With the steady increase in awareness of mental health problems, it is more important than ever to address the mental struggles injury can bring. In a time where racing and training in is so unpredictable, finding an end goal to injury can be tough.
Despite the improved coaching and proper conditioning, unfortunately, injuries will always be prominent in distance running. Athletes and coaches often concern themselves with the physical constraint’s injury can bring and ignore the psychological experiences that come with it. It is important to have an effective rehabilitation programme, incorporating a plan to start back running with a focus on being not only physically ready, but also psychologically.
Mental Struggles During Injury
Every individual will respond to injury in a variety of ways. Personally, my first reactions to an injury are frustration and confusion. Common thoughts are “how did this happen?”, “how long will I be out for? Thoughts and emotions can change throughout an injury and athletes can become more positive as time goes on. Time out with injury can allow for reflection or a challenge to overcome this obstacle in order to come back stronger.
Running every day or regularly and then not being able to run at all can cause feelings of loss of identity. Being an athlete or ‘a runner’ engulfs you in a community and makes you feel like somebody. When running is taken away due to injury, your identity can be lost, and you can feel alone or not like yourself.
To avoid these unwanted thoughts, feeling, and emotions, athletes will often use avoidant behaviours. These include, isolating oneself or injury denial. Coaches and injured athletes should educate themselves to notice any signs of deterioration in thoughts and seek support.
If you are faced with an injury, there are ways to cope with the unwanted thoughts and feelings. Below are some examples of coping strategies to manage negative thoughts and emotions that injury can bring.
1. Educate yourself and others around you: People who take time to really understand their injury can cope better. They know their strengths and their weaknesses in order to work on them. This can help become more engaged in recovery and help you feel more in control.
2. Use your social support: Talk about your injury and how you are feeling. This can be to your coach, physio, family, or friends. Emotional support is so effective and enables injured athletes to openly talk about their injury experience.
3. Don’t isolate yourself: try and stay involved as much as you can within the sport, this can include attending races as a spectator, going to training sessions and still feeling apart of the team. However, if you find this damaging to your emotional state, take a step back and work on yourself.
4. Notice any positives: Try and ask yourself whether there are any positives to come out of this injury. This can include, working on weaknesses, spending more time with family or friends, or coming back stronger than before.
5. Give yourself another focus: Your identity is not determined by running. Having time off doesn’t make you any less of a human. Finding another interest or hobby whilst you can’t run is a great way to feel like you are part of something else.
Injuries can not only cause a loss of identity but also a loss of confidence. However, when approached with a different mindset and a clear plan is formulated, you can respond to injury in a different, more positive way.
Psychological Experiences Post-Injury
Getting back into training can be intimidating, it is important to be not only physically ready to return but also mentally. The most common negative psychological experience to come from the return to running is reinjury anxiety or injury anxiety. This is the fear of your injury returning or the anxiety about getting another injury. One or more long-term injures doesn’t now mean you should now be considered injury prone. Taking your time in the comeback with a clear formulated plan is highly recommended.
There should be no pressure to return, a certain race or training session isn’t worth reinjuring yourself for. Try to avoid any comparisons of your current fitness levels to your fitness before or anyone else’s. This is your journey, and you will come back stronger and fitter with the right support around you, patience, and the confidence in your physical and mental abilities to return.
Lastly, it is so important to appreciate every step. When you aren’t injured it can be so easy to be unmotivated to go for a run or take it for granted. But not everybody can go out there and run, and when you can it should be highly appreciated. At the end of the day, we run because we love it, and don’t lose sight of that.