The bright side: Lessons you learn from being injured

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Being sidelined – whether it’s for days, weeks, or months – can turn any runner’s world upside down. But as hard as it is to realise when you’re relegated to the pool or bike, being down can have an upside.  

1 YOU CROSS-TRAIN

Most runners pour all their energy into the sport they love most and aren’t willing to give a new activity a shot. That is, until they get hurt and take up cross-training to maintain endurance, burn calories and stay sane while sidelined. But there are additional benefits. “You can derive power from your upper back, shoulders and core,” says Allison Lind, a sub-three-hour marathoner and physical therapist. “If you’re able to use your core and upper body to propel you, you’ll be able to run faster and longer with less effort.”

The takeaway: When you get the green light to run, don’t abandon cross-training. Lind suggests alternating running with swimming, pool running or cycling. Even when you’re fully recovered, keep one cross-training day on your schedule. And tag activities like yoga, Pilates, and weight training on to the end of easy runs. Short on time? Twice a week, cut back your run by quarter of an hour. “Even 15 minutes of strength work is beneficial,” Lind says.

2 YOU FINALLY LISTEN TO YOUR BODY

Sticking to your training plan regardless of how you feel is a common mistake that often leads to injury. “The body has a threshold for how much exertion it can handle,” says rehabilitation specialist Annie O’Connor. “Runners often overestimate that threshold and run through pain.” While you’re rehabbing an injury, you become more conscious of your limits. “When an athlete does an exercise, we ask what discomfort they experience, and whether it fades or persists,” says O’Connor. “Thinking about it helps them become more in tune with their bodies so they can prevent future injuries.”

The takeaway: At the first sign that something’s ‘off’, stop running for two to three days, O’Connor says. Cross-train instead, and when you head out again, start with a walk or run at a slow pace. “If you can walk or run for 30 minutes with no pain, gradually build your pace and distance,” she says. You may have a little stiffness when you start out again, but that should fade. The goal is to have no pain immediately after your run or the next day.

3 YOU COME BACK WITH CARE

Easing back into training slowly means you increase pace and distance little by little – a practice that can help you build mileage even when you’re healthy. “This lesson is crucial, because there will be times in your life when you abandon your training – like after a stressful month at work or after taking the winter off,” says chiropractor Larry Frieder.

The takeaway: When you return to running, start with an easy workout. For example, if you used to run for an hour, run for 20 minutes instead. Slow your pace by one minute per mile, and take walk breaks as needed. Then, track how you feel in the next 24 hours. Feel great? Continue to build from where you started. Feel sore? Stick with the easy workout until you feel completely comfortable. 

4 YOU PRACTISE POSITIVITY

When you’re injured, it’s easy to let your thoughts spiral downward. “You’re allowed to feel bad for a few days – but
then you have to cope with your situation,” says Kirsten Peterson, a senior sports psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee. “Putting a positive spin on a bad situation will help you through rehab and, later, when you hit a rough patch in a race.”

The takeaway: To control negative thoughts, notice when they arise and stop them right away. To do this, touch your sports watch and imagine hitting a reset button. So if you’re climbing a hill, and you start obsessing over how slow you’re going, hit reset. Then switch your focus to how strong your hamstrings feel as they carry you up the incline.