Friday, April 8, 2011

Brain Droppings On the Mental Side of Injury

They come in waves.  Everything will be calm on Facebook and Livejournal and RunnersWorld and Blogger and Twitter and Twatter, and then there's a spate of posts.

hey guys, decided to take today off -- my shin really hurt yesterday, and it's still throbbing this morning...

No marathon for me this spring; wasn't looking and stepped in a pothole.

ugh....just got the MRI back... 

And the rest of us do the internet equivalent of nodding our heads in sympathy.  We've all been there.  And the thing is, nearly all of us will be there again.


I personally believe that, if you've never been injured in a running career of a few years or more, then you're not training hard enough (I'm sure that there's umpteen running coaches and doctors cringing at that statement).  Proper training means that you're targeting a fine line where you're applying enough stress for your body to adapt, without going too far and risking injury.   But if you've never overshot that line, then chances are that you're continually falling short of it.

[I also caveat here: I in no way use this as an excuse for my year of continued injury last year.  Injury should also be a sign that you're pushing too hard, and need to scale back.  Some of us find that lesson a little harder to learn than others]

In my horseback riding days, we all knew that we were going to fall (and possibly get seriously hurt) sooner or later.  If you ride, then you fall.  Similarly, if you run, at some point you'll have to take off a week.  Or more.  Perhaps much more.

All of these brain droppings are no consolation when you're actually the one who's injured.  It's very much like sitting down in a chair, only to have the chair pulled away.  Your perspective is abruptly changed, your expectations and goals shattered, and the mental shock eclipses the physical pain.  In fact, the worst thing about the physical pain is not that it constantly hurts, but that it continually reminds you of what you can't do.

What makes it harder is the fact that so often injury comes right on the heels of one's best running days.  My own broken foot "popped" in November right at the very end of one of the best workouts I'd had in a long time.  The breakthrough workout is also the one that overreaches; and the time things are going so well is the hardest time to back off.  So you get a little greedy and push on, only to be betrayed.

And this is compounded by the fact that while some of your friends are injured, many are still running.  It's a party that you've been kicked out of, and the fact that they miss you and wish you well is comfort colder than an ice bath.


So you're injured.  What now?  The physical answer to that question is pretty easy: you stop running and find some sort of cross-training (or even, heaven forfend, rest).  But the mental aspect is much harder to address.

It's psychobabble of a sort, but I've found that I've gone through sequence of emotions in each injury similar to a mourning process (which is what it is in a way -- mourning a loss).  The stages of mourning are:
  1. Denial I'm not hurt.  This is just a niggle.  I can run it off.  Or sleep it off.
  2. Anger This is oft times addressed at innocent bystanders, like the coach or doctor or friend who tells you to take a few days off, or someone with no connection to running whatsoever.
  3. Bargaining If I just tape it/ice it/wear a compression sock I should be fine.
  4. Depression  Why the hell does this always happen to me?  (as noted, it happens to nearly all of us)
  5. Acceptance  OK, I'm injured.  What's next.
In my opinion, the faster you can get yourself to the fifth stage, the better.

In my last injury (broken foot), I was in denial from the moment of the break (8:00 am on a Tuesday) to my podiatrist appointment (9:00 am on a Wednesday).   I went through anger, bargaining, and into depression all within an hour in his office -- x-rays showing an obvious fracture made it hard to do too much bargaining.   Then once I got home, I gave myself an hour to cry my head off (and whinge online).

Then I started making plans (researching pool-running, finding a coach to keep me from doing this again, digging up my bathing suit, buying a bone-stim).

All in all, it took me about 30 hours from injury to acceptance this last time around -- a PR.  But then again, I've had plenty of training in dealing with injury. It's quite possibly my most pathetic skill.

Accelerating through these stages is obviously far easier said than done, but so is running the later miles of a race.   In both cases, you cope with waves of despair that threaten to force you to stop.  But in each case, stopping is not an option.  So you continue to put one mental foot in front of the other, focusing on the goal ahead.

And you will get there.  One mental foot at a time.


  1. David ( 8, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    I just came across your blog when I was looking for info on pool running. I've had to change my registration plans for running a marathon in May because of an injury and am still in the 'depressed' stage. I have a time goal and am not willing to compromise after all the sub zero training runs this winter. It truly sucks that you've had to deal with major injuries, but I'm really glad that you've made your thoughts and advice public. I think I'll be using your site as a resource for a while to come.
    Thanks and take care

  2. David -- I'm really happy to read my blog's of use. That's the whole reason I keep it. Good luck!

  3. This is an excellent post. And I love that its your most pathetic skill :)

  4. Great post, as someone who has a metatarsal stress fracture and is aquajogging daily despite it not seeming to get any better, I can totally empathise with everything written, especially the 'party you're not invited to'. I find that even though most of my best friends are runners, I don't want to hang out with them as much when i'm injured because training talk or indeed talking about my injury just makes me a) angry, b) depressed, and c) jealous. Thanks for your posts and info on aquajogging, great advice here!

  5. Great post, I also think that beginner runners go through an injury process as their body starts using and doing things it was unaccustomed to. Tweaking it out so to speak!

  6. Thanks y'all. And welcome, anonymous! I actually find that I spend the most time talking about running when I'm injured, but that's my own way of coping (this blog was therapeutic).

  7. The part about th physical pain mainly sucking because it reminds you of what you can't do is so true! The mental aspect of injuries is tough, especially when you were in your best shape ever. But your experience shows how keeping focused on cross training is a savior in both physical and mental and injuries do make you stronger.

  8. Dear Cris, thank you for writing me a letter and putting it on your blog, I am listening.


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