racing. By staying involved you are investing emotionally in something that is meaningful to you. This is a positive and purposeful way to live and will keep you from wallowing in self pity and negative self talk.
Look for the silver lining. If you can’t run for a while, then you can likely build strength, ride, swim or pool run. You will have a lot of mental and physical energy for pool workouts, strength and you can use this time to build specific strength. If you can ride, then this is an excellent time to do a block of alternate training. Not only will you be maintaining fitness, but you will be gaining strength.
Take ownership of the injury: Injuries are a chance to learn more about the body, and how training affects us. Take the opportunity to gain more knowledge about sports injuries and why your body might be prone to some injuries. Take responsibility for your healing, being actively involved in whatever rehab is involved. Taking action always feels more productive and satisfying than a passive approach. There is a good chance you will come out of the injury stronger—physically and mentally. Keep in mind that not all injuries have explanations. While most injuries are a result of training too much, the cause of some injuries will always remain a bit of a mystery.
For most athletes, injuries are part of the path. Every day we train and every competition we perform is a chance to learn something new about ourselves and the game. We stay in sport because it is abundant with such gifts of experience and self knowledge. Every challenging day, each failure, each injury, and each loss, is a chance for us to wake up and learn, because in the acceptance of these events, we realize that imperfection is the true nature of life. Learning to move gracefully and happily through the tough experiences gives us the power to embrace the fact that really great things will also happen!
Lucy Smith was an elite runner and triathlete for over 30 years. She has sustained several major injuries and come back from two pregnancy breaks in her career, all if which have given her a valuable perspective for understanding the path we all walk, and coaching excellence in others.
Common sense and a sense of humour.