I’ve been pretty open about my running injury experience in 2019 and 2020. I’ve learned a lot as an injured runner and truly believe the experience will make me a happier and stronger runner in the end.
Still, being an injured runner is full of ups and downs and loss of hope as a result. Being injured, especially chronically, is so much more than not being able to run. It can impact your physical and MENTAL health. I have cycled through intense sadness when thinking that I may not be able to run and chase my goals again. I got injured just when I began “going for it.” I’ve run most of my whole life but just started taking it seriously when I tripped and hurt my hamstring in my build-up to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon. (I try to poke fun at the experience in my Instagram reel here).
Unfortunately, being injured is a pretty common part of life for a runner. It is actually almost inevitable. Yet, there are several commonalities that people don’t know about that can help on the journey back to running. For some reason, most people think you get the doctor’s diagnosis and timeline and then that’s it. You leave thinking: oh, I’ll be back in just 6 weeks…
But for most, being injured requires an indefinite amount of time off and a slow rebuilding. To help those struggling (or maybe in the future struggling) with an injury, here are 12 things completely normal I wish I knew as an injured runner before I started on this path.
These are not universal truths, but I think they’re common. Knowing them will help you stay hopeful as an injured runner.
12 Common Experiences of an Injured Runner
1. Your gait will change.
My gait got really wonky after running injured for so long. That’s your body trying to protect you from getting more hurt. As you heal and it learns it doesn’t need to protect you anymore, it will improve.
2. You will have compensatory injuries.
Along with my hamstring injury came a side of plantar fasciitis and a quad strain. This comes from your body compensating for your injury. As you heal and strengthen, this will also improve.
3. You will gain weight.
But not as much as you think. Everyone has a season. You can’t be in marathon shape all the time. I feared I’d balloon up. I did not. On average, most injured runners I know gain about 5 extra pounds.
4. You will struggle with the loss of your identity.
You are more than a runner but running fuels the rest of your life. It’s okay to grieve or be angry. I tried to hide my sadness and hurt for a long time. Once I owned it, I was able to move past it and be more hopeful.
5. Most people will NOT understand your loss or what you’re going through.
Find someone who does, get a therapist, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I understand. Being injured can feel lonely. You lose your running friends. Other people think it’s merely just a hobby and don’t understand the mental toll not running can take on your wellbeing. Talk about it to someone who will listen and have compassion.
Related: A Proven Guide to Injury Prevention
6. You will have ups and downs.
They aren’t setbacks. They are part of the healing process. Knowing that my pain would crop back up through my injury process would have saved me from a lot of heartache. You aren’t reinjuring yourself. You are learning the limits of your injury. You need to stress it to strengthen it and sometimes you stress it a bit too much. It’s a learning process through and through.
7. Your fitness is not gone.
It will come back faster than you think. If I had known this, I swear I would have saved myself from a lot of heartache. But I truly believed even an extra day off would tank my fitness. However, I found it didn’t take long for the endurance and speed to return.
Trying to run a certain mileage or pace in my comeback though only pushed me back further. I wasn’t out of the injury woods until I let go of focusing on numbers.
8. Rest alone is not the answer.
You also need to strengthen. Non-runners will tell you that you just need to rest but you need to make the injured area stronger. Getting with a physical therapist (ideally one who is also a runner) will help guide you on the right path to strengthen without straining.
9. Timelines mess with your mind.
I was told I needed just 4 weeks off. Instead, I took 4 months off and another 4+ months to rebuild. I was miserable until I realized that those timelines are arbitrary.
Throw them out. Focus on rehab day by day.
When doctors tell you that you need to take X amount of time off, it is only setting you up for disappointment. Injuries are complicated because our bodies are complicated. If you have a stress fracture or a torn tendon, healing isn’t as simple as taking 4-6 weeks off and then returning to running. Don’t delude yourself. You will need to rest, test the waters, and then gradually ramp your running back up.
10. There will be lots of opinions as to what you should do and it’s confusing.
If I had a dollar for every well-intentioned suggestion from people…well, I woudn’t be rich but I could probably buy myself a nice pair of Vuori running tights. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. I’ve had so many people tell me try different therapies, running regiments, doctors, and therapists. Bounding around can slow recovery. Stay the course but be open to trying new things if not moving forward.
I pretty much exhausted all different types of therapies and finally went the traditional orthopedic doctor/western medicine route, and that is what got me over the final hump to recovery.
11. Progress is not linear.
It may move slower or FASTER than you think. I had so many flare-ups during my recovery and then all of a sudden, I turned a corner and felt better. I’ve heard of other runners having similar experiences: just when they almost lose hope, they begin stringing together solid runs. Focusing on the day-to-day helps you stay focused on recovery.
12. Injuries are not your fault.
Yes, they often hold lessons but they also often come with taking risks to reveal potential.
I blamed myself for a long time for my injury. And, I think a lot of people in my life thought it was my fault, too. But, growth comes with taking risks–and sometimes taking risks results in injury. Countless athletes have come back from injuries mentally and physically stronger.
You can’t fly higher without pushing your limits. Use this opportunity to be a better you.