All runners can empathise with the deep frustrations of an injury lay-off. The suffering goes beyond physical distress; as the mileage zeroes stack up in our training diaries there’s the added mental trauma of seeing our fitness slip away, and we’re denied the stress-relieving benefits we draw from the sport we love. For many runners it goes deeper still; running is such an integral part of who they are that when they can’t run they lose a lot more than fitness – they lose a part of themselves.
For Olympic 1500m runner Andy Baddeley, those feelings were amplified to a crushing intensity. After the London 2012 Games, he developed a leg injury. Unable to run and repeatedly knocked by failed attempts to treat the problem, Baddeley became depressed. He spoke about his experience earlier this year in a blog post published in association with mental health charity MIND. He tells us he how he’s finding his way out of a dark place, and offers advice on how you can cope with the stress of your own injury woes.
You described the London Olympics as an ‘amazing experience.’ Where were you in your career and confidence post-London 2012?
I had a few niggles, but I was excited about a new challenge – stepping up to the 5000m. I set the world record for Parkrun a week after the Olympics, running 13:48 in Bushy Park (the ‘original’ Parkrun). The course is flat, but on gravel and grass, so I was very confident I could move up in distance. However, when I started winter training, it wasn’t long before something didn’t feel right. That was the beginning of my injury troubles and a long period of misdiagnosis and false hope in multiple recovery attempts. During this time, depression crept up on me insidiously, without me being able to put my finger on exactly why I was feeling how I was.
What made you decide to speak out about depression?
I hoped it would encourage other people to talk. One of the worst things about feeling depressed is guilt about having those negative feelings. I had never felt depressed before. In fact, I’d have described myself as a positive person, but suddenly I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning or do simple tasks. I had trouble accepting my feelings, as I had plenty to be happy about – a beautiful wife, an amazing baby daughter and a great circle of friends. I just couldn’t run because of injury.
And, just like the pain in my leg, it was impossible to compare how I was feeling with others’ experiences. Was my leg that painful? Was I depressed enough? I was worried about expressing feelings that were maybe just the same as everyone else’s. I felt down, but I thought others must have it worse than I do. That’s why I went through MIND – for a kind of validation.
Talking has been the most powerful thing for me over the last three years. You worry whether your problem is big enough to be worth other people listening to. And talking is not a very ‘male’ thing to do. But I’ve found that saying things out loud helps you realise how irrational they are. I think I would have gone into a much darker place if I hadn’t spoken out. If I ever doubt whether I was depressed enough to qualify to speak out I re-read what I wrote and remind myself how bad I felt – and sometimes still do.
What was the reaction to your blog?
It’s been overwhelming. Writing the blog felt like an incredible weight being lifted. So many people have said they identified with my experiences, and shared their own. I felt like a bit of a charlatan reading some of the responses – people who had reached out having gone through terrible life experiences and I was depressed just because I hadn’t been able to run for a while. An old friend from school – one of a bunch of people who I stay in touch with – sent a message saying he was more proud of me for the blog than anything I could ever achieve in athletics. It was very out of context to receive such a message from him, and all the more powerful because of it.
Did you get professional help?
I discussed medication with a doctor, but decided I wasn’t at the point where that was required. I’ve had lots of talking therapy with sport psychologists throughout my career – and particularly during this time – and have always found it very effective. I am lucky enough to have lots of friends – both in and out of the running world – to talk to. My close friend and long-term training partner Mike Skinner has been brilliant – in just listening to me and giving me support and feedback. Once I’d confided in him, he checked up on me more, without being asked – something I’m deeply grateful for. My wife has also been fantastic.
How would you describe yourself?
I’m a private person, in terms of keeping what I’m doing to myself. But that jars a bit with the fact that I’m very social – I get energy from being with other people. I’m at my happiest when I’m surrounded by friends. Running is a very solitary pursuit, which perhaps doesn’t suit my personality. I’ve always combated that by having lots of people around me.
Do you set high standards for yourself?
Yes, for sure, which was perhaps one of the most difficult things when I could not train or compete in the way I would like – not being able to do things as well as I had in the past. There have been times in my career when I have been very critical of myself. No-one wants me to do well more than me. I worried a lot about how people would react if things didn’t go well for me in a race. But when I became injured after the Olympics it was quite a hard thing to realise that you go very quickly from a place where people are excited about your future to where they move on and forget. Someone else takes your place. I felt a fear that was hard to articulate, of someone else stepping in and achieving what I had not yet managed to.
Is running who you are or what you do?
I wrote about feeling as if I have lost my identity without running. When I started, running was just a hobby that went alongside other things, like studying, but when it is your job it becomes all-consuming. It’s not life or death, but it can feel like it sometimes.
We moved out of London in November 2013, during the time I was injured, and I’d introduce myself as a runner when we met new people. And then they’d ask, ‘When is your next race?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ It was very difficult – you wouldn’t say you were a teacher if you didn’t teach. Following the publication of my blog, it’s clear that lots of athletes have gone through a similar struggle with their identitywhen they’ve been injured.
Including other elites?
Yes. One Olympic athlete told me that reading my blog had felt like reading their own diary. But people of all levels of ability reached out and shared their experiences. I appreciate that it’s just as hard for people who are amateur enthusiasts to cope with feeling so lost without their sport, because to other people it might look like it’s not meant to be anything more than a pastime. They feel guilty that it matters so much to them. It’s no less painful to not be able to run when you want to, regardless of your speed or ability.
If you’re at the track on a Tuesday night in the rain in winter, getting ready for a race, it’s irrelevant whether it’s a four-hour marathon or an Olympic qualifier. You’ve experienced that affinity that sport gives you with people who put themselves through pain and hurt for a similar reason to you.
Why was the loss of routine because of injury such a big factor in your depression?
As an athlete, your life follows a very strict routine. I often don’t know what day of the week it is other than for my training. Being injured, that routine was taken away. You might think it’s a good feeling to not have to run 100 miles a week but, ironically, rehabbing and cross-training can be more time-consuming – and draining – than training itself. It’s also quite isolating. When I go training, I meet up with training partners who are all great friends. Thrashing it out in the pool or on the bike on your own is hard and I don’t find it enjoyable or therapeutic. Experts often say that routine and regular exercise are good antidotes to feeling down. I had lost both of these.
How did injury affect your relationship with other athletes – and the sport?
At one point, a friend told me that I was becoming a ‘bitter old man’. It was brutal but honest. He was reacting to my bitterness at watching the success of others. He said, ‘Why is anyone else less deserving than you?’ And he was right – I know how hard people work for success in athletics and I’d lost sight of that. During that time the most nerve-racking races for me to watch were 1500m events. It was good that we moved away from southwest London [probably the capital’s biggest running hub]. It was a hard place to be when not running myself. The last thing I wanted to do was be around people in the elite running community.
The experience of injury has been likened to the grief cycle. Does that make sense?
Definitely. I feel like I’ve been going round and round the whole cycle constantly. There were periods when I was in denial – hitting the gym, bike and pool hard and hoping things would get better, but I just got mentally burnt out. I’ve probably spent the most time being angry. Angry that I was doing everything I possibly could, yet I wasn’t able to train or compete. It didn’t seem fair. During the whole process I was always thinking there was something I should be doing. And my motivation waned every time I didn’t get a result.
What marked the turning point for you?
Deciding to have surgery [Andy had major surgery to repair knee tendons in March this year] removed the possibility of competing in 2015 and that took the pressure off. In 2013-2014 I was constantly battling to get fit to compete. I wasn’t in excruciating pain, but I couldn’t run properly – it was always limiting me. I felt like a fraud calling myself a runner. So once that decision had been made, I decided to finish a blog I had been writing for almost a year and to put it out there, marking a fresh start mentally and physically. Thanks to that process I feel I’ve developed a healthier relationship with running in the last few months. I’m excited about running again – both watching it and doing it.
What would your advice be to other injured runners?
Try to find time in the day to switch off from running. Mindfulness really helps – I did some with a psychologist and I also used the Headspace app Talk, especially to people who are less involved – friends and family, people who will listen to you non-judgementally.
Are you feeling more positive about the future?
I’m more optimistic. I feel quite distant from the elite running scene at the moment, but I’m running a little bit and making enough progress for it to be satisfying. It feels a bit less like this is going to define me, whether or not I get where I want to. I’m now also an ambassador for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, which helps athletes transition from sport to the real world through the mentoring of young people. Being part of that has given me a sense of purpose. It’s made me think a bit more about what I’ll do after athletics. Being out for so long has made retirement feel more real, but I’ve never seriously thought about giving up and not trying to qualify for Rio. I don’t yet know how realistic that is. If I can get my body right, the mental strength I have as a result of this whole experience will definitely help when I get back on the start line.
You can read Andy’s original blog and get information, advice and support to help you deal with mental health issues arising from injury or other reasons, at the MIND website.