It's not about having to sit this one out.
We've discussed avoiding injury before, but sometimes it's inevitable. I thought about this late Friday afternoon as I massaged out my right foot after a very short, very difficult, very slow run. No amount of rolling or icing was going to help this time, though. The crack in the ankle bone, while not visible, was apparent. After stress fracturing five different bones throughout the 12 years I've called myself a runner, the feeling is familiar enough that I already know the x-ray will come back blank, but the MRI will come back splintered. And it means making the right decision to drop out of the race coming at the end of the month or making the poor decision to hobble through.
I, along with so many athletes I know, are familiar with hobbling through practice and races. It would be a lie to say that pride doesn't factor into it. You break a bone or strain a muscle because that part of your body is weak—that's just a fact. And when you're an athlete, you want to be strong—or at least tough. So, yeah, when you finally admit to yourself that you're hurt and you've got to stop training, your pride definitely stings. Suddenly that race or that game you were so nervous about becomes the only thing you can think about because you want to participate so badly. Taking a knee or warming the bench is insult to injury. Literally.
Your Body Might Be Injured, But Your Brain Is Also Hurting
This might sound melodramatic (and it kind of is), but there are actually major psychological factors at play when it comes to sports injury. As I was reading up on these, it struck me that the psychology of sports injury is a lot like the psychology of grief. The injured athlete is faced with mental stages as they process the injury: depression, anger, loss of motivation, and isolation to name a few. In a lot of ways, it makes sense that these mirror the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and sadness). Injury in sports is a major loss. Athletes typically define themselves by their sport, so coming to terms with being forced to separate themselves from their sport is like being separated from one's identity for an extended period of time. I call myself a runner, but when I can't run for six weeks, it's hard to see myself as one for that month and a half. And then once I finally get to return to running, I have to struggle to get back into shape—I have to fight to get my identity back.
If athletics keeps you involved in a community (a sports team, a running club, the gym) an injury physically separates you from your community. It's easy to feel lonely and left out. Your team continues without you and makes progress while you're essentially put on pause. The effects of injury on the ahtlete's psyche are variable. Some people exercise to keep their weight down. Injury can trigger fears of weight gain and result in disordered eating. Professional and Olympic athletes can also lose their livelihood. Depending on the injury, these athletes can be forced into early retirement.
What You Can Do Instead
Everyone handles setbacks differently. A teammate of mine became so motivated not to lose ground in her cross country training that she took the time off from running to focus on strengthening other parts of her body. She came back to the sport stronger than ever.
But not everyone handles bad news the same way. If you find yourself on the sidelines, feeling hopeless, you can try to change your outlook. You can practice positive visualizations. You can focus on another hobby or aspect of your life or find a new one! You can become your sport's number one cheerleader and fan. But at any time you feel like the psychological weight of your injury is becoming too much, seek out the advice of your doctor. They'll be able to help you or send you in a direction you might not have thought of before.
Have you ever dealt with an injury? How did you get through it? Share your thoughts in the comments!
The Run-Around is a weekly feature, focusing on fitness in and around Annapolis, MD.