And use it to bounce back faster if you’re already injured.
Getting injured sucks, and it’s easy to angrily complain about it to anyone who will listen. But emerging research shows that your mental state actually plays a role in whether you’re at higher risk for chronic injury – and how well you’ll recover.
Take this 2013 study: researchers looked at athletes who had ACL reconstruction surgery, and were able to predict with 70 per cent accuracy those who would make a full comeback within a year. How? By identifying key psychological outlook factors such as mental readiness and sense of control. In a separate review of 11 studies, scientists found that emotions like fear and doubt prevented injured athletes from getting back in their groove, while those who were motivated and confident – despite performing worse than usual – were more likely to make a swift comeback.
“Emotions can impact your behaviour and physical healing,” says Dr Les Podlog, an educational sports psychologist and researcher at the University of Utah, US. “If you’re stressed, for instance, that’s going to impact bloodflow to the injured limb. And when you’re injured, you need bloodflow to promote recovery.”
That’s not the only time your mind-set matters, either. When researchers analysed 278 runners, some injured and some not, they found that those who frequently faulted themselves for not being tough enough were more likely to get hurt the following year – a fact that mattered more than how many miles they ran.
Here’s the thing: there’s a way to actually think yourself out of a crappy outlook. It’s called a resilience-boosting psychological skill set, and having it can improve physical healing and emotional wellbeing, says Carrie Jackson-Cheadle, a mental skills coach.
The following tips can help shift your outlook, so that if injury strikes, you’ll up your odds of getting back to running faster and stronger than ever.
The biggest predictor of a future running injury is a previous one. Sure, biomechanics bears part of the blame – but some runners are chronically hurt because they appear to fall prey to the same thoughts and behaviours over and over, says Dr Toomas Timpka, author of the self-blame study. Our brains can adjust to gradually worsening symptoms, he says, allowing tough-as-nails runners to ignore minor twinges instead of addressing them. To break the cycle, note small discomforts in your training diary, suggests Jackson-Cheadle. Tracking pain allows you to spot troubling patterns and make adjustments to avoid injury.
Athletes undergoing trying times appear to be more injury-prone, says Dr David Coppel, a sports psychologist at the University of Washington, US. If you can’t eliminate whatever’s bugging you, modulate your response, suggests Jackson-Cheadle. Deep-breathing exercises switch your body from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest mode, boosting healing bloodflow and rebalancing your hormone levels.
A positive social network, like a running group, acts as a buffer against stress. Studies show that hanging with a training partner in between hard workouts can help enhance muscle recovery. And don’t be afraid to consult a pro if you want a mental edge. Sports psychologists teach skills for running better and living happier, says Coppel.
No runner wants to spend time on the sidelines, and simply admitting that can make you feel better, says Jackson-Cheadle. You may even find it easier to move on if you write down your disappointment, she adds. While you have free rein to express every negative emotion first, try to end on an up note: “I won’t always feel this way” is a good example.
Shift your end zone.
It’s time to trade running goals for rehab-oriented ones that are objective and flexible. “It’s never going to happen as fast as you want,” says Jackson-Cheadle. So focus on goals within your control, like doing daily physio and strengthening exercises. Doing so hinders feelings of helplessness while still improving your physical condition, says Podlog.
Change your chatter.
Imagine the reassuring words you’d offer an injured friend, then imbue your self-talk with that compassion. The positivity can help alter your behaviour as well as rehab providers’ reactions to you, says Podlog, creating a virtuous cycle that might improve the quality of overall support – and even the level of medical care – that you receive.
Come Back Stronger
As much as you’ve missed your regular routine, ramping up running post-injury is often nerve-wracking. Create mental movies of yourself striding strong to restore self-confidence, suggests Jackson-Cheadle. In one study, guided imagery sessions reduced athletes’ anxiety and improved knee flexibility faster after ACL surgery. Can’t picture it? Use an app like Headspace, which offers guided meditations on rehab and recovery.
Follow a leader.
Seeking out recovery role models can increase feelings of control, confidence, and connectedness, all of which suffer when you’re sidelined, says Podlog. Whether it’s an elite – like Olympic marathoner Meb Keflezighi, who’s overcome tendinopathy, a ruptured quad, and a pelvic stress fracture – or a real-life friend, take hope (and tips, if they’re qualified) from others who’ve rebounded.
Remember your why.
In his research, Podlog found that injured athletes with intrinsic motivation – those who wanted to return for a love of running, not because of external rewards – had more positive experiences and less anxiety during post-injury comebacks. As you bounce back, reflect on why you lace up. Whether it’s long-term health, a way to meet friends, or a self-confidence kick, tuning into deeper motivators can boost your passion as you reclaim your stride.