Athletes experience mental pain as well as physical symptoms while they’re hurt. Here’s how to deal.
Jordan Hasay was forced to withdraw from the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships in 2013 because of a case of plantar fasciitis, making her ineligible to compete at the IAAF World Championships.
She and coach Alberto Salazar had to make a difficult decision, as they faced the young athlete’s first injury during an otherwise smooth career. And Hasay, like many runners who have had to deal with injuries, found herself confronting a range of emotions in addition to her physical symptoms.
“You’re upset and angry, and then you feel like it’s unfair because you’ve done everything right,” she says. Often, the mental effects of injury can be just as, if not more, difficult to manage than the physical ones.
An injured runner may experience everything from “questions about identity, to fears about performance never returning to pre-injury levels, to worries about disappointing and therefore potentially losing sponsors,” says Sari Fine Shepphird, a sports and performance psychologist.
When someone does not know how to cope, “potentially serious depression” can occur, she says. “But athletes can take steps to overcome the mental barriers they experience alongside an injury.”
1. Accept Reality
Hasay says she went through a wide range of emotions when she realized the gravity of her injury.
“We really had to think long term,” Hasay says. “World championships are very important, but we had to decide, ‘Okay, I need to be smart about this and not push through anything and make it worse or career-ending.’”
Acknowledging the problem makes it easier to develop a plan for recovery.
“It is important to first accept the true extent of the injury, so an honest assessment of what it will take to come back can be made,” Shepphird says.
2. Treat Recovery Like Training
When a runner has a goal race looming, she writes a training plan that includes all the necessary ingredients to best prepare. When that race is no longer an option, one way to deal with the depression is to start treating the rehabilitation process just like training.
“[Try to see] rehabilitation as a form of training, rather than merely an impediment in your athletic career,” says Chris Carr, sports and performance psychologist at the St. Vincent Sport Center in Indianapolis, USA. He also encourages athletes to set realistic goals related to cross-training or strength exercises along the way.
3. Use Mental Training Skills
Studies have shown practicing “mind over muscle” techniques can help with recovery. Carr suggests using relaxation training, mental imagery and self-hypnosis during the recovery process. These strategies can help reduce stress and increase positive thinking.
A basic way to practice relaxation is to lie in a comfortable position and concentrate on one muscle area at a time, breathing calmly and evenly. Clench the muscle area for a few seconds, then relax the area; repeat twice before moving on to the next muscle group.
Shepphird says relaxation training can be especially important because the added muscle tension and blood flow tied to stress and anxiety could hinder an athlete’s ability to recover.
4. Report Pain and Discomfort
Runners coming off of injuries face a new set of psychological issues as they return to regular training. Deciphering between acceptable pain and pain that should stop them from running is difficult. Many are just hyperaware of the injury and afraid of getting hurt again.
Experts suggest conferring with somebody who can calm your anxieties with facts. “Understand that being ‘tough’ and underreporting pain could lead to further injury,” Carr says.
5. Embrace the Time Off
The time away from running doesn’t mean that all is lost – it brings its own value. Hasay is back to running strong, and she is confident that she’ll perform well in the coming months, despite the time she took to recover. “I’ve been able to push myself even more, and I’m going to be that much stronger for the trials,” she says.