I recently wrote this article about performance progression, where I opined that forced downtime away from training can actually provide the body with the rest it needs to recover from a prolonged, intense training cycle and yield a breakthrough performance. As I struggle through yet another injury, I have the ability to reflect on this topic further and practice my own advice so I can emerge from the hiatus a better athlete than I was before.
Physical Injury? Or Mental Injury?
Injuries are the worst. All serious runners can relate to the mental struggle (and physical pain) that must be endured during a time of injury. Coping with not being able to train takes more mental fortitude than coping with the stresses sustained while training. Without running, we lose a piece of our identities. Newfound anxiety and fear flood our brains. As each minute passes, thoughts of how out of shape we are getting, how fat we are becoming, and how badly we are going to bomb our upcoming goal race intensify. Why do we become so irrational the second an obstacle is thrown our way?
The reality is these thoughts are highly exaggerated. Sure, science shows we can begin to lose a little fitness taking a week or two away from the sport. However, I can argue that a forced downtime is actually more beneficial to our long-term health and performance than having the couple additional weeks of grinding through training. I explore these rationales below and present the positives we need to remind ourselves of when anxiety takes hold.
Maintaining Mental Fitness
The biggest detriment to performance post-injury, especially in cases where the injury only requires a week or two off from running, is not the loss of physical fitness, but rather the loss of mental fitness. Self-doubt and negative self-talk become self-fulfilling, and performance is as much mental as it is physical. Thus, the loss of confidence and added stress placed on oneself each day without running become the most significant detriments to returning to performance readiness post-injury. Maintaining mental fitness during an injury is the most effective ingredient for accelerating the physical comeback.
The downtime needs to be re-framed in our minds as an opportunity to recover and reap the benefits from all the great training done in the past. One can often come back and perform even better post-injury than during a training cycle because of the renewed motivation and energy levels. Training cycles are a grind on our bodies both physically and mentally, incrementally applying more and more pressure. Because the increasing load is accumulative, it rarely is noticed day-to-day and instead becomes apparent once a breaking point is reached. A recess from the training grind can be seen as an opportunity for mitigating this hazardous trend.
We Are Athletes, Not Runners
Too often, we get so caught up in running-related numbers, namely miles run per week, that we use these metrics as our sole indicators for fitness and readiness to perform. This can be a slippery slope as we begin to channel more and more of our focus and energy on running itself and neglect the supplementary activities that allow us to perform better at the goal activity. This can be sustained for a while, but more often than not is abruptly halted when an injury comes out of left field.
To counter this pitfall, I find it helpful to remind myself that I am an athlete first and a runner second. This shift in mindset places my training focus on how I can best prepare myself as an athlete to compete to win a race, as opposed to placing my training focus on how much running (since I am a runner, after all) I need to complete to satisfy some arbitrary mileage number. With this mindset, I don't push crucial training activities (weight lifting, core strengthening, form drills, etc.) aside in favor of eking out a few bonus miles.
Take Advantage of Downtime to Improve Your Overall Self
On top of utilizing newfound free time away from running to work on your weaknesses and correct the root cause(s) of the injury through strength training and other supplementary exercises, it is a good time to enjoy other hobbies. Dedicated runners are busy people. The demand of endurance sports not only requires tens of hours devoted to working out each week, but also can limit participation in other activities due to fatigue and the need for downtime to recover. A break from running can provide you the extra time needed to finally be social with your friends into the wee hours of the night or focus on launching your idea into the business you have always dreamed of.
If you don't have a few hobbies that come to mind to replace the time you would normally spend running, then I would suggest you get some by trying something new. I've seen far too many runners who are so focused on the sport that everything else in their lives takes backseat. But what happens when a severe injury comes along and requires 6 weeks off running? What about a career-ending surgery? Likely, a mental breakdown will ensue as life as you know it is turned upside down. It is important to have other interests and passions that will leave you feeling fulfilled should running no longer be possible, even if it is something as simple as having more time to spend with family and friends. Being well-rounded brings out improvement in all aspects of life as skills are refined, new perspectives realized, and synergies developed that can be leveraged across activities. Variety truly is the spice of life.
While running injuries are extremely frustrating and impose an unwanted layoff from our training routine, there is a silver lining that should be realized. As with every negative event in life, the impact lies in the way we frame it mentally. Exploring to find a new perspective can bring a new lens through which positive light exists. Therefore, we can turn any obstacle into an improvement opportunity by refining our strategy and sharpening our mentality to learn by overcoming. And the fact is, running is just a sport. We only have one opportunity to live life as happily as we can, so it is important to not take running, or ourselves, too seriously.