As much as we try to avoid it, injury at times is a part of the sport. There are the lucky few who can go throughout their careers relatively unscathed, while others seem to come upon a hurdle to clear more often than not. Whether it is your first injury or your 50th, the sting that comes with realizing you have to take a break never seems to lessen. Learning how to best approach a comeback that works for you is one of the most vital skills an athlete can have.
Mental Before Physical
It is tempting that the day after an injury, even moments after news that you are injured, you begin to map out a road to recovery. Pump the brakes just for a moment before you do. Have you checked in on your mental stats? How are you processing this recent injury/news? It is okay to be heartbroken and sad, especially if this was in the lead up to a major goal and event. Your timelines have changed, and now your approach has to as well. There is no doubt that this re-route has taken its toll on your mental state, even if you do not realize it just yet.
What does checking in on the mental side of things look like? The following are some questions you can ask yourself to see where you currently stand:
- How are your motivation levels? Are you motivated to get back into training?
- When was the last time you took time completely off from training?
- Where do you place your self-worth?
- Do you have a good support system?
- Can you find positives to this injury?
- What will you do with the (potential) excess time without heavy training?
- Do you have any passionate pursuits outside of sport?
These are all great questions that can help you to refocus your mind on endeavors outside of endurance sports. While sports are a large part of our lives, it is vitally important to understand that they are not the end all be all. This statement applies to weekend warriors as well as Olympians and World Champions alike. If your entire self-worth is placed into the endurance sports basket, any injury will be a huge blow to the psyche. Perhaps during this time, you can discover other pursuits that make you feel whole, just like sports do. Understanding this can help you determine the best coping mechanisms if and when the time may come that injury has sprung its ugly head.
Take time away from training right after an injury. More often than not, this time away can help you come back feeling mentally and physically refreshed. Sometimes the injury requires us to not perform any physical activity for specific areas of time. How can you turn this time into a positive? Perhaps you can use this time to focus on building your own mental fortitude. While it can be easy for athletes to hit the gym to work on their physical fitness when was the last time you hit the mental gym? Sharpening up on your mental skills come race season, may just be the most effective training you have done yet! Reframing your time off is a great way to focus on skills that may have been neglected during your training period.
One of the most important skills for us to master not just during injury, but also in training/racing is to focus on the things we can control. There are many factors that are outside of our control and focusing on these components not only drains our energy levels but increases our stress levels. Increased stress levels are not going to help repair injured tissue and can place a halt on our body’s healing process. Learning how to let go of things out of control will help not only in the short term but in the long term as well.
After you have evaluated and taken time for the mental aspects of the injury, you can begin to focus on the physical side of things. Your approach to training will be vastly different post-injury than it was pre-injury. Accepting this is key in ensuring that you stay within your physical limits, and not push beyond your injured tissues limits. Always remember that it is better to do too little than it is to do too much, especially in the beginning. Pushing beyond your body’s current limitations can ultimately increase the injury’s inflammation and prolong your return to sport. If working with a doctor or coach on your return to sport, it is important to make a safe plan for return. Be sure to verify any new introduction of activity with your support system, they are there to help guide you and what is best for your health. Keep the following questions in mind when preparing to return to physical fitness:
- Are you being flexible with your schedule? Or are you remaining rigid with timelines of when training needs to be done?
- Are you listening to your body when it comes to cross-training? Even if you think you are not “pushing it,” remember it takes extra energy to repair your injury.
- Are you sleeping enough to help facilitate healing? Injuries do not give us an excuse to become lax on our sleep schedules.
- Are you re-evaluating your timeline and trajectory towards your goals?
- Are you placing your energy into the process or outcome goals?
These are all important questions to reflect back on periodically throughout your rehabilitative period. Becoming flexible with where you are at in your process is important to return to full health. If your doctor says that you can begin full training after four weeks, but you find that at week four you are still having pain, then do not push it. Timelines are just there as guidelines, and they need to be tailored to your body’s individual needs. They are not set in stone and can be flexible. Taking an extra week to heal is better now, than needing to take an additional four weeks off down the road because you pushed it too hard too soon.
Learning how to develop process goals is another great tool in coming back from injury, in fact, it is a great tool to implement during any training process. Making goals along the way to your main goal can help not only with motivation levels but also helps you to digest the road to recovery much easier. At first, it may appear to be a mountain ahead of you to climb, but chunking this process into smaller steps can make even a large goal manageable.
No matter how big or small an injury is, it is one of the most challenging aspects of sport we encounter. Sport for many of us is our identity, and learning how to handle this change is necessary for both your physical and mental health as well. Focusing on the injury rehab process is important to any return to sport plan, and can help you return to sport with an even greater drive and purpose. Injuries challenge us, and with the right approach you will come out stronger from this.