Being an athlete almost certainly means you will get injured. It’s an unfortunate reality of an athletic life. While our brains might be capable of running 20 miles a day, our bodies are made up of bones and gristle that don’t care all that much about what we want. When you get off the couch and take a step toward your dreams, you’re also taking a step toward your next injury.
But you have to take that step anyway. Then take millions of steps after. Because running toward your dreams means going for it with legs flying and arms flailing, never letting fear get in your way. Injuries may slow down your progress, sure. But every single athlete that has ever gotten anywhere close to their potential has faced down the injury monster many times over. Most breakthroughs can be traced back to an injury-related setback.
Even though injuries are inevitable, they suck to live through. Runners play the injury game all the time. Your hip hurts a bit when you wake up...is it nothing, or is the season over? Your shin pangs at mile four...am I fine, or did my tibia just snap? Learning to answer those questions is a big part of growing as an athlete. Plus, it’s a big part of coaching.
This article lists 9 tips for athletes to navigate that injury game. Just remember: you can play all of your cards right and still lose a hand. That’s OK. In fact, that setback might just be what fuels your next breakthrough.
Note: This goes without saying, but it’s always best to see a doctor or other medical professional like a physical therapist (PT). They went to school for many years so that you don’t have to google your injury symptoms and find out that you may have butt leprosy.
1. Think like a best friend or a caring coach
It’s close-to-impossible to be objective about ourselves. As coaches, we tell our athletes to take time off constantly. But we cannot coach ourselves with the same calm empathy. Talking to an athlete: “Take three days off, it will only make you stronger.” In our own heads: “Take three days off? THE TIME FOR REVOLUTION IS NOW.”
So step back. Write down how you feel each day, even when healthy. Track it over time. Lovingly notice trends. And ask yourself what a best friend or caring coach would say. Spoiler alert: they’d probably tell you that it’s okay to take it easy on yourself and rest when dealing with a niggle. We don’t always have our own best interests at heart, so try to remove self-destructive emotions from the equation.
2. Some discomfort may be normal, but remember that the goal of running training is to feel good
Running training is all about improving running economy, reducing the amount of energy you use for a given output. Developing economy relies heavily on efficient speed or power. When you’re fatigued or dealing with discomfort, you’ll probably be relatively inefficient. So training through high stress is unlikely to have big benefits long-term. It’s about building yourself up, not grinding yourself down.
To put it another way, the body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. One way the body communicates stress levels is through discomfort. That discomfort will ebb and flow through a training cycle, but if it is localized to a specific area and/or persists for more than a couple of days, back off until you feel good again with easy jogging or full rest.
There is a certain endurance-athlete culture that elevates grinding yourself into a fine pulp, but that is not when athletes adapt. Adaptation comes from gentle prods, not torturous pokes.
3. Immediately stop running if you have any pain walking or discomfort gets worse while running
The only runners that feel 100% healthy all the time are Instagram models that don’t get sore because they are permanently in mid-air, striking a pose. Everyone else has injury scares. If you stopped running for every scare, you might never run at all.
So how can you tell what’s fine to run through, and when you should stop? The first step is the walking test. If you feel localized discomfort while walking and living your normal life, then it’s unlikely to get better with running, an activity that involves far greater impact forces. Minor muscle soreness is normal, but that should also improve as you move around.
The second step is the loosening-up test. If you’re stiff to start, but it loosens up after 5 to 10 minutes and feels better at the end of the run, it’s a good sign that running may not be making things worse. If it hurts more as you run, stop and do the walk-of-pride back to where you started.
4. Don’t be afraid to take time off, which may actually make you stronger
Just over a week before the 2018 Chuckanut 50k, Keely Henninger took 5 days off to deal with a pesky injury. She went on to nearly set the course record in winning the race. Clare Gallagher didn’t run for a week leading up to the 2019 Western States 100. She lost all of her fitness and had a bad race. Just kidding, she won in the second-fastest time ever.
The point is that short breaks can fuel big breakthroughs. Legendary coach Jack Daniels says there is no fitness loss with 5 days off, and studies back it up. Plus, 3 days off is a good amount of time to reset and refocus, letting the body heal fully from muscle damage so you can determine whether a possible injury is something to worry about longer-term. When in doubt, start with a 3-day shutdown. Based on what we have seen in coaching, a week later, you may have some of your best performances ever.
5. Physical therapy is amazing, but don’t poke yourself too much
Do therapy for whatever is ailing you, preferably guided by a PT. However, most injuries respond best to rest at first. We have actually seen athletes get stress fractures from doing the single-leg hop test way too many times, or severe bruising from massaging a sore shin. Let the injury be, don’t poke it to see if it hurts. Then do evidence-based PT to help move along the recovery process.
6. Cross training is helpful, but don’t stress a possible injury in the acute phase
The body heals and adapts in empty spaces. As endurance athletes, we want to fill every gap with work, but that’s just another cause of stress. Stress without subsequent rest causes breakdown, and breakdown without recovery is self-destruction.
So let your body chill. Start with a day or two fully off for an injury scare before starting cross training and PT. That down time will reduce inflammation and avoid increasing harm.
7. Instead of thinking about building fitness with cross-training, try to have fun with benefits
As coaches, we are big fans of cross-training. We ask that every athlete have a cross-training option they enjoy that they can use even when healthy. It makes the process of taking some time off at the first sign of trouble so much easier. However, make sure you actually enjoy the activity, or time off with cross-training can become full of self-loathing and depression, which is way worse than any running injury.
Start with activities that are the most specific to running, like elliptical, stairmaster, biking, and pool running. If that is not possible with your injury, try swimming, rowing, or arm biking. Aerobic fitness from cross-training can prepare you for breakthroughs on the return, but the potential gains are not all that great in the big scheme of things, so don’t sacrifice your love of the process in pursuit of fitness.
8. Advocate for yourself as a patient
You are an elite athlete. Full stop. If you are pursuing your potential in a way that is meaningful to you in the context of your life, you are elite. And you deserve to be treated by your medical team like an elite athlete. Make sure your doctor or PT is on board with your elite-athlete approach, charting out diagnosis, treatment, and return-to-activity guidelines like they’d do for a national champion. Would that superstar pro get an MRI? Then you can advocate for one too.
9. Getting injured is part of being an athlete, and that’s okay
If you follow every one of these steps perfectly, you will probably still have injuries. Not only is that OK, it’s something to embrace. It’s a byproduct of how awesome you are, how much courage you have to go for it when it would be so much easier to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. Adaptation and growth are on the same spectrum as breakdown and injury. In trying to find your limits, sometimes you actually find your limits.
That is so freaking cool! Yeah, injuries suck. And yeah, many of them can be prevented or minimized. But having the courage to push yourself to the limits is something to be proud of, to embrace with open arms. Try to stay healthy, but remember that injury is part of the process too.
All badasses get hurt. And you are a badass.