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  • Writer's pictureMary Brooking

Getting to the other side of an injury

This is one of the worst times of year to face an injury. It's especially tough when you can't get out and make the most of the daylight and warmth that surrounds us at the moment, particularly when you also see others perhaps ramping up their volume & heading off to races.

But every athlete gets injured at some point, if not repeatedly. It's a normal, not unusual, part of being active that there will be setbacks to deal with so building that expectation and the framework to deal with it is important.

It also makes it even more impressive when you see someone else reach their goal (even as yours may have been deferred) because they will probably have navigated a rollercoaster of ups and downs on their way. Having this recognition from the outset that this will be part of your and others' journies is often helpful.

There are lots of strategies to prevent getting injured, and repetitive injuries always demand a thorough investigation of underlying causes, but the focus of this blog is how to react when it does (almost inevitably) happen to you at some point.

1) Positive mindset

It's hard to frame injuries and illnesses as a good thing and unrealistic to do so immediately. Give yourself the time to process & grieve for lost hopes (but please don't take it out on those around you!) but then start to look for what you can do. Does an injury give you time to focus on core/upper body exercises so frequently neglected by runners & cyclists. Or to get more sleep? Or to spend time cooking healthy meals and focussing on improving your nutrition? Or are you able to walk, or swim? Time off from activity can either give you more time to ruminate on the injury, or focus on what you can do and work on those. Working on developing this positive mindset pre-injury when all is well but small setbacks arise such as a work deadline meaning training has to take a back seat sets you up better for when an injury comes along. Practice dealing with things positively; adjust, be flexible, see the opportunity in the situation not just the downside. 2) Balance up identities If your identity is wholly connected to your activity: "I'm a runner" this can make injury much harder to deal with. While it's helpful identifying as being fit & active as it keeps good habits going in non-injury periods it's also important to recognise this isn't your complete identity and not training for a while doesn't change who you are. Think about what other identities you have (a parent, a friend, hobbies, a love of theatre or music etc) and embrace the opportunities an injury can give you to do other things,

3) Keep connected

Stay involved in your exercise community by coming along to sessions for the social part at the end or volunteering at events or get in touch with exercise buddies and suggest a walk, a swim or a coffee to keep in touch. Lean on a spouse or trusted friend for help with building a positive mindset. Building relationships when things are going well can really help when times get tougher. Maybe if you haven't seen someone around much recently take the time to get in touch - they may have an injury they are struggling with and you could help them cope.

4) Trust in the process

It's not unusual for people to return from injury stronger than before and achieve and surpass their previous accomplishments. Hearing this from trusted sources; coaches, valued friends, physical therapists, doctors can be really helpful in calming anxiety, instilling confidence and addressing a defeatist mindset of "I'll lose fitness, gain weight & never get back to where I was" and therefore help you invest time in your recovery.

However if you don't have trust in the experts you are working with in your recovery that's likely to lead to less adherence to your rehab. Also if you don't trust the diagnosis and recommendations you are being given then seeking a second opinion is a good course of action, as it's important to have confidence that the time spent recovering and rehabilitating is going to get you back to your activity. Finding the right help that will support you to meet your goals as much as possible is also important to encourage early intervention. Many people avoid seeing a physio for fear they'll be told to stop their activity, but if you seek out an exercise/ sport specialist they, wherever possible, should help calm your fears, find ways to keep your fitness and put in strategies to support you through the injury.

5) Respect recovery as a strain on the body

During illness & injury our body is working hard to recover or heal. It's important to keep fuelling as our metabolic rate increases 24hrs a day, so don't restrict calories. It's better to come out of injury a couple of pounds heavier than staying neutral or dropping weight at this time.

Treat your rehab programme, and sleep, as your training programme. If you are someone who posts their activities on Strava then do this for your rehab sessions.

6) Have timeframes and goals which reflect where you want to get to

Recovery times are always given in a range eg 6-10 weeks, but these frequently reflect the time until you are able to walk again or do light activity not until you are back at previous fitness or capability. Having an idea it's probably going to take longer than those stated times is probably a safe place to set your expectations, or ask "How long until I'm back to full strength?" and base your timelines off that, with some added contingency.

Recovery is never linear, there are always ups and downs and expecting these setbacks to happen from the start is helpful. Keep trusting the process even if you miss some goals along the way.

7) Deal with re-injury anxiety

Coming back from injury concern and worry about re-injury is a huge source of anxiety for many people, and also frequently acts as a limit on activity levels and performance.

Focussing on being present/mindful when doing your activity can be really helpful to leave no space for other thoughts. This can be easier to do trail running or mountain biking than being on the road as the mental alertness required for technical sections demands 100% attention!

Remind yourself of everything you've done to get to the point where you are restarting activity, you're returning cautiously and sensibly, having trusted the process and followed all the guidance. Lean on your support resources to help you through. But an acceptance that at some point there probably will be another injury, which you have the tools to get through again, is also valuable.


Thanks to the Podium podcast (Instagram @the_podium_podcast) "Navigating Injury & Recovery" from which this blog leans heavily. Dr Kevin Sprouse & Patrick Morris are always a fascinating listen with a wealth of expertise.

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