Lifestyle09 Oct 2021

How to cope with long-term injury


The road to recovery can be long and hard, but there is light at the end of the tunnel (© Emma Simpson on Unsplash)

Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, and throughout the month, we will be highlighting a series of stories across our channels, as athletes share their mental health journeys. This year’s World Mental Health Day campaign is 'Mental health care for all: let's make it a reality', with a focus on highlighting positive stories, as inspiration to others. The first in a new series of posts on our website offers advice on how to cope when dealing with long-term injury, with links to other features at the foot of the story. #WorldMentalHealthDay

Running – and, indeed, athletics as a whole – is a sport that levels things out. A disappointing race result provides a purpose for the next batch of training. A well-run race a vindication of the work that came before.

The benefits associated with running, like any regular exercise, are well publicised, but what about when the sport is no longer an option, when long-term injury has meant running can no longer provide that outlet from your everyday stresses and strains?

Based on personal experiences, here are some pieces of advice if ever you find yourself with an extended period on the sidelines.

Accept that you will feel down

It is often said that keeping positive is a crucial part of recovery but it’s naïve to think you won’t have your ups and downs. People run for many different reasons but a big one is how it makes you feel: more confident, sleeping better, even happier. When you lose that, it will take anyone time to adjust.

Feeling low and losing that spring in your step are all perfectly normal responses to injury and when they come along don’t beat yourself up for losing that positivity. Watch a film, eat some nice food and accept that there are moments when you will feel glum. They might last longer than you expect but there is no weakness in some self-pity.

Don’t be afraid to talk to people about how you feel

After any major injury, people will often find themselves surrounded by those closest to them – friends and family concerned for the wellbeing of their loved one.

It can be quite humbling to have the support of your loved ones and that helps with the positivity.

But over time, there can be the tendency to think that you don’t want to burden others with something as trivial in your head as an injury or how it is making you feel.

What you will find, however, is that those that first helped you will invariably still want to help you down the line. Chatting to them and telling them what is occupying your mind is a healthy way of coming to terms with your injury. Try not to bottle up your feelings until it’s too late. You’ll probably find this can be more upsetting to your loved ones than actually speaking to them in the first place.

Don’t suffer in silence, speak to those that care for you. If it doesn’t make you feel better, there is no weakness in seeking professional help, too.

Find something else to focus on

Athletes are often very passionate people and taking away a pursuit can provide a big gap in one’s day-to-day life. But flip it over and you may find yourself with a whole lot of new free time. How you spend that may even open a new exciting chapter in your life.

It can be anything that takes your fancy, from a new exercise that forms part of your rehab routine like swimming or cycling, to completely new and unrelated pursuits such as writing, reading or music. Find something else that excites you and can occupy some of that passion. It will help you pass the time and give you something to look forward to besides your return to the sport.

Allow yourself the opportunity to re-evaluate your relationship with the sport

If running or athletics has played a big part in your life and defines who you are, losing that identity can be a very difficult and daunting reality.

But having no option but to think of a life without athletics can be a blessing in disguise. Ask yourself: why do I love to run, throw or jump? What did I get out of the sport and was that always healthy?

Doing so will mean when you do come back to the sport, you will have a better understanding of exactly why you do it. It will also enable you to spot the warning signs should a passion ever become something unhealthy. 

Take it day by day and celebrate the little wins

At the start of your recovery process, try to find motivation in the things you can do, the slight improvements from day to day along the road of getting better.

Over time, however, it can be easy to think about all the things you cannot do, rather than the things you increasingly can. This is a perfectly normal thing to think, but it doesn’t help. Think instead about what you have done today that puts you in a better position than when you woke up. Have you done your physio? Have you given your body the sleep and food it needs?

And if for whatever reason life gets in the way, don’t worry about it. It is a long road and everyone has their stumbling blocks along the way.

The road ro recovery can be long and hard, but remember: there is light at the end of the tunnel.

A long-term injury is a horrible thing to endure but it also provides an opportunity. A few years down the line you might even look back and think you are all the stronger for it.

George Mallett for World Athletics Be Active

George Mallett is a keen runner who sustained a split knee cap a few years ago, which led to a long recovery process involving surgery and a prolonged absence from the sport. He is now running more and faster than he ever did beforehand and is in a much happier place with his relationship with the sport