Most of our races are demanding. But there is one race tougher than any physical race we might enter. It is the race against an illness or injury.
Being injured is one of the most necessary forms of training an athlete needs to experience! No amount of training can prepare you for a setback like an injury.
From my own experiences as a pro duathlete and professional coach, I believe it is a required (if unwanted) part of every athlete’s life.
Here are my observations on injury, gained over many years of personal trial and error:
Injury and illness have perfect timing
Have you noticed how perfect the timing of an injury or illness is?
Your training is going well. You feel great. Your big race is just around the corner and out of the blue, you are sick or injured!
Physically, it is easy to explain this occurrence. The athlete has reached her breakdown point. She has trained intensely for a while and her body simply cannot handle any more stress.
What happens once the injury has happened is the real test of the athlete. Sebastian Coe, long-time world record holder of the 800m, once commented: “The mark of an athlete is how he deals with an injury.”
Our reaction to the injury or illness usually begins with absolute denial: “This cannot be happening now” or even: “No, I am sure it’s nothing serious.”
Many athletes who use the Nothing Serious mantra continue to train. They ignore the symptoms. Initially, it may appear they got the better of the injury or illness. But after a time, those symptoms eventually take control of your body. They force you to stop your training. I have seen countless athletes ignore early warning symptoms of injury with serious consequences.
The never-say-die veteran
One runner I know (let’s call him Dan) elected not to treat what he thought was shin splints. He told me “You can run through shin splints, you know”. Dan was on the verge of moving into the veteran’s category and was motivated to win races in his first year as a veteran.
He continued to run and over time, what was once a slight discomfort developed into a serious limp. Still not convinced he had a serious injury, Dan continued to train and race, despite being in obvious pain.
His once-fluid running style was reduced to a shuffle or more accurately, a hobble. Nearly a year later, he finally decided to see a specialist who confirmed a stress fracture. However, the fracture was so severe the doctor put Dan’s foot in plaster! Usually, a stress fracture does not require a cast.
I thought: Clever doctor… he knew the type of athlete Dan is. Dan could not run for six months!
This six months did not detract him from his goal and he duly made his comeback. Sadly though, he never got to run anywhere near his best. To this day, he continues to run with a limp.
The precocious young gun
‘Jannie’ had to be the most promising sprinter this country had seen in years. He was poetry in motion. At just19 years old, Jannie was beating most of the senior sprinters in the country.
In the lead up to National Champs that year he strained his hamstring. Jannie felt he could not reduce his training with Nationals so close. Well, the good news is Jannie won both the 100m and 200m that year.
Pundits were proclaiming the arrival of a bright new era of sprinters for South Africa. Jannie never competed at the same level ever again. The recovery needed as a result of damaging his hamstring was a bit much for Jannie’s patience. He quit the sport, not wanting to “wait it out.”
Both these stories are true. Neither of these stories have happy endings.
But my aim is not to say “you cannot overcome injury or illness.” My point is: injuries or illnesses are a message to us to slow down.
There is a consistency to our reactions when we get injured or sick. Very often we go into what is psychologically called denial. We pretend it isn’t happening.
This can take the form of ignoring the body and is often heard in statements like, “Why now, why me?”
We are filled with a sense of utter disbelief. Then we begin to bargain, which may work depending on the extent of the injury.
“Maybe, if I just increase my dose of…”
Or “if I cut back on my training, then I will be okay.”
Another part of the pattern is anger. We become really anger that this tragedy has hit us. We often blame our coach for giving us too much training or berate ourselves for this setback.
Something happens when we realise that the big race “ain’t gonna happen” or even if it does, it may be just to finish. We identify a lost opportunity. We accept the inevitable.
We often lose our motivation because we either cannot train at all or we are reduced to a temporary cutback. We even threaten to quit the sport, and some athletes do! We look for comfort from our training partners. Sometimes they seem too caught up in their own training to show much concern (or so you perceive it!)
At this point it may seem that nobody cares and you may feel completely alone. Well, good news for you… all these feelings are natural!
What I have realised recently is that the feelings we experience when injured or sick are similar to when we experience any form of loss in our lives.
All our reactions, the anger, the denial, the grief, the bargaining and depression are acceptable. They form part of a natural grieving process. So, the fact that you feel bad is OK. It’s your current state of mind.
When last did you have a race this tough?
I stated at the beginning that the injury/illness is necessary for all of us. You may well ask why.
Perhaps the injury is indicative of a temporary need to stop and look around you. It is a necessary time-out that possibly you were not granting yourself.
Injury is often an indication of being under-prepared in one or two areas. They may suggest some psychological or emotional issues you need to address. Either way, it’s a time for you to be a little more introspective and reward your body with the appropriate treatment.
Athletes very seldom reward their bodies and minds. Our bodies often reach a point where it needs a break. If you won’t listen, then life has a quirky way of compelling you to!
(Read our article on developing mental fortitude in endurance sport)
The big ask
Downtime often serves as a guide. Every setback is designed to teach you something valuable about yourself.
The secret is to be open and aware enough to the unique learning experience. Can you be grateful for your injury or illness?
If you can cultivate this approach, your down-time becomes a significant stepping stone to a full recovery. Not easily attained I add, but possible.
Looking to try out a new sport?
Written by Glenn Macnamara, who is an elite triathlete that also loves running trails. He competes internationally and he has numerous top five finishes to his name. He coaches kids and adults. His love of writing is inspired by the sports he competes in.