The Art and Science of Injury Recovery: 5 Tips for Getting Out of Your Head and Back in the Game

As any professional or amateur athlete can attest, injuries are par for the course in an active lifestyle. From minor setbacks to major damage that can sideline you for weeks or even months, injury is an inevitable part of any sport. There is no lack of advice out there for injured runners looking to return to their chosen activity. Common themes include taking it slowly, cross training, and gradually rebuilding volume.

Apart from the physical comeback, there is a mental component often overlooked. Quickly going from active participant to bench warmer can have an impact on self-esteem. Here are 5 pieces of advice to help you return more quickly from a setback.

It happens to everyone. Ever heard of Achilles? Even the gods have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. It’s illogical to expect mere mortals to never get hurt. Sure, we all know that one person who seems to sail through life never having experienced falls, knee pain, plantar fasciitis, or shin splints. They are a rare breed. The rest of us are going to experience some type of injury as we continue to be active. Studies suggest at least 50% (likely more) of regular runners will get hurt each year.

It’s not your fault. OK, maybe you could have seen that tree root or crack in the sidewalk. Maybe you should have warmed up more. Most of the time, though, it’s hard to pin blame on any one particular reason. We try, though.

After tearing a tendon in my left foot last fall, I begged my doctor for a reason this happened to me. My obsessive personality wanted to fix it, and ensure it never happened again. His response? “Who knows? Stuff happens.”

It’s done. You live. You learn. Stop beating yourself up with “coulda woulda shoulda.” Replace the negative chatter in your head.

“It is ingrained in our thoughts to immediately self-blame, and feel the guilt that is often associated with the blame,” says Patrick Myles Cameron, MSW, LCSW, a mental health professional in Louisiana who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of intervention has been shown to help athletes identify what puts them under pressure, understand how they respond emotionally, and help them find more helpful alternative responses.  

Conquer the fear. Research shows that an elevated fear of reinjury is a common post injury psychological response. I have one friend who is so afraid of being reinjured, he has shelved his love of the trails altogether. “Fear is not always a bad thing,” says Cameron. “Fear tells us that something is off. We need to take a step back, assess the situation, and react accordingly.” Evidence suggests that a “psychologically informed practice approach” can improve rehabilitation outcomes.  Specifically, adding tools such as goal setting to your recovery plan can put you back on your feet more quickly. 

Give it time. I get it. There are trails to run, races to race. It’s hard to sit on the sidelines and watch the race season go by. But just as you wouldn’t expect to wake up one morning and decide to run a 50K without any training, you shouldn’t expect to jump right back in where you left off. Being off your feet means you’ll need to work on rebuilding strength and endurance, and realigning your expectations.

Beyond the physical recovery, we sometimes forget to practice self-love. When’s the last time you stopped and truly appreciated what you are capable of rather than beating yourself up for what you can’t do? Get a massage. Take your dog or kid to the park. Block time in your calendar for quiet meditation or journaling. Many runners use exercise as a form of stress relief. Slowing down forces you to (temporarily) find something else to fill the void (Until next time, long Saturday run!). Make sure to fill it with something that nourishes your soul.

Then get back out there. Do not give up. Remember what made you want to run to begin with, and let that motivate you to return to the sport. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For me, I love the feeling of being in the trails. I savor the quiet and the beauty of nature. During my recovery from foot injury, I wasn’t able to run my favorite trails, but as I healed, I was able to at least start walking them. I held on to the root, so to speak, of my love of the sport. While not yet completely healed, I am making progress each day.

If you’re struggling to find coping skills to get you through injury recovery, Cameron says you may be lacking them in other aspects of your life, too. He recommends seeking the help of a licensed therapist specializing in CBT. “Cognitive restructuring involves recognizing these automatic thoughts and (slowly) beginning to change them to more rational thinking.”

The process takes time. “You make time for your physical well-being, so make time for your mental well being as well,” Cameron adds.

“Put a time limit (on) using the phrase ‘coming off an injury,” suggests ultra runner and Screaming Monkey 100 race director Michael Puyear. “Then don’t say it anymore. You give it power by continually referring to it,” he adds. Instead, Puyear suggests a positive spin on recovery, such as “I’m gaining back my cardio.”

Trail runner Melanie Frederick uses a mantra her mother told her as a child. “You never fail if you never quit.”

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