Dathan Ritzenhein can use the disappointment of injury.
Dathan Ritznehein's most recent injury will make him even hungrier for future success in the marathon. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Dathan Ritzenhein is hurt again. But perhaps it’s not all bad.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

I cursed this morning when I heard the news that Dathan Ritzenhein had withdrawn from April’s London Marathon. I know and like Dathan, so I feel great sympathy for him in his seemingly never-ending struggle to stay healthy. I also feel empathy for Ritz, as I am a very injury-prone runner myself. In fact, I haven’t run a single race in almost a year and a half due to my most recent breakdown. So I feel Ritz’s pain, so to speak.

My overabundant personal experience with injury has caused me to think a lot about it. One thing I’ve learned through all of this rumination is that if you are injury prone the most important skill you can develop is that of coping with the emotional effects of forced downtime. Most running injuries don’t hurt all day long or compromise your ability to function outside of running. But they sure can make you frustrated and depressed all day long.

One way I try to manage the emotional consequences of getting hurt is by focusing on the positive side of injury. In fact, I wrote a whole chapter about the positive side of injury, entitled “The Gift of Injury”, in my book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

I know what you’re thinking: What could possibly be positive about getting hurt as a runner? Well, a number of things.

For example, injuries are tremendous learning opportunities. And if you seize those opportunities, you can actually learn things that make you a better runner in the long term. Injuries contain information: they tell you what your body cannot handle, what you cannot get away with doing as a runner. By identifying the cause of a given injury and/or discovering a way to overcome it, you leap a hurdle that is standing in the way of your progress as a runner.

For example, as I wrote in RUN, “Even when an injury seems to create an immovable barrier to training in the manner you feel is necessary for success, a creative workaround can leave you better off. In 2005, chronic Achilles tendon problems forced Haile Gebrselassie to forever swear off short intervals, a type of training he had relied on to develop his speed throughout his career. His workaround consisted of an increased commitment to weightlifting, increased training volume, and technique work specifically focused on replacing his forefoot footstrike (which put tremendous stress on his Achilles tendons) with a midfoot landing. In 2006, Gebrselassie broke the half-marathon world record, and the following year he set his first marathon world record.”

A second benefit of injury is that it tends to boost your appreciation for running and make you hungrier to achieve your goals as a runner. This is why it’s very common for runners to achieve breakthrough performances soon after coming off of injuries. They miss running so badly when they are unable to do it that, when their health returns, they train and race with a renewed passion that takes their running to a whole new level.

In RUN I give the example of Shalane Flanagan. In 2004 Flanagan developed a foot injury that took her out of competition for more than a year. In her very first comeback race she broke the American record for 3,000 meters indoors. And that was just the beginning. Here’s an excerpt:

“In one interview, Flanagan was asked if she had ever considered giving up during her long battle with the foot problem. ‘I never have thought that I was going to give up,’ she answered. ‘If you listen to anyone who has gotten to the top, they have always had a bump in their road. I have never known anyone who went directly to the top without a small setback. I don’t call them setbacks, actually. They just mold you into a tougher person. If I hadn’t had that injury, I wouldn’t have reevaluated my love of running. It made me reevaluate a lot of stuff—how serious I was to this sport. I asked myself: Is this the right coach? Is this the right training? I think what truly seems like a bad situation is there for a reason. My husband [Steve Edwards] sometimes says that bad things happen for a reason. I believe it happened for a reason: for me to reevaluate my goals and my commitment to the sport. I believe that the down times lead you to be a stronger person.’”

The benefits of injury are not so great that we should wish stress fractures and tendonitis on ourselves, of course, but getting hurt is an unavoidable part of the sport, so it’s helpful to be mentally prepared to deal with such setbacks when they occur. I’m sure Dathan Ritzenhein has mastered the art of emotionally surviving running injuries and hopes he will never have to get any better at it. I hope so too.


Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.