Dealing with injuries as an athlete

At university, I undertook a short course on sports psychology, hoping to garner some insight into what makes pro athletes tick, and how the rest of us can improve our own psychology to improve our sport. The topic that stuck with me most, however, was talking about the effects of injuries on athletes, and not just professional ones. Since sports have strong mental as well as physical benefits, the stress and anxiety caused by injury can sometimes be almost incapacitating. Figuring out how to keep fears and potentially serious mental health problems at bay is both vital and complex.

While I’m no expert, I have an unfortunate amount of personal experience dealing with recurring injuries, namely IT band syndrome, caused by doing ‘too much, too soon’ in most athletes, but initiated and exacerbated almost solely by road running for me. My first physio told me to ‘stop running’, in favour of all other sports, which did nothing to help the actual problem, since I was always going to run, I just needed to know how. And so commenced 6 years or recurring injury.

After a huge flare-up during training for and running Tokyo marathon in early 2019, I worked with my second physio, Zoe, from Physio Motion (London based) to figure out the cause of my particular injury (weak glutes, poor running form to compensate) and work on those issues. Since then, I’ve been able to run two ultramarathons and 50+km weeks on trail (big for me – previously 5km would hurt) with no pain until recently, on a very tiring 10km road run around Bristol.

So, in my current mindset, I thought it might be helpful to share my top tips for dealing with injuries, both mentally and physically.

Get a diagnosis

For many people reading this, your injuries will be recurring, so you’ll have a good idea of what the pain is, and what it means. However, for many others, you’ll have a ‘lateral knee pain’ or ‘calf niggle’ and won’t know what’s gone wrong. Getting a diagnosis is vital to taking the right steps to recovery. Taking time off until it doesn’t hurt and then going straight back to what you were doing before doesn’t treat the root cause of the problem, so you might have the same issue again. Get a diagnosis and a plan to recover.

Know what’s gone wrong

This might be personal to me, but when things go wrong, I need to know why. Understanding the details of why something went wrong, what happened in the lead up and what I can do next time to avoid the same thing happening helps me feel in control of the issue. It also helps prevent it happening again. If I think about it, the recent cause of my flare up was: 2 weeks off followed by 3 very stiff road runs in quick succession, followed by a lack of stretching on top of 9 months without a regular or sufficient physiotherapy strengthening routine. Know your triggers and work to fix them.

Accept reality

If you are injured, the chances are that you felt a niggle before it turned into a full-blown injury. If you had taken a step back at ‘niggle’, it may never have turned to ‘injury’. So now you’re injured, it’s time to accept that reality. It may not be the reality forever, but for now, pushing through the pain doesn’t make you hardcore, it makes you stupid (speaking from experience). It also means your injury will likely take longer to heal and you’ll spend more time away from what you love. Accepting your current state means that it’ll likely last for less time.

Treat recovery like training

If you’re anything like me, you get pretty exciting when a new training plan comes your way, but groan at the idea of a physiotherapy/rehab plan. However, technically, a rehab plan is the same as any other training plan – it’s taking small steps to improve from the position you’re currently in, to the position you want to be in. Switching your mindset from ‘rehab is a chore’ to ‘rehab is training’ can help keep motivated. The more you stick to your rehab plan, the sooner you’ll be back to the training you love.

Enjoy the time off

When you know you can’t run/do the sport you love, it seems like all you want to do is that thing, but in reality how many times did you think ‘I wish I didn’t have to go on this run’ when you still could? Time off is a chance to take stock, recover both physically and mentally, and improve other skills too, be it in the gym or at work. You’ll be amazed how much free time you have all of a sudden! Again, this is about mindset – you can choose to resent the free time, or you can choose to do something productive with it (rest is also productive).

Speak to others

While being pragmatic is always best when it comes to injuries, sometimes speaking to someone else who can share your frustrations can make you feel less alone. Sharing tips and irritations can be helpful, and having a downright bitch about your injury every now and again can feel good. It’s unfair that I’m injured. I read my body well, I rest well, I eat well, I don’t do huge mileage, and yet here I am once again. It’s immensely frustrating. Once you’re done, pick yourself back up and get on with your rehab plan.

Go back slowly

At the end of your 6 weeks or 6 months, you’ll likely be trepidatious but excited to get back to running/whatever sport you love. However, these are the tentative first steps after months of recovery and work. Don’t go out all guns blazing, however fresh you feel. Work with your physio to plan your return to training. A 2km run is as valid as your previous 20km runs. Don’t let ego or excitement get in the way of a slow and sensible return to training – your body will thank you in the long run (so to speak)! And if anything, you should be finishing your sessions feeling like you want to do more.

This piece has been helpful to write for myself at least, so I hope it also helps a lot of you! Save it, share it, bookmark it on your laptop. 65% – 80% of runners get injured each year, so it’s likely that you’ll need this advice at some point, whether that’s now or in the future. Good luck with your recovery!

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What to do with your old trainers

As a runner, I have a permanent underlying guilt about the fact that I literally wear through my shoes in a relatively short amount of time. I run some tough trails, meaning that any trainers I own (trail shoes especially) undergo a fair amount of wear and tear, and usually break to the point of being unusable by 18 months in. At this point they are relegated to walking and gardening shoes, or thrown out.

My favourite Columbia trail shoes, which have been relegated to gardening and walking shoes after just a year

Of the 24 billion pairs of shoes produced each year, 90% are likely to end up in landfill. This is both due to the over-production of (often poorly-made) shoes, and the lack of widespread recycling systems. However, once your shoes make it to landfill, they will likely take hundreds or thousands of years to break down due to their plastic composition (PVC or EPA makes up 35% of shoes globally), all the while releasing toxic chemicals into the surrounding area. In landfill, due to the anoxic conditions, they’re likely to never properly break down at all.

Across the globe, we each buy approximately 2.5 pairs of shoes a year, with most of those sales happening in just 10 major markets. The average American buys over 7 pairs a year. The vast majority (almost all) companies selling shoes do not offer end of life solutions for their products, instead relying on landfill and pushing up demand for further consumption. However, 52% of shoppers in the UK said they’d be more likely to buy from a company if it offers an end of life solution, e.g. recycling or fixing, with 60% being willing to pay more for shoes that had this option.

With trainers the problem is further exacerbated, with experts suggesting that trainers get replaced every 500 to 750km (300-500 miles), which equates to 4 to 6 months for someone who runs 20 miles a week. Even if you eke out every last step from your shoes, they are not designed to last beyond their useful life so may tear or break within the year, and it can be dangerous to run on totally worn-out shoes, increasing the risk of injury.

So what can we do with our old trainers, once worn out or no longer wanted?

Donate

The best option is to donate unwanted shoes that are still usable. If you forget cosmetics, the majority of shoes we throw out are still perfectly functional in their job to protect feet. Better quality shoes can be sold via Depop, and others donated to charity shops. For running shoes, The Running Charity donates activewear to young people who would otherwise be unable to afford them. You can send your unwanted clothes and shoes in to them to be given a new life. Similarly, ReRun Clothing is another organisation that accepts unwanted running clothes, which are sold. All the profits go back into the running community. You can also buy secondhand and up-cycled products here! Find your nearest donation point.

Repair

Repairing shoes should be far more common than it is, with cobblers fixing all sorts of damage and wear on shoes. However, this is little harder on trainers, due to the complex support required. Speak to your local cobbler to see what they can offer. Very few brands offer reconditioning services, but Vivo Barefoot has just launched ReVivo, a service that repairs and re-sells old and unwanted Vivo shoes, providing lower priced options with a significantly reduced environmental impact. The shoes are often as good as new, proving that reconditioning and repairing trainers is not as hard as previously assumed, setting a precedent for the rest of the industry. This small family-run brand is showing that if they can provide end of life solutions for shoes, large brands should undoubtedly be able to too.

Vivo Barefoot are providing innovative options for unwanted or old vivo products

Recycle

The next best option for completely worn-out shoes is to recycle. Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe scheme has processed 33 million pairs of shoes since 1993 when it launched. These shoes get recycled into surfaces for playgrounds, running tracks and other clothes. See where you can drop of your shoes. The company I:CO provides recycling services for brands in the US, partnering with brands such as Asics and Columbia to collect unwanted shoes and clothing in return for vouchers. In the UK shoe recycling can sometimes be found near supermarket superstores and specialised recycling centres. Many specialist running shops around the UK also have their own shoe recycling programmes – pop into your local one and see if this is something they offer. Runner’s Need is providing recycling bins as part of their Recycle My Run scheme in stores up to the 31st Dec 2020, giving a £20 voucher in return for a pair of old trainers. Don’t forget to tie your shoes together to prevent pairs getting separated!

Many specialist running stores provide options for recycling your old trainers

Although the above options are great, it’s worth remembering that it is impossible to be fully sustainable while simultaneously consuming at the rate we currently consume. Recycling and donating are great, but not if your’e only doing so in order to validate buying new shoes/clothes. As runners, we should be aware of the world around us, and the impact we have on it. Although running is a self-propelled sport, you can lessen or increase your impact based on the purchasing decisions you make.

However, the blame does not fall entirely on the consumer. There is a real dearth of beneficial end of life options for shoes globally, and brands have no real incentive to fix this. For an industry worth more than $200 billion in 2020, requesting further research into, and better options for a shoe’s end of life should not be too much to ask. While brands product ‘eco-friendly’ shoe ranges or styles here and there (e.g. Nike’s Space Hippie shoe, Adidas’ Ultraboost DNA Loop), the quantity is nowhere near enough to make even a dent on the non-sustainable plastic shoes created each year. If sustainable shoes and end of life options are available, why are we not insisting on them? It’s time to ask brands to do better.

What do you do with your old shoes once you’re done with them? Do you know of any brands changing the game when it comes to recycling trainers? If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog.