The Mental (Toughness) Side of Injury Recovery
Don’t let a setback leave you wallowing. Use it to prove just how tough you are
By Caitlin Chock—Take the miles away from a runner and the mental anguish is just as painful as the injury that forced him to the sideline. Mentally surviving an injury is just as critical as the physical rehabilitating, cross-training, and doctor's appointments. A runner’s outlook—and perspective—can ultimately dictate the rate of which they recover and how well they come back.
Maintaining a positive outlook during your running hiatus is the mindset that will allow you to continue pushing forward until you are eventually healthy enough to resume training. “You need to stay positive to stay on track and focused,” explains 2008 Olympian Amy Yoder Begley. “Negative energy slows recovery.”
Before you can get into that positive mind space, however, it would be a farce to say there aren’t going to be feelings of anger, resentment, and sadness to get out. “In college I bought a punching bag to vent frustration,” shares Yoder Begley, who has battled various injuries throughout her career. Frustration is only natural, and one is entitled to those feelings. There is a difference, however, between venting those emotions so that you can move past them and getting stuck in them.
“Never deny emotions,” explains Dr. Dean Hebert, sports psychologist and Mental Games Coaching Professional. “[But] always set limits to the wallowing.”
Start taking control of the situation as soon as possible in order to be proactive in your recovery.
“Control the controllables–that means you and only you. Your attitude, actions, behaviors, thoughts—no one else’s—control your thoughts to be only in the present. The past is gone. Lamenting won’t change it. The future isn’t here,” expresses Hebert. “You only control what you think and do now. And only by taking that control do you have the opportunity to influence the future.”
You can also use this time to work on areas that you may have previously neglected. “Once I am able to start physical therapy, I focus on getting stronger in all areas,” states Yoder Begley. “You can work overall flexibility, balance and core. There is always an area to improve on.”
Down time from running while injured is an opportunity to address other weaknesses that, once improved, will ultimately make you a better runner. Physically, this helps you get stronger and mentally it can help you feel productive. “Focusing on improving in these areas will keep you moving forward and not obsessed with the injury.”
In The Short Term…
Once you have your cross-training plan, put it away and only look at it one day at a time. Inevitably, some days will be harder than others, not to mention the days you’d rather smash that elliptical machine instead of getting on it. If you need to take a day off to give your mind a break, it’s OK — just re-group and get back to your training plan the next day. “Sometimes you give yourself a day to do nothing or do something non-running like volunteer, see a concert, anything relaxing to recharge the battery,” suggests Yoder Begley.
Looking Long Term
Shift the focus and start to think long-term once you are given the green light to start running again. Rushing back from an injury will only set you up for another injury. Yoder Begley explains that especially after long injuries, even if she’s “kept aerobically fit…my heart and lungs were strong and ready but the legs couldn’t keep up. I pushed past what my leg muscles and joints could handle and ended up with another injury.”
As difficult as it is, heed the advice of your coach, doctor, or physical therapist and gradually implement mileage back into your training schedule. Patience is an ongoing struggle for runners. But in dealing with injury, it is an even grander test of fortitude.
Come Back Stronger
What’s the biggest deciding factor between runners who get injured, work through it, and come back stronger versus those who get injured and really struggle to get back?
“It sounds like an oxymoron but it is ‘mental toughness’,” states Hebert. He reiterates that ultimately it comes back to controlling the controllables and only focusing on yourself. “Those who practice those things consistently are the ones who we call mentally tough,” he says. “The good news is that we can learn those things. But since it is not just an academic exercise, learning them isn’t enough—practicing them daily is the key.”
An injury is the runner’s ultimate test in mental toughness; don’t let an injury leave you wallowing. Get through it and let it prove just how tough you are.
About The Author:
Caitlin Chock set the then national high school 5K record (15:52.88) in 2004. Now a freelance writer and artist, she writes about all things running and designs her own line of running shirts. You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.