How to Mentally Deal with an Injury


, by David Roche

Photography by: Matt Trappe

Open Instagram and click the “Explore” button. If you’re anything like us and you follow runners, your search results will mostly be smiling, happy athletes in various states of undress. During summer, it may sometimes look like an athleisure porn shoot. What unifies many of those athletes is that they convey a carefree lightness that optimizes “likes” for the almighty algorithms. Darkness rarely makes the top page of search results.

But darkness is everywhere. In an athletic life, you have crappy runs, you doubt yourself, you compare to others. You get injured. We have heard of athletes that post old photos while they are injured, refusing to acknowledge the struggle in the moment and only talking about it after it’s light again. We’ve always thought that if people could see behind the scenes and get a glimpse of what athletes of all types actually go through, we’d all love each other and ourselves way more.

That gets back to one of the first things we realized in coaching--it’s not really about designing workouts. It’s more often about wandering into that darkness, trying to help athletes find a flashlight and some friends, and searching for a way out together, hoping to laugh along the way. Those Instagram accounts might not talk about it all that often, but they go through it too. So does that pro athlete you look up to and the competitor you fear.

An athletic life is so much more complex than carefree social media posts make it seem. It’s a 3-act play with conflict and climax, where the low points lead to the high points in a cosmic drama that can’t be summarized with a still shot photo. If that sounds melodramatic, you probably aren’t injured right now. Because for an injured athlete, life itself can feel like a tragedy.

Our goal for athletes is to help them see that old wisdom: add some time, and what feels like tragedy right now will be a funny story later. You’re the badass, athletic star of a comedy, not a drama. Getting to that point is not easy, though. So when it comes to mentally getting through injuries and finding the humor along the way, we like athletes to think of 5 steps.

1. It sucks, and that’s OK to admit

Injuries are lame. They’re especially lame because they usually happen when things are starting to go well. It all gets back to how adaptation actually takes place physiologically. You introduce a stress, then you recover, then the body adapts to get stronger. Sometimes, though, the body skips that last part. A bit too much stress or a bit too little recovery, and it’s a one-way ticket to injury town. Injury and adaptation are two destinations on the same railway line, and it’s often impossible to know which you’re on until you get there.

So give yourself permission to grieve. Your hurt knee might not be as bad as climate change or the Electoral College, but to you it can feel like the world is on fire. It’s like the Mel Brooks quote: “Tragedy is when I get a hangnail; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” In other words, it isn’t fun to go through things, even if you know intuitively that it’s not the end of the world.

2. Injuries are inevitable, so cut yourself some slack

Think of your worst trait. Ours is working too hard. Wait...that’s the one we use for job interviews. Our actual worst traits are anxiety and being terrible at handling criticism (David) and focusing on self-judgment (Megan).

Now think about what you love about yourself. Chances are it’s directly tied to those things that you might consider weaknesses. Anxiety is a side effect of empathy, self-judgment is a side effect of work ethic. Depression is connected to brilliance. Every little aspect of your personality is an essential brick in a beautiful wall. Take any out, and the whole thing crumbles. So embrace the parts of you that you might not always love. With injuries, that means accepting that it’s part of living a badass athletic life. You will get injured, and you’ll get injured again and again. It’s the flipside of being epic and awesome. You can strive for injury prevention and health, but that growth needs to be accompanied by a heaped helping of unconditional self-acceptance or it won’t matter how healthy you are or what finish lines you reach.

3. Time off now will fuel breakthroughs later

An injury can be the ultimate blessing. Yeah, there’s all that mumbo jumbo about self-acceptance. But perhaps more importantly, the physical benefits of injury-induced downtime can be striking. In moderation, injuries can increase longevity in the sport, reduce overtraining risk, and lead to major adaptations long-term.

No one really understands why setbacks can lead to breakthroughs. There are some theories that are too complicated to get into here, but most athletes have that story. A few months off for a torn labrum leading to coming from nowhere to make a US national team (David), a baker’s cyst and DNF at Western States in 2017 leading to a CCC win (Clare Gallagher), a femoral stress fracture leading to a national championship (Ashley Brasovan). We know intuitively that growth happens in the empty spaces, but we often conceptualize that space as a rest day or a down week. In reality, the biggest breakthroughs are often preceded by a chill month or two, or a down year (or three).

4. When it comes to cross training, think about stress levels rather than training stimulus

The biggest mistake we see during periods of injury is cross training so much that physical and mental healing cannot take place. The temptation is to try to maintain fitness, going all out on the elliptical like you’re a malfunctioning Rock Em Sock Em robot. Instead, let go of your fitness and the weight of expectations that comes with it. Think of the cross training time with a stress model. Is this lifting me up? Does it make me happier? How is my body recovering? Only after those questions are answered, start thinking about fitness.

Bike hard because you love it, not because it might get you back to running at previous levels a week sooner. Swim for the emotional balance, not because you’re worried that your heart will shrivel up into a sad little raisin. Cross training can be a time to develop aerobic fitness, but Tour de France riders aren’t winning running races anytime soon for a reason. Do what you enjoy in moderation, and you’ll heal faster and find more joy along the way.

5. You come back to previous levels much more rapidly than it took to get there in the first place

Building fitness the first time is hard. It requires years of consistent work. Injuries can be so daunting partially because of that sense of loss. It’s like the big alien spaceship casting a shadow on a city in the movie Independence Day. You just know that whole city is going to be blown to smithereens and no Will Smith one-liner can save it.

But the body desperately wants to get back to previous levels. Some physiologists and doctors theorize that it may be related to epigenetics--environmental switches written into our genetic code that are just waiting for you to flip it to “on.” Or maybe it’s aerobic, biomechanical, neuromuscular, or a combination of all that and a bag of chips. Whatever the physiological reason, even when all feels like all of your fitness is lost, it’s actually all right there, just hiding in a darkened room.

You’ll gradually turn on the lights. Whoa, this is weird, you’ll think. Everything will feel foreign, your worst fears will be confirmed. But you’ll turn the lights higher and higher, bit by bit. Suddenly, you’ll be getting back to where you were. You’ll be hitting your old times. You’ll be faster and stronger than ever. WEIRD! What is happening?!

You’re coming out of the darkness, just like expected, just like millions of athletes before you. That was a journey! And looking back, thinking about the laughs and tears and stories… the darkness was pretty fun.

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