For many of us, running is like a best friend.
We count on it to quiet our anxieties, focus our minds, and make us happier, healthier, and saner. So what happens when injury strikes and takes away our trusted ally? We curse, we pout, we may even cry and scream. Sound excessive or irrational?
It's not—in fact, experts say experiencing these emotions is normal and healthy.
"The sense of loss an athlete feels when injured can be very similar to the other types of mourning or grief that occur in our lives," says Diane Wiese-Bjornstal, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota and a leading researcher of injury psychology. "It's a huge sense of loss that you feel."
In order to deal with this pain and frustration—and move on to recovery—Wiese-Bjornstal recommends sidelined runners adopt a specific grieving strategy. It may sound familiar—it's what you'd go through if you lost a job or a pet. And if you've been injured before, you've probably stumbled through it unknowingly.
The key is taking a purposeful approach. If you can recognize each stage of mourning, and work actively to move through each one, you'll heal faster. And that means you'll be back on your feet sooner.
The Stage: Denial
Ignorance Is Bliss: After running a 2:35 marathon in 2006, Michelle (nee Lilienthal) Frey was recruited by Team USA Minnesota and offered a sponsorship contract. She spent the next two years preparing for the 2008 Marathon Trials, where she hoped to make the Olympic team. A year before the race, the bottom of her leftfoot began to hurt. "But I kept running on it," she says.
Runners often play this game of Russian roulette—limping through workouts, disregarding red flags. "Runners in denial know they're injured but won't admit it," Wiese-Bjornstal says.
Move On: Getting stuck here is dangerous. "By denying you're injured, you can exacerbate the injury," says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., a sports psychology consultant and sub-three-hour marathoner in San Francisco. "What was once a minor tweak could turn into a major injury."
Which is what happened to Frey—she was crippled by plantar fasciitis for one year. Listen to your body. At the first sign of a potential injury, be smart and back off . A few days on the couch is better than months of physical therapy.
The Stage: Anger
It's Not Fair!: Not being able to run a goal race as fast as you had hoped—or at all—can be disappointing, even devastating. "I was like, Why is this happening to me before the biggest race of my life?" Frey says. It's this sense of injustice that triggers anger. "You feel betrayed by your body, your training, the universe," Taylor says.
Move On: A positive outlook—as hard as that may be to summon—may be your greatest weapon. Research reports that athletes who use positive self-talk and set goals for their rehab experience "exceptional recovery."
So be angry for a few days, then look forward. Set rehab goals so you can celebrate small successes. If your therapy program includes planks, aim to hold the position for 15, then 30, then 60 seconds. When you reach each goal, recognize the achievement.