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How Past Injuries Can Help Us Through This Pandemic

Six lessons injuries teach us that can be used to guide us through the uncertainty and frustration of COVID-19.

Although I’m several years removed from my last major injury (a torn hip labrum in college), I’ve recently found myself reaching for many of the tools I picked up during that long and painful process. I’m seeing now that those lonely cross-training sessions, mind-numbing rehab exercises, and deferred dreams were good for more than a quick comeback and a heightened appreciation for my health. Those experiences of enduring and overcoming have also given me the closest thing I have to a framework for coping with this coronavirus pandemic.

It goes without saying that a sports setback utterly pales in comparison to a global health crisis. But that doesn’t mean that lessons learned in the athletic arena can’t also apply on a much larger, more consequential stage. Here are some strategies, honed through past injuries, that I and two other competitive runners are using to get through these trying times.

Learn to Be Alone

For Sara Sutherland, a professional 1,500m and 5,000m runner who suffered from two major stress fractures in concurrent years, one of the most challenging parts of any injury is the social isolation that ensues. “For many of us, running is a social outlet,” she said, “and it can feel lonely and isolating to endure hours of cross-training (or sheltering-in-place) solo rather than spending joyful and easy time catching up with friends.”

Use this time to become more comfortable being alone. Tune into your body, let your thoughts wander, and get used to pushing hard when no one’s out there to pace, time, or cheer you on. Doing so will pay off in future races while also increasing your appreciation for training partners and competitors.

Maintain Your Connections

Simply put, there’s no replacement for social connections, and as Sutherland said, many of us are used to meeting that need through running. Without regular opportunities to check in on one another at practice or at work, it’s easy to let relationships slip during the time that we need them the most.

Bria Wetsch, who came back from three surgeries (one hamstring and both Achilles) to finish 27th in the recent Olympic Marathon Trials, suggests fostering your connections with family, friends, teammates, and coaches however you can right now. Group runs and dinner parties may not be on the table, but phone calls, texts, Zoom chats, interactive games, and hand-written letters are.

Relinquish Control

Every one of my past injuries has followed a similar script: do the damage, get the diagnosis, and immediately start planning every step of my comeback. In great detail, I map out the daily rehab I need to be doing, the cross-training schedule that will keep me fit, and an optimistic calendar for my return to racing. Unsurprisingly, not one of those plans has ever panned out as I envisioned, as the healing process invariably operates on a timeline of its own.

Like with an injury, the sooner we acknowledge that no amount of planning, hypothesizing, or willing will bring an end to this pandemic, the better off we’ll be. Working toward distant goals is healthy, but staying emotionally attached to a schedule (whether racing or training) will make it harder to adjust as the situation evolves.

Focus on What You Can Do

Anyone who’s been injured knows how tempting it is to feel sorry for ourselves and betrayed by our bodies. While sidelined, Sutherland combats that tendency by taking things one day at a time and repeatedly asking herself, “Did I do what I needed to do today?” If the answer is yes, she’s on the right track.

Rather than carrying around frustration about cancelled races, closed gyms, locked tracks, or banned group runs, take advantage of all the productive things you can still do. If you can run, run!—whether from your front door, on a nearby trail, or in a new-to-you spot that isn’t saturated with people. If you’re used to doing strength work, rig up a home gym using whatever equipment stand-ins you can find, or try some new workouts that require little to no gear at all. It’s a great time to establish a yoga, Pilates, or stretching routine if you don’t already have one in place.

Maintain Perspective

Injuries have a sneaky way of shrinking the worlds of those who are suffering from them. With the magnifying glass pointed on whatever is hurting, we can quickly lose sight of the bigger picture and forget that the world doesn’t revolve around us and our running.

During challenging times of all varieties, “Perspective is your best friend,” says Sutherland. “Races may be canceled, but there are so many people out there struggling with enormous challenges. Putting delayed goals and dreams into perspective is really helpful and important.” Similarly, Wetsch encourages other runners to zoom out and “be conscious of finding the positive things in life right now, no matter how small they might be.” Meditation and gratitude journaling help her do that on a consistent basis.

Be Kind

Finally, highly motivated, goal-oriented people (like most runners I know) have a tendency to make tough situations tougher by being overly critical of themselves and their inability to fix the situation they’re in. This is especially true during slumps and injuries, when our patience is low and our desire to return to former fitness is high.

Whether you’re struggling with a running setback or our new coronavirus reality, Sutherland offers the same advice: “Be kind to yourself, be kind to the people around you, and ask yourself what you will be proud of having done on the other side of this challenge—and then do that!”