To be injured as a runner is hard. No doubt about it. A running injury isn’t just a physical problem; it has a solid psychological/emotional component, too. While we may not go through the full gambit of the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), coping with a running injury can be one of the toughest challenges a runner faces.
I’m in the midst of rehabbing a hamstring injury as I prepare for Grandma’s Marathon. I’ve done some things right, but made some mistakes, too. I work in physical therapy (acute care), I write a running blog, coach runners, and I’ve run 14 marathons (and countless other races) — BUT still have taken some missteps when it comes to coping with running injuries.
My hunch is that I’m not alone.
You, too, may have an injury, are struggling with how to deal with the injury, or knowing the best next steps to take. With that, I want to share 10 ways to help you, the injured runner navigate these oftentimes murky, challenging waters (well, road).
10 Strategies to Cope with a Running Injury
ACCEPT that you have an injury SOONER vs. later.
Matt Fitzgerald writes in The Comeback Quotient about the importance of accepting our new reality (in this case: an injury), and doing our best to embrace/act on it. 1) Once we accept that we have an injury, 2) embrace it, and 3) do what’s necessary to address it. This approach applies to all challenges a runner (and humans!) face, but I think it’s especially helpful with running injuries.
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
We tend to delay or even acknowledge the fact that we have an injury. The injury intensifies, thus making the road to recovery even longer. Do your best to skip all the phases of grief, and get to acceptance straightaway so you can sooner board the rehab train.
(P.S. Keep in mind that acceptance does not mean you’re throwing in the towel. It often means just the opposite. You understand the situation, and are taking steps to address it.)
Take ACTIVE STEPS to get yourself on the rehab train.
“Waiting” for your injury to heal is maddening, and can make you feel you have lost control of the process. One aspect that makes recovery less awful is to take control of your rehab, and doing all you can to speed the healing process.
Sometimes it may be as simple as taking a day or two off of running to let a newly noticed ‘niggle’ rest. Or, doing those things that helps with a minor injury, like RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation).
If the injury is more pronounced (often when we ignore those early signs!), do what needs to be done: make an appointment with the doctor, a physical therapist, etc. to get answers to your questions. You’ll not only get some answers, you will have some appropriate ideas/actions to start healing.
Plus, professional advice greatly increases your odds of getting to the true root cause of the problem. Googling your symptoms, talking to fellow runners may seem like a good approach, but could very likely delay your recovery if you misdiagnose the issue. (Although researching once you have a confirmed diagnosis is a good idea.)
Take this “down” time to focus on other aspects that will benefit your training, whether it be your diet, foam rolling, strength training, working your core, etc. Obviously, you want to do things that enhance your recovery (ie stretching an acute muscle strain is a no-no). That’s why it’s important to get answers, and understand what your injury is first before jumping into the ‘next steps’.
Bottomline, actively managing your injury will lessen those feelings of loss, and even hopelessness that can haunt us when we cope with a running injury.
“Athletes who fail to make the best of a bad situation turn away from reality, whereas athletes capable of achieving great comebacks face reality squarely.”
~ Matt Fitzgerald
Right, easier said than done. When we feel as if we are making no progress, we crave a little progress. Once we have a little progress, we want faster progress. Typically, regardless of the rate of recovery, we want it to resolve sooner. NOW, for instance.
While that’s understandable, that won’t serve us well. We push a bit too much (run too far, too fast, too often), regress, have more pain, and lengthen the days until we run pain free again. We want to very much avoid one step forward, two steps back.
UNDERSTAND difference between discomfort & injury.
Read here for more detail on this very common runner’s dilemma. Running certainly comes with discomfort, and little progress can be made without it. The key is to know when an injury is brewing versus simply running related discomfort.
Muscle aches that are not highly localized, but are more general in nature are rarely cause for concern. Or, if your pain subsides as you run AND doesn’t return after you finish, that’s less concerning, too.
Remember you’re MORE than a runner.
We may not realize how much running is a part of us, how much we identify with it, until we can’t run. At that point, we understand that running is a way of life: we have many running friends, it’s part of our routine, it generally makes us feel better mentally and physically.
When all that is disrupted, it’s unnerving; we feel we’ve lost a bit of our identity. That’s a good time to remember you’re more than a runner, it’s just one component of who you are. It may be a smaller piece of the pie right now – so perhaps it’s time to allow yourself to focus on people or interests in your life that sometimes get a bit of neglect with your busy schedule.
LEARN from the setback.
Often a true story: we feel bad/sad/depressed that we’re not running, but also feel guilty that we feel this way! Give yourself some permission to feel upset without judging yourself.
But, at some point, you need to move on and make the most of your current situation. One way to do that is to “play detective” to determine what may have contributed to the injury. Did you increase your mileage or intensity too soon? Are your running shoes shot? Did you not heed some early warnings that you felt for several days on end? Did you stop warming up/cooling down with your runs? Are you running your easy runs too hard?
While it’s very important to know what the injury is, having some knowledge on how it came about can help you prevent from making the same mistake again. While you want to best cope with your running injury, I doubt you are striving to be an expert on the topic by being repeatedly injured. 😉
As said, I am recovering from a mild hamstring injury. And, for the first time in about nine years, I’m back in the pool. After my first swim, I thought “why didn’t I do this sooner?” I’m also biking on a spin bike as well, without any detriment to the injury.
Would you and I rather be running? Of course! But having the option to cross train (which you should confirm is safe) allows you to maintain some fitness, and fills your mind with some mood boosting endorphins.
Consider this: cross-training is taking active steps to manage your recovery. Unless you have orders to stop all activity to facilitate healing, but complete rest is typically not the answer.
Often with injuries, there’s two ends of the spectrum: the runner that continues to do too much, and makes the injury worse. The other: a runner that stops running, and activity altogether, and is overcome with apathy, and gives up. Don’t be either of those runners.
More Strategies to Cope with a Running Injury
As said above, permit yourself to wallow in your sadness for a short while (without judging), but then, move on. Focus on your recovery – THAT is your sport right now. Plus, spend time developing a future training plan that’ll bring you back to your fitness, or race goals.
Instead of harping on the fact that you are losing some fitness, consider this time allows your joints, bones, soft tissue, and muscles a rest. (Rest that may address some chronic issues you’ve been experiencing.)
Make (wise) use of the extra TIME.
Use this time to deepen some non-running relationships (including your family!). I have to admit that a large majority of my friends are runners, so I spend less time with my “other” friends. I even see my family less in the heart of marathon training!
Also be mindful of spending too much time on social media as you may develop a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out). I personally prefer to spend my time reading positive, inspirational stories/books that can help keep my mind in the right place while I’m on the injured list. (A recent favorite of mine is this book: A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio.)
“While physical fitness enables an athlete to do hard things, mental fitness enables an athlete to deal with hard things, and no athlete realizes his or her full potential without both.”
Keep PERSPECTIVE – remember it can always be worse…
That may not sound too comforting, especially if you’re just on the cusp of a new injury. But really try to find the positive in the negatives. If you’re only able to run a mile today, remember it’s better than zero miles just a few days ago. Or, this time off may be the only way you give yourself a break from your demanding running/fitness schedule, and serves as a much needed rest period for your body.
My aim is not to make light of an injury – it stinks, no doubt. But as said above, accepting, embracing and addressing the situation is your best bet to minimize how much time you’re “out” with an injury. And as importantly, how well you cope with the running injury during that time.
Ask questions. If you are seeing a professional to help aid your rehab, play an active role in your care. Be assertive, ask questions, and be informed. Have a list of questions before your appointment(s), and be ready to jot down the responses. If you’re unclear on their direction or jargon, clarify that, too.
Here’s a list of some potential questions:
- What other types of activity CAN I do (swimming, biking, walking, yoga, weights)?
- How MUCH of that activity?
- What activities CAN’T I do?
- What discomfort/pain is allowable during activity (if any)?
- At what point should I start to feel some relief?
- Is there an estimated timeline for a full recovery?
- What is the est. timeline to start running (or running more)?
- What red flags should I be aware of with running, or other activity?
- Pain relief – medication, ice, heat, rest. What do they suggest?
- Do I need to schedule a follow-up, or is that only necessary if I don’t improve?
- Are there any suggestions for resources (books, websites) to get more informed?
Lastly, keep in mind that if you’re getting professional advice, health insurance may dictate how you go about that. Meaning, some insurance companies require a doctor to refer you to a Physical Therapist, or other specialists. (Others do not, I have direct access to PT for eight visits without a physician referral.) Essentially, know your insurance rules before making appointments so you don’t waste precious time, or money!
What are some ways you cope with your running injury (injuries)? I’d love to hear your feedback!
Related Topics on Running Injury:
- How to Know if it’s Running Pain, or Just Discomfort?
- The Ultimate Runner Core Workout to Keep Injuries Away
- 8 Top Running Injury Rehab Mistakes
- Powerful Glute Strengthening for Runners – How to Avoid Injury!