A change of focus: Coping when injury strikes and coming out stronger by Penny Wilmott
I’m writing this from both a personal point of view as someone who has had persistent ongoing chronic injury problems and from a professional point of view as a Clinical Psychologist with 8 years experience specialising in helping those who have chronic illness or serious injury.
First of all a bit of background: I’ve been a member of TBH since October 2011 and have been a runner since I decided to run the 2006 Great North Run and began ever so slowly with a run/walk beginners plan in January 2006. Over time, running has grown into an obsession, and although I’ve never been fast and will never come in at the front of a race (unless it’s a handicap!), I have been pretty pleased with my PBs and progress over the years. I have run 2 marathons, 4 half marathons (plus 2 northumberland coastal runs which are a little over a half), 2 10 mile races, 4 10k races (one of which even had obstacles and a river swim in the middle), 3 Blaydon races, Hellrunner and a sprint triathlon. I have done the Kielder Run Bike Run as an individual and 55 parkruns along with quite a few other races of varying lengths. I have run well over 2011 miles (the number that I have logged). In short, I am a runner!
Unfortunately, with all that progress has also come a variety of injuries. I’ve been through a variety of problems including ITB problems, foot problems, and hip/back problems. Each time I have managed to overcome the problem, resume training for a little while and then sooner or later had a similar or completely different injury occur. Over time I have built a longstanding relationship with my current physio (and feel at times as though I must be paying her mortgage!).
Injury is frustrating for many reasons, but to really understand why, it is useful to know what running means to each individual. There are so many different things that running can bring into our lives: a method to keep fit; a stress reliever; a social activity; competition; a sense of achievement; being part of a community; weight management; fun; time to think and so on. Running can also become so central that it is who you are…. “I am a runner”. So to lose this, whether it is for a week or two or whether it is longer can be very challenging and frustrating. Depending on what running does for each individual, it can mean that we are missing out on a key part of ourselves, and can bring anxieties such as whether we will lose fitness, ever achieve anything ever again, manage to deal with stress, gain weight, lose touch with our friends and so on. It is also easy to fall into an overly competitive frame of mind when running, whereby we feel great when things are going our way and we are achieving PBs, but feel rubbish when this doesn’t happen and we are stuck on the injury bench, and particularly when comparing ourselves to others who have been at a similar level. It can be hard to see others overtake you and feel left behind.
Because the loss of running can feel frustrating, difficult and can bring up so many anxieties, it is very easy to get caught in unhelpful patterns when trying to manage an injury. People often end up returning to intense training too soon, desperate to get back to where they were before, and may not take the time to recover that is needed. This is a trap that I have fallen into many times. I finally had a revelation in May this year (it happened whilst I was running Newcastle parkrun strangely enough!). I recognised the pattern that I had fallen into: have a niggle or injury…. recover a small bit…. get anxious that I’m not ‘achieving’…. push myself back to running and push through the niggles/put up with them…. get frustrated that I just can’t run as I used to…. beat myself up…. try harder…. get injured again….. and the cycle goes round and round and round. And there’s always the next race that HAS to be run and the ‘pressure’ of “I want a PB”!
Ironically the determination, single mindedness, perseverance, and competitive mindset which helps us to achieve our goals in running, has the potential to become unhelpful when faced with repeated injuries. It can become a fight between our mind and body, which ends up with our body losing the battle.
As a result of this revelation, I have decided to completely change how I approach the problem. Rather than keep up the fight between my mind and body, I have focussed on letting go and trying to get them to work together. My goals have had to change and I have had to learn to be patient (very very patient I might add!) and to listen to my body and make choices that help my body work with me to get to where I want to be. I have had to accept that at this current time I cannot do races, speed work or the mileage that I want to do. I’m working at the core strength and conditioning exercises that my physio and personal trainer are developing with me (and this can be very boring!). All of this is nothing like the buzz of a PB or the excitement of a race or tough training session, but it has a greater chance of getting me to where I want to be.
So here are my tips for anyone in a similar position (especially those with repeated injury problems):
1. If you have repeated injuries, it is definitely worth getting it checked out by a professional as the problem might not be where the actual injury is. For example, I’ve had numerous problems which are all likely to be related to the way that I run and use my muscles along with specific asymmetries and weaknesses. A good physio for example will be able to detect and help you manage the underlying problem that is setting off the injuries.
2. Recognise when you might be falling into an unhelpful pattern of pushing back too soon after injury which doesn’t allow proper recovery.
3. Identify what running is to you, and therefore what you might need to do to allow yourself time to recover. For example, if running is a stress reliever, you may need to find an alternative whilst injured to prevent stress from building to unhelpful levels. If running is an important sense of achievement, identifying alternative activities that can allow you to get some level of achievement can be helpful and so on. An alternative way to keep as fit as possible may also be important.
4. Change your goals from the immediate PB type goals or distance related goals to focussing that energy on achieving what you have to do to overcome the problem.
5. Ease back into running gradually if needed so as to not build mileage and speed too quickly and set off an injury again.
For me this has meant changing my goals from PBs and marathons to building my core strength and stability, learning to run in a more efficient way with less stresses on the body, and achieving runs that are pain free even if they have to be shorter and much slower. I have a program with 4 to 5 core strength/stability exercise sessions per week and am focussing on maintaining cardio fitness through cycling and spinning as well as a small amount of slow running. My running goals have now become focussed on building an aerobic fitness base. I’m hoping to start aqua running as well as increasing my swimming as part of this. In this way I am avoiding the fight with my body and am learning to listen to it and work with it instead. This involves learning a LOT of patience but I know it will have a far better result in the end than a continued cycle of pain and frustration! It is hard, and I have accepted that I will not be racing or PBing or even running speed sessions with the club in the next several months at least. In the long term though, I know that this will make me a stronger and better runner and that it will help me enjoy the sport even more.
I hope that this article has been helpful or interesting for some of you. If anyone wants to ask for more information about any of the above, please feel free to contact me.