A few years ago, I evaluated a runner who had just learned that they had a stress fracture in their pelvis and needed to take six to eight weeks off from competitive running.
It was a devastating diagnosis because this runner was training hard for a marathon.
This runner couldn’t believe it happened either. She didn’t have any warning signs — no pain at all. But then, 14 miles into a 16-mile run, she needed to stop and call her husband to pick her up.
Because she didn’t have any lead up to the pain and injury, it hit her like a ton of bricks. All the training she had put in was “lost” because she needed to take so much time off to let the bone heal.
Downtime doesn’t have to keep you down.
I know about the “all or none” mindset that could be crippling. Thinking that you have to train at 100% otherwise it’s not worth doing. That mindset can do more harm than good.
This runner also started looking too far into the future. She asked questions like “How do I know it won’t happen again? Am I even supposed to be running marathons? Maybe I’m just not meant to be a runner?”
We’ve all been there, and it’s a scary place when you’re in it alone. Maybe not all of us in a runner’s sense. But you can pretty much substitute any activities into those questions (i.e. lift weights, play basketball, compete in the CrossFit Open).
In that first evaluation, I did my best to lay out a plan on how she could return to running and train for her marathon. Although it made logical sense to her, it was going to take some time for her to understand that running marathons again was more than possible — it was likely.
I’ve had to tell hundreds of athletes that they have an injury significant enough that they need to stop and let their body heal. It is one of the hardest things I have to do in my job; it also opens a door to something greater if that athlete chooses to change their mindset.
Time off from injury doesn’t have to result in getting weaker, slower and less mentally strong. Sure, there are tissues that need to heal and will need to be built back up. But how you choose to use your “downtime” makes all the difference.
You can choose to adopt a victim mentality. You can go down the rabbit hole of “Why did this happen to me? I was doing my best. Why don’t other people get injured like me? Will I ever make it back?”
Or, you can choose to see the “downtime” as an opportunity. You can parlay the injury card into a larger bet on your future self.
All too often, runners up their training as they chase the next personal record or longer race distance. They think, “You simply have to run more to get better.” That extra training requires times — and since you can’t gain extra time, you end up removing or foregoing something else.
Most often, runners choose to drop recovery, strength training, mobility and injury prevention: “With work and training, I simply don’t have time.”
The downside of this approach is that we know injury risk increases when your training is not supplemented with injury prevention and recovery. So, in an effort to save time, runners take a big risk that often costs them time in the long run.
When that happens and you sustain an injury, you suddenly have the one thing you needed more of — time.
How you use that time determines how you bounce back.
What if you decided to use that time to fix all the things you know you should be working on but just haven’t prioritized? How could taking six weeks to strengthen your core, build up your calf strength and Achilles, mobilize your hip flexors, and getting those pesky glutes going improve your mile time? Could the net result once you are cleared to come back to running be a personal record?
Well, coming back around to the marathon runner, she did decide to change her mindset about her pelvic stress fracture. It took a few weeks. But she came around as she started making progress in areas she could control.
During her six weeks of not running, she significantly built up her leg strength and core control. Previously, she would get quad fatigue late in races and got frequent side stitches when fatigued. At a time when she thought she would “lose everything,” she gained a stronger foundation.
From her rebuilt foundation, she was able to return to running just seven weeks after her injury and slowly progressed her mileage. A few months later, she stopped in the office to show me her race photos and official marathon time. It was a personal record by nine minutes.
Would that time have been possible without the injury? It’s an interesting question to consider. Maybe — just maybe — the injury was supposed to happen to allow her the time to build a foundation that could support her marathon training.
Yes, injuries still stink. They will challenge your physical ability to heal. But even more so your mental ability to see past the current obstacle and into what can be possible with dedication and focused rehab.
So, how can you leverage “injury time” to boost your training? Train smarter, perform better.
You don’t even have to get injured to have “injury time.” Why not designate six to eight weeks out of your year to build your foundation as if you were actually injured. That time can then be used to get stronger, more aligned and more mobile as you build back into your training.
Editor’s note: Dr. Steven Alexander is owner and lead physical therapist at Spark Performance & Physiotherapy, 6056 E. Baseline Road Suite No. 147 in Mesa. He can be reached at 480-452-9191.
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