6 things never to say to an injured friend

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The pain has worsened, the MRI report has been read, and the doctor’s verdict rendered. Your running buddy can’t run, at least not right now. And as every athlete knows, that news delivers a hefty psychological blow.

It can be easy for non-injured friends to add insult to injury with insensitive comments. But even caring, compassionate runners can struggle with what to say, says Carrie Cheadle, author of On Top of Your Game: Mental Skills To Maximize Your Athletic Performance.

“For the most part, people aren’t trying to be mean,” she says. “They’re just not thinking about what they’re saying, or think they’re saying something helpful and don’t realise it’s actually hurtful.” Here’s your guide through the minefield.

1/ Instead of: Anything that starts with “at least.” Say: “I’m so sorry. That sucks.”

You likely mean to offer reassurance by telling your friend that “at least” she doesn’t have life-threatening cancer or that his season-ending injury occurred after his goal race. But any statement beginning with that phrase minimises the effect running injuries can have on a person’s well being, Cheadle says.

When Chicago runner Shawna Carter, 37, had a sacral stress fracture that kept her out of running, a friend told her it was “no big deal.” Carter, meanwhile, was sinking into a depression that required medication. The comment cut so deeply she didn’t speak to that person for years afterward, she says.

You might think you’re helping a friend put things in perspective when you recite more dire scenarios. But you’re likely making your injured friend feel ashamed or guilty for being upset in the first place. And, it suggests your pal’s not worthy of your caring and compassion, says Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., a runner and co-author of the new book There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.

Think about what you’d want to hear first after sharing any bad news. Most likely, it’s simply an acknowledgement of its crappiness. “The amount of relief an athlete gets just from having someone say that is so profound,” Cheadle says. 

2/ Instead of: “How long before you can run again?” Say: “How are you feeling now?”

Drilling for specifics grows tiresome quickly - and if the runner doesn’t have a firm timeline, formulating a response can drive her deeper into despair. The question also gives the impression you value your friend only for his athletic performances, Cheadle says. 

Also ill-advised: providing your own answer regarding how long healing will take. Soon after a weightlifting accident left Berkeley runner Nancy Netherland, 52, in traction, she spoke with a runner friend who’d also had a spine injury. “She was like, ‘You need to be prepared for never running again,’” she says. “That was super not helpful for me to hear, especially in the early stages.”

Rather than dwelling on the unknown future, asking about your friend’s current state - both mental and physical - conveys you care about more than just her race times. Truly listen to the response, and you’ll pick up cues for the type of support your friend needs.

3/ Instead of: “Have you tried acupuncture/active release therapy/platelet-rich plasma/strength training/this crazy new supplement I read about online?” Say: “What treatment options are you thinking about?”

Even if you regularly swap training tips and race strategies, tread lightly when offering recovery-related advice, Cheadle says. For one thing, there’s the matter of timing. Many people need some space to wallow before leaping headfirst into rehab.

Injured runners do need informational support - facts about the cause of their troubles and what to do to get better - but they often seek that from their medical team. What they usually want most from running buddies is emotional support, Cheadle says. 

Asking a more open-ended question about recovery plans allows for sharing as much, or as little, as the injured runner likes. “That way if you did have some insight to offer, it’s rooted in something that person’s already thinking about and wants to learn more about,” Crowe says. If it feels appropriate, you can offer to refer that person to your trusted sports doc or connect him or her to another friend who had the same injury. One caveat: don’t add excess pressure by checking back later to see if your friend has followed up.

4/ Instead of: “You can always [insert other activity here].” Say: “I know this isn’t where you want to be. But I’ve seen you face challenges before, and I know you’ll be back stronger.”

“Do you know how many people told me to just swim? I’m not a swimmer,” says Carter, who recovered from her stress fracture but then tore her meniscus and is currently awaiting surgery. “I don’t get the same high or rush from swimming that I get from running.” 

Over time, running becomes part of a person’s identity. Suggesting another sport downplays that connection and also offers little in the way of new information. “It’s not like that person’s never heard of swimming,” Crowe says.

Carter says she found it much more comforting when friends expressed admiration at her tenacity - especially when they cited specifics. For years, she’s met a friend at 6 a.m. Wednesdays for strength training. When her low mood led her to skip a few sessions, her workout partner begged her to return. “She said I inspired her because I was still trying to do the best I could at the moment, and that made her want to work harder,” says Carter, who’s showed up every week since.

If your friend doesn’t mind discussing running - something you can ascertain by close listening - you can also try reinforcing her self-confidence by tapping her expertise, suggests Julie Sapper, a coach at Run Farther & Faster in Montgomery County, Maryland, who recently recovered from two tears in her right Achilles tendon. “Say something like, ‘I’m struggling with my training program. I was wondering if you could take a look at it? I know you’re not running right now, but you are so knowledgeable and I value your advice.”

5/ Instead of: Anything that begins “Well, when I was injured …” Say: “Oh, man, the same thing happened to me last year. But that’s old news - tell me what’s going on with you.”

“When dealing with my own injured runner friends, I find similarities in how they behave when compared to myself,” says Ken Wilson, 42, a Chicago runner who sustained pelvic stress fractures after the 2016 Boston Marathon. “But I realise it doesn’t mean they are thinking the same way I am or want to hear about how my own experience with injury is going.”

Even if you’ve travelled miles in their walking boot, discuss it too much and the conversation becomes all about you. “It completely diverts attention away from what this person is experiencing,” Crowe says. “And, it can inadvertently make this person’s experience seem less worthy of attention.”

At a certain point in their recovery, injured runners may want to commiserate with someone who’s been there. Briefly mentioning your experience - or someone else’s - opens that door without forcing the issue. Netherland, who’s now beginning to run again three years after her injury, says she appreciated a friend who expressed it this way: “‘No one knows what your recovery is going to be like. If and when you’re ready, my husband used to be a runner. He cycles now. I’m happy to get you guys together.’”

6/ Instead of: Nothing. Say: “I miss you. Can I bring you a smoothie/take you out for coffee/join you at the pool?”

Besides the heartbreak of bailing on a goal race and the fear of gaining weight and losing fitness, injuries can also leave runners feeling isolated from their social network. That’s compounded by silence from those with whom they regularly log miles, Cheadle says. 

Remedy this by offering a specific way to spend time together outside of running. Sapper spent many weekend mornings cycling as her team ran, then meeting for coffee afterward. Netherland asked her running and lifting buddies to join her for rehab swims and hikes. 

If you can’t be together in person, consider other gestures or forms of connection. When Chicago runner Brooke Lord, 55, had to drop out of her goal race due to a metatarsal stress fracture, she still helped with the planning process. During the race, she kept her phone with her while pool running to receive regular text updates from her team. And afterward, the team captain sent her a package with race shirts and medals. “I love those gals,” Lord says. “I am fortunate to have wonderful friends to support me and motivate me.”

Some runners find it too painful to engage with the community while they’re hurt. “Talking about running is excruciating,” says Wilson, who logged off Strava and deleted his Dailymile account during his last injury. 

But even in that case, consider sending an occasional text to let your friend know you’re thinking of him or her  no reply needed. You might feel uncomfortable engaging when you’re not sure how your efforts will be received. “There’s no perfect algorithm, but I would err on the side of reaching out,” Crowe says.

Even if your friend doesn’t take you up on an offer of support, he or she likely still appreciates the fact that you cared, and you’ll both be better for it. “You deepen your relationships with other people,” Crowe says. “The rewards are just tremendous.”