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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