Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Injury. It happens. And there are numerous ways to deal with it.
I usually like to start off feeling quite positive, then after a few days to a week of limited activity my preferred coping method is to get irritable. This usually includes stomping about (if injury permits) and snapping at any physio or other professional who dares to tell me it’s getting better, when it’s not. I also sometimes like to eat cake. Cake becomes my friend at a time when it shouldn’t. Positivity disappears (it’s hard to believe, I know) and I start to dwell on said injury.
This. Gets me nowhere. Sound familiar? (Maybe minus the cake)
My first taste of injury was in 2006 when I switched sports from swimming to triathlon and I experienced a grand old dose of the ever-popular shin splints. This then progressed to a stress fracture. Which in turn caused me to kick an Olympic shot putter in the face as he tried to massage my lower limb (before we knew I had a fracture). He was a big guy. I am 5’2 (and that’s being generous). When he received a mouthful of foot, he clenched his teeth, stopped, stepped away and said:
“Did you just kick me? IN THE FACE?!”
Me: (Stuttering) “I’m so so sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m so sorry. Please don’t hurt me….” (cowers)
Him: “You should get that looked at.”
Massage continues, with him avoiding the area and me keeping my feet to myself.
The fracture incident resulted in me losing my spot at World Student Games after my best race to date, missing two seasons of racing and spending almost two years off consistent running. I was a competitive athlete chasing sponsorship, prize money and funding and on numerous occasions I didn’t let myself heal. I forced myself to run through tears, took pain killers before every attempt and beat myself up for not being at my best. I wanted to be back training and racing so badly it consumed me, physically and mentally. Personality wise I became irritable, snappy and obviously a delight to be around. I was a cow.
Post stress fracture I didn’t have any form of injury that led me to have more than a few days off activity for nine years and maybe this next injury shouldn’t have been an issue considering I didn’t race competitively anymore. But it was.
I decided to enter an Ultra Marathon in April 2015 – 112km of running. 4,500m elevation. Over the mountains in Mallorca. Why? I have no idea – I wasn’t even drunk. It sounded like fun, I guess. And an excuse to eat more cake. Three months before the race I was due to start my back to back long runs, my ‘key’ training phase, and I managed to jolt my SI joint out of place so the facets were impinging on my sciatic nerve. I didn’t run properly for six weeks. I had six weeks left before my race. And I hadn’t ran for what seemed like an eternity.
I started to get frustrated. What if it doesn’t get better? What if I can’t run? What if I’m not fit enough? What if, what if, what if? What if the sky falls down? What if, what if, what if?
What if? I’d been here before. Last time it had led to me becoming a not-very-nice person to be around. Now I was in a different position. This race was not my job, it was my next challenge. A hobby. I wanted to do it for fun, but I still wanted to do the best I could, be the best I could be. Of course I wanted to do well but I’d been spotted speeding down this darned injury lane before. And last time a six to eight week recovery time turned into two years because I was a stubborn and didn’t listen to expert advice. I had failed to see the bigger picture and I let the injury take over every aspect of my life. This time around I decided to take a different approach and deal with the ‘what if’s’ as and when they arrived.
In 2015 when I was preparing for my ultra-marathon by not running and binging on cake a good friend of mine, Non Stanford (2013 World Triathlon Champion) hadn’t raced for over a year and a half due to injury. Triathlon was (and still is) her job. Every time I spoke to her, she remained positive, adamant that she would be back. At the time I was sure she was feeling the same as me, feeling the same frustration, anger and asking the old ‘what if’ questions that we all ask. But she remained positive and focused on the things she could do. At the time she had a lot more at stake than I had. For example, Rio 2016 Olympic qualification aka her job.
After speaking to Non and thinking about the cow I became with a stress fracture I decided to take a different approach to my new injury, otherwise I was in danger of becoming the grumpy athlete I had been nine years earlier. I decided to simply do what I could. I accepted that my injury wasn’t as bad as ones that many other people encounter. I realised that it was a hurdle not a barrier. So, I decided to ride my bike and do endless hours on the cross trainer as ultra-marathon preparation. I decided to keep seeing the specialist who was putting me back together piece by piece and listen to his advice. And I decided to keep doing any rehab exercises I was given. I promised myself I would stop asking ‘what if?’, because there was no point and I did not know the answers. And I cut down on the cake (sort of). I vowed to be in the best shape that I could be in when April came around and myself and my head torch were left to scramble up mountains, and hopefully I would finish and be ok with that because I did the best I could with what I had. That 112k was going to hurt whatever, so I decided to keep trying to make it hurt a little less. At the time I had no idea how much longer I would be unable to run for. As far as I knew at that point, I could have been back running the following week so I banned all ‘what if’s?’
I banned that moody cow with the stress fracture from ever returning. Because, frankly, she was a waste of space and looking back she hindered my rehab and progress as a young athlete. She did, however, teach me some major lessons as a person.
Out of these two injuries I made a conscious effort to handle my second one differently, better. I chose to listen to my body, adapt my sessions and focus on what I could do. And I decided I was not going to be miserable and focus on the things I couldn’t do. I finished my 112km ultra-marathon in one piece. My body held up ok but my mind had held up better. There were no ‘what if’s?’
In 2015 Non made the Olympic team after a year and a half off racing and went on to place 4th in Rio 2016 Olympic Games. There were no ‘what if’s?’
The point in this blog?
We all get injuries, some worse than others. People who exercise to keep fit get injured. People who train as a hobby get injured. People who race competitively get injured. People who race as a living get injured. Some injuries last a few days, some a few weeks, some years. And whichever bracket you are in, injury still sucks with a capital ‘S’. But we can choose how we deal with it. Obviously we are not going to be swinging from the rafters with joy when we can’t train properly but becoming like that grumpy-cow-with-the-stress-fracture-who-kicked-a-shot-putter-in-the-face isn’t going to get you anywhere (trust me). ‘What if’s?’ won’t get you anywhere. Positivity, focus and adapting sessions to deal with the situation will.
So next time you veer off into the injury lane take a day or two to rant and let off some steam but then take a deep breath and think about the girl with the stress fracture that no one wanted to be around. Don’t be like her. She was tedious.
And remember, if all else fails…there’s always cake.