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Photo credit: Johnny Logan.

How to cope when you can’t run

28-May-18

Last updated: 24-Aug-18

By Sarah Cooke

In previous articles, I have considered the benefits of running and the ways in which you can motivate yourself to get out the door and stick to a training plan. If you’re an ultra-runner, then you probably have some experience of the mood-enhancing benefits of running, and you may also be pretty good at clocking up the necessary miles to prepare you for your goal races. But what happens when something goes wrong and you physically cannot run?

Illness and injury are a challenge for anyone and have the potential to make a previously achievable goal unrealistic. In addition, if you are someone who enjoys spending hours at a time on the trails, if running is a central part of your life, if it helps you to cope with stress, or if your social circle includes many friends that you run with, then being out of action is about more than just lost training time.

However, ignoring an injury or disregarding medical advice is usually detrimental to your well-being and may end up lengthening your recovery time. In this article, I will explore some of the coping strategies that may be useful if you are faced with time off your feet.

Most people reading this will be familiar with the changes in mood and behaviour that come with an enforced period of rest. Even tapering causes many runners to feel lethargic and grumpy, and not being able to run at all can lead to feelings of disappointment, guilt, loss, anger, frustration and irritability.

If running was helping you to manage stress or mental health problems, then the absence of running will require the use of alternative ways of coping. For others, the problem may simply be that you are suddenly faced with unspent energy and time to fill. Attempts to cope fall into two broad categories, which vary according to the runner and the stage of recovery (Heil, 1993):

Denial

If you’ve ever had a niggle and buried your head in the sand regarding the possibility of it turning into an injury, then you’re familiar with this strategy. Sometimes we get away with it, and sometimes we regret it. Denial is more common in the early stages of an illness or injury. There are times when it can be helpful – for example if it gives you a positive outlook whilst awaiting a diagnosis.

However, if denial leads you to continue running with an injury, prevents you from seeking professional advice, or if it persists in the face of medical evidence and stops you from taking an active role in your recovery, then it is likely to make your situation worse.

Determined Coping

In contrast to denial, determined coping involves an acceptance of the severity of an injury or illness and the use of coping strategies that promote recovery or rehabilitation. You may still experience negative feelings – for example, if there are setbacks in your progress or when something reminds you of an unmet goal or a race that you are missing out on.

However, sticking with your treatment plan will likely also bring times of progress and a sense of gaining control over your recovery.

Here are some tips for maintaining a positive outlook and maximising the benefits of determined coping:

  • Work with the health professionals involved in your recovery and follow your treatment plan. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn as much as you can about your condition.
  • Set new goals that motivate you and are realistic given your prognosis. For advice on goal-setting, check out my tips.
  • Draw on the support of people you find helpful and motivating and try to avoid becoming isolated. If you use a running coach, then continue to use them as part of your rehabilitation. They may be able to advise on strength work that you can be doing whilst injured, and they can help you gradually return to running. This relationship is also crucial in ensuring you don’t feel cut-off from the running world. If you usually run with a club, then go along and help or support if you are able.
  • Remember that rest, relaxation and a balanced diet are important for recovery – they do not need to fall by the wayside because you are not able to run.

If you are struggling to maintain a positive outlook, if your recovery is slower than you had expected, or if your illness or injury is affecting your emotional well-being, then there are a number of psychological, practical and physical approaches which have been shown to benefit some athletes.

Here are a few:

  • The use of guided imagery – a technique involving visualising a desired outcome whilst focusing on relaxed breathing – has been shown in some studies to be associated with shorter recovery times and improved sports performance. I would recommend seeking out a trained professional to help get you started with this technique. There are also books and audio scripts that you may find useful.
  • Keep a record of progress towards your recovery goals – this may help you to stay motivated and remember how far you have come.
  • Keep your fitness levels up – some illnesses may require a period of complete rest, but many injuries only affect one area of the body, and there will be other things you can do to stay fit and ensure you get a regular dose of endorphins. Follow medical advice and work with a coach (if you have one) to develop a recovery programme. This may include activities such as cycling and swimming or focusing on strength and flexibility workouts.

In summary, recovering from illness or injury is often a far bigger challenge for a runner than the toughest of ultras. However, as with long-distance running, the battle is both physical and mental and can be broken down into manageable steps towards your goal. You will have peaks and troughs as you continue to move towards the finish line. The end is in sight.

References

Heil, J. (1993). Psychology of Sports Injury. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

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