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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Why everyone should run an ultramarathon

If you’d asked me a year ago, perhaps two, whether I thought I could realistically run an ultramarathon, I would have laughed in your face and probably said something like ‘no, and I don’t really want to either’.

The root of this belief was:

1) That I found (and still find) running 15km very difficult so could never imagine how I was supposed to run over 3x that amount and not die…

2) If I believed I could, I knew that I would have to give it a go. ‘Giving something a go’ means months of hard training, anxiety, doubt and the possibility of ‘failure’, which many of us aren’t inclined to experience, let alone seek out.

Last month I ran my first ever ultramarathon, 50km across the gorgeous Peak District hills. I signed up 3 weeks in advance of the race with no expectations, no ‘goals’ per se, just a desire to race at least once in 2020 and spend time outside. The race went better than I ever could have expected, and I truly loved every minute.

Image by Benedict Tufnell

4 weeks later I took part in my second ultra (depending on your definition) – 48km along the Jurassic Coast – simply because it was close to home and I know how beautiful the route is. I signed up one week before, and the whole experience was a delight.

Image by Jake Baggaley

From what I’ve seen of ultramarathons, they are friendlier, prettier and far more forgiving than your average road marathon. People rarely run the whole thing, you have support the entire route (in the form of checkpoints with water, foot, medical aid etc every 10k or so) and everyone is so friendly! Walking isn’t frowned upon and you see people of all shapes and sizes signing up – there is far less judgement than I think people expect from these events. Because it’s a small community too, you tend to get to know people pretty fast!

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, people stop believing in trying out new experiences in favour of keeping to the known and the predictable. In short, people stop believing in themselves.

With this comes the knowledge that you’ll probably always be OK, but equally, probably never have the best time of your life, never find a new hobby and never experience all that life has to offer. Fear of the unknown, combined with mental images of elite athletes laughing at you for hobbling around a 50k course is enough to put anyone off… but I’m here to say that it shouldn’t!

Reasons to run an ultra:

  • Without pushing your body, you will never see what your body is capable of. It’s a lot more than you think.
  • Humans like to see progress. There is almost nothing more satisfying than seeing physical progress in running, whether that’s running to the end of your road, doing a faster 5k, or simply enjoying your run for the first time!
  • Trail ultras are far more forgiving on the joints than road marathons and similar, which means you’re less likely to experience running related injuries.
  • People (women especially) tend to improve or maintain endurance long into their 40s, meaning it’s the sort of hobby that you can take with you through your life, or pick up late! Runners (contrary to popular belief) actually have better functioning joints in older age than the average person.
  • It’s essentially an eating competition – the longer the run, the more you need to eat. If eating is one of your favourite pastimes (I know it is for me), you’ll probably do pretty well in an ultra!
  • The views! Maybe you think running is boring. Ultra running is NEVER boring. Choose one in a place you want to explore and enjoy the views!
  • You can’t pressure yourself to get a particular time on an ultra. Unless you’re an international champ, there’s no ‘doing well’ or ‘not doing well’ on an ultra. You signed up and showed up – that’s pretty epic! If you finish, you get a medal. Everyone is a winner here.
  • Training is about time on feet rather than pace or even distance. One of the hardest things about an ultra is being out on your feet all day, but if you have a busy job and spend a lot of time standing up, or enjoy walking a lot, you’ll probably be really good in an ultra. Of course, running training is important, but you have a head start if you are used to spending hours on your feet, even if you’re just standing still!
  • You get space. You might enjoy running with thousands of people around you – in which case I’d suggest doing a road marathon or something like the Great North Run. For ultras the chances are you’ll meet plenty of people along the way, but will never be penned in or surrounded by people.
  • It’s an adventure. While many road races feel quite similar, ultras are all different. They’re a great excuse to travel and explore somewhere new.
  • It’s a life experience. Ultras, especially multi-day ultras, can take over your life for up to a year, but the chances are they’ll also become one of the best things you’ve ever done. I’d say that’s reason enough to sign up!

If this blog post makes you keen to sign up, check out my vlog ‘10 things I learned from my first ultramarathon‘ and vlog of the ultra itself – I hope it’ll inspire you to get out there and give it a go!

Image by Jake Baggaley

How to run in the rain

As winter draws nearer for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the weather closes in, making sunny days a rarity and rainy days more and more common. For anyone who has recently taken up running, this might be a bit of a shock – after a glorious 7 months of sunshine, it’s the sort of time where hanging up your trainers, sticking on a cosy jumper and curling up in front of the fire seems far more appealing than the idea of heading out for a run.

There are loads of great reasons why running in the rain can be a good thing, not least because rain happens and if you want to progress, it’s something you’ll probably have to get used to as a runner. On top of that, rainy days are usually fairly empty out and about, meaning it’s one of the few times you won’t have to worry about crashing into people or sharing the trails with too many others.

SO, I thought I’d write this little piece with the aim of encouraging you all to get out. If you can get out in this weather, you can get out in anything and that makes you pretty badass. It’s also worth noting that by far the hardest part of many runs is getting out the door – once that’s achieved the rest is often plain sailing. Thanks to my Instagram followers and Tribe Run for Love crew for sharing their advice too!! Ps. If you’re looking for a 2021 challenge, their 250km ultramarathon may give you all the motivation you need. Sign up to be notified when it launches!

Good wet weather gear is vital, but don’t overdress like I always do! You’ll regret it.
  1. Meet up with people. Running in the rain doesn’t seem so pleasant until you pair it with another reason, such as a social one. Meeting with someone to run, whether you talk the whole way or run in silence, is one of my favourite things to do. Knowing you’ll be letting someone down if you don’t show up is good motivation to get out the door.
  2. Don’t overdress. It’s currently Autumn, which means the temperature is actually perfect for training (apparently the optimal endurance training temp is 9-11 degrees). Don’t be overzealous with the layers, or you’ll be stripping down and carrying them around for the rest of the run, and sweating too much can actually cool you down further. Dress for 5-10 degrees warmer than it actually is. Be bold, start cold!
  3. Men – use Vaseline on your nips or wear a bag to stop everything rubbing! Esp important for longer runs.
  4. Wear a cap. These aren’t only useful for sunny runs – caps are great for preventing rain from getting in your eyes.
  5. Cooler runs are easier on the body. Make the most of the cooler temperatures to get in some speedy runs!
  6. Your skin is waterproof! Nothing bad is going to happen if you run in the rain and get a little wet.
  7. BUT avoid the most stormy days. Running in a named storm may be possible, but it might not be sensible, especially if you’re running under tree cover, as branches are prone to snapping off in high winds. Plan your training days to avoid the worst weather.
  8. Invest in good gear. Good wet weather gear can make the difference between being able to train comfortably all winter and avoiding running altogether. Invest in a good rain jacket (a light one and one with taped seams for the heaviest rain on cold days) and a base layer that’ll keep you warm when it’s cold, and cool when you warm up. If you’re into trial running, make sure to have good shoes that won’t rub when they get wet. Consider Goret-Tex or OutDry for waterproof trail shoes.
  9. If you wear glasses, don’t. (Contacts work better).
  10. Motivate yourself with what you’re going to do post run, be it a warm bath, hot shower, cuppa and/or cake. Everything feels better after a tough run.
  11. Don’t forget to drink! When it’s wet and/or cold, it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re sweating. You still need water, even when it’s cold!
  12. Put your phone somewhere waterproof (sandwich bags work well).
  13. Braid your hair/avoid ponytails – the rain will matt it an it’ll be a nightmare to deal with when you get back.
  14. If you get cold hands, invest in good running gloves. I find that if my hands are cold, the rest of me is cold, so I wear gloves all winter. This is esp important if you have Raynaud’s.
  15. If you’re running far, tell someone where you’re going and/or share a tracking link (Strava has Beacon so family can follow your location). This is useful for dark runs and those in low visibility for ease of mind.
  16. Most of all, have fun! Running in the rain really isn’t that bad once you’re out, and it’s the chance to let your inner child out! Splash in puddles and enjoy the empty streets.

Watch this vlog to see some of my favourite winter training gear. If you found this blog post helpful, please do share with anyone who might find it useful or share and tag me on Instagram!

My first ultramarathon – the lowdown

On 19th September, I ran my first ever ultramarathon, a 50km, 1900m elevation gain jaunt in the Peak District, one of the UK’s National Parks. The race itself was different to any other I had done, not least because of social distancing measures put in place to ensure the competitors safety, and was superbly organised by Ultra X (the co-hosts of my other big adventure, the Tribe RFL).

I arrived in the Peaks on the Thursday afternoon, wanting to get a feel for the area and have the chance to explore a little – the issue with racing somewhere is that in the couple of days before the race you don’t want to do anything that might hinder your ability on the day, but then after the race you’re incapable of actually moving and doing anything fun. I’d always recommend arriving 3 days before a race if you want to be able to explore and get in a shakeout run!

Warmup hike around a gorgeous Mam Tor loop

We did just that – on Thursday we did a short walk, and on Friday a slightly longer one of about 12km, scouting out a small part of the course. Saturday was, of course, a total rest day (which I found myself very much needing after our walk the day before). It wasn’t a ‘carb-loading’ day per se, but the whole week previously had been filled with a slightly greater proportion of carbohydrates than usual to make sure muscle glycogen stores were as full as they could be.

On Saturday I set up camp with the runners completing the full 125km weekend, who were coming back from their first day (75km) as we set up my tent. The evening was spent eating our freeze-dried meals and snacks while listening to people recount their adventures from the day.

My tent setup!

Meals/snacks/beverages:

The next morning started with a big breakfast and some snacks at around 8am, followed by taping of my irritated tibialis posterior, a little niggle I’ve been having on and off since January. Better to preempt injuries than have to stop mid race! Coffee x2 in (I tend to save caffeine for race days), three loo breaks (nervous wees are a thing) and a little jumping around at the start line, we were off. COVID restrictions means that we set off in waves, so I started alone, but shortly caught up with a friend from the Azores Run for Love (these events are small, so you often see the same faces pop up again and again, which is part of what makes them lovely!).

Simba and I running the old Mam Tor road down to checkpoint 1. Photo by Benedict Tufnell

Race kit (where I can’t find the exact kit I’ve put their newer versions, or left blank if there isn’t one):

The first 5km of the race were done at my usual long run pace, which may have been a bit fast but we made the most of the downhills and easier terrain to warm up quickly. We made it to the first checkpoint in less than 30 minutes, after which I took off my trousers and packed them away. I also took my in first nutrition around then.

Race day nutrition:

  • Lucho Dillitos coffee and guava cubes
  • Fruit sticks (like YoYo)
  • Human Food
  • Boiled sweets
  • Phizz rehydration salts
  • Homemade ginger parkin cake
  • Coca Cola (while I usually hate coke, it is one of THE BEST things to drink mid long run. I guess it’s the combo of sugar and caffeine that does it!).

I preempted one of the colder parts of the route by keeping on my warm weather gear for the first peak, as it was still early and cold and the wind was freezing up there! But after summiting the first peak, I took off my rain jacket and stored it away in my bag. This was the order of the day – run, drink, eat, strip a layer, repeat, until I was just wearing my shorts and a t-shirt (while I love to run in just a sports bra, for longer races I try to wear a t-shirt to avoid bag chafing and sun/wind burn). And that’s how I got round the race! Food, water and one foot in front of the other.

I finished the race in 6h49mins, which was over an hour quicker than I had anticipated! It also afforded me the place of 6th woman, which is better than I could ever have expected. I hope to do more soon – it really was SUCH a fun day. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the outdoors, and this was the perfect way to spend as much time in it as possible (and eat as much food as possible!). Watch this space for another race 😉 I’d love to hear if you have any plans for similar races coming up? What gear do you swear by? I’m always up for getting more recommendations! Comment down below!

One of the more roady parts of the race (15km in or so)

You can see my vlog of the race below – don’t forget to like and subscribe if you enjoyed!

Huge shoutout to Simba (middle) for running back from the end to collect me 3km from the end and force me to run the whole last segment. I wouldn’t have otherwise!
Second massive shoutout to my dad and his girlfriend, Charlotte, who drove me to the Peaks, helped me set up camp and plied me with ginger parkin when necessary. I literally couldn’t have even got to the race without them!

How to get back to running after injury

We’ve all been there. With 65% – 80% of runners experiencing an injury each year, the chances are, you’ve spent some time injured in the time that you’ve been running. Getting back to training after time off can be daunting and confusing – what level of pain is acceptable to push through? How far should you run? What cross training should you do, if any?

Disclaimer: before we start I’d like to point out that I’m no expert, I’ve simply experienced my fair share of injuries , physiotherapy treatment and coaching. In 2016 I developed IT band syndrome, a common runner’s injury, which I proceeded to push through, after being told it ‘won’t cause any permanent damage’. Still now I am experiencing the effects of this recurring injury, although I have since developed many techniques to reduce the amount of flare ups I have, and haven’t felt pain since last year!

With so many people taking up running during lockdown, it’s no surprise that injury rates have gone through the roof, and with access to physios and doctors seemingly limited, people are more and more turing to the internet for help and advice. So, here are my top tips for returning to running following an injury. Remember though – if the pain doesn’t go away, or is recurring, please do visit a specialist, as they will be able to help far more than anyone on the internet.

  1. Prevention is better than cure

The best way to recover from an injury is not to get it in the first place. ‘Oh great’ you’re thinking, a bit too late for that. Well, yes and no. If you are injured at the moment, think about why you ended up in this place. Injuries are often a sign that you are trying too much, too soon. Most coaches recommend the ‘10% rule’, increasing weekly mileage by no more than 10% per week. More than this puts your body at greater risk of injury, meaning that you have to take more time off. Consider sticking to this rule to avoid future injuries. Another piece of advice would be to avoid trying too many new things at once. Want to try longer runs? Don’t do extra speedwork that same week. Giving hill sprints a go? Go easy on your longer run. Having a diversity of training is good, but don’t add everything at once. Are you doing strength and conditioning and mobility work? Is your footwear wrong? Working through all the possible causes of injury can reduce your risk of having the same issue in the future. Almost everyone gets injured, it’s just a part of running, but reducing triggers means that you can spend more of your time doing what you love, and less time rehabbing.

2. Slow and steady wins the race

There are many different kinds of injury, but for the most part, rushing recovery won’t help the situation. The temptation once most of the pain has gone, is to jump right back in where you left off, but this is inadvisable. Since most running injuries are caused by doing too much, too soon, the same logic applies for coming back after an injury. It might feel like your first few weeks back are boring, slow and monotonous, but these are your ‘testing’ weeks. You should be keeping in tune with your body, listening out for small niggles and trying to maintain good form throughout. This is hard to do if you’re going for killer miles or sprints, so just take it easy. A slow return to running will likely mean that you remain un-injured for longer, and get help quicker if you do get injured again. Slow and steady wins the race.

3. Don’t run through the pain

Generally, pain is there for a reason. Ignoring it ‘because you know better’ can backfire horribly, and unlike ITBS, many injuries can leave you with permanent damage if ignored. As you progress and become more experienced, it may be possible to tell what pain is OK to run through, and what pain is most definitely not, but for beginners, running through a new pain is ill-advised before getting it checked out. Recovery from common injuries such as shin splints can be further hindered by even walking on them, let alone running. Always ask your physio if you’re not sure what level of pain is acceptable.

4. Physiotherapy and strength & conditioning

The chances are, if you know what injury you have, you’ll have some sort of mobility/S&C/physio plan to strengthen the area and get yourself back on track. As stupid as it sounds, simply thinking about the physio session are not going to lead to the same improvements as actually doing them. Yes, they might be boring, and yes, they’re probably not why you started running, but they’re also the thing that will keep you healthy, balanced and less injury prone long into the future. If you do them. I would also recommend keeping up elements of your physio long past the point that your injury has healed, even incorporating them into your weekly strength sessions. If your injury was due to a weakness or imbalance, this will help rectify that, reducing risk of the injury recurring.

5. Cross train

Cross training (i.e. incorporating training sessions that aren’t running, e.g. weight lifting, cycling, yoga) has a plethora of benefits, from reducing boredom to making you a stronger runner. This is perfect if you’ve taken some time off running, as it will reduce the weekly load on your muscles and joints, while still increasing strength and endurance. Find something you enjoy so you can remain consistent. My cross-training days are at least as important as my run days!

6. Join a running group

Finding motivation and friends to chat to following some time off running, whether due to an injury or simply just taking some time away, can be difficult. Joining a run club means more people to chat to about training, niggles etc etc, and also means you’re likely to have some qualified advice regarding your return to training. Always let them know if you have a history of injuries, or a particular injury you’re coming back from.

7. Invest in the right kit

If you’re injured, there’s a chance it could be because the shoes you wear don’t complement your running style. Most people pronate one way or another (I overpronate, because for some reason I run like I’m on a catwalk – I blame the narrow Dorset trails!). Up to 4 in 5 runners run in shoes that don’t suit their running style, potentially increasing the risk of injury. Having a gait analysis, or investing in some gait analysing insoles, such as NURVV, means you can find the right shoes to correct your gait, and work on improving form to reduce exacerbating existing injuries, and reduce risk of getting more in future.

8. Stay positive!

After injuring yourself, it can be easy to feel let down by your body. After spending months or years looking after it by exercising, eating right, resting etc., it’s easy to feel despondent when you get injured. I got to the point a year after my injury where I felt like I was never going to be able to run more than 2km again, as every time I did, I couldn’t walk for days afterwards. However, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the time, it won’t always be like this, and you have the rest of your life to hit PBs and get back into running. This year doesn’t have to be the year. Maybe this is the year you learn to love running again, or the year you hit your first 1km without pain, or the year when you find a running community. Your experience of running doesn’t have to be dictated by PBs, races and intense training sessions. Stay positive, focus on your recovery and you’ll be back in no time! After all, if you’re not having fun, what’s the point? Running should be enjoyable, not hell!

I hope these tips help you, whether you’re injured at the moment, or want to take stock for future potential injuries. I would also say that most of these tips are suitable at all times, not just when you’re struggling with an injury. Generally, injury recovery techniques work well as injury prevention techniques and vice versa. Unfortunately, running is a high-risk sport when it comes to injuries, but I think we can all say it’s worth it!

I’d love to hear your tips for getting back to training post-injury. Please comment down below and share on Instagram!