We almost all define ourselves by the things we DO. But stick around long enough and you’ll hit a snag – you won’t be able to do what you do. You’ll be reminded that it’s not you. You’re not a runner, you’re not your next race or training block. You’re not your splits or PBs or your resting heart rate. At some point, you’ll be torn from the structure of your workouts and the check boxes of your training log to be thrown into the chaos of life without running; maybe life without much movement at all. Short, long, or permanent, at some point we all face this in the form of injury, illness, or overuse.
Of course, we all much prefer to find those limits on our own terms. For me it’s running long hours on trails or in the mountains. But this is life, and we don’t get to choose. In the past, I’ve been out for up to 6 weeks, but I was always still able to bike.
On October 10, I found my limit, this time with one foot strike that caused a clean break of my tibia. Just over 3 weeks into a what will likely be a 6 month recovery to full run training, the silence of immobility could be an echo chamber for negativity and self doubt, and it may yet prove to be. But so far, things are actually quite fine, and I attribute that to some of the mental and emotional preparation I’ve done over the years, which I consider as key to success in running (and probably in life!) Here are some things that are worth thinking about and working on before you get sidelined – because it’s not a question of if, but when:
Cultivate other parts of yourself
If you were a garden, running might be the rose bushes in the centre that you most cherish. But water only the roses, and the rest of your garden will starve. And don’t get me wrong, the roses may be the best and most beautiful and most worthy of praise. But if there’s nothing else there, one bug will wipe you out!! So cultivate the other flowers in your garden. Cultivate other interests: other sports, social activities, hobbies, interests, obsessions… not only will you place less pressure on yourself as a runner (which – ta da! – leads to better results!) you’ll also be much better equipped to deal with the downtime of injury, sickness (or lock down).
Finding the why
Reflect on why you run. Hint: look inside, not out. What brought you to running? What keeps you coming back? I’m not talking about winning, or Strava segments or FKTs or even personal bests. Is it the freedom, the release, the “endorphin rush”? Is it the predictability and control? Is it the rhythm, the alone time, your breath; is it the community, the friends? Is it natural beauty and wild spaces? If you know exactly why you run you will a) appreciate each step of the journey a whole heck of a lot more and b) when you’re derailed, you’ll be better able to meet the needs that running currently satisfies.
The more you understand what you love about the sport, the more meaningful those external goals become… and oddly the less you need to tie it all to your ego. In the end, I’m not a runner. I’m someone who loves running. But I’m also someone who loves community, sweating, being in nature, testing the limits of my physical capabilities, challenging my mind, exploring, daring, meeting new people, traveling. Running fills that purpose, but I’m still me without it, and while it may not be the same, I can largely fulfill some of those needs without running. When I’m back, I’ll appreciate it that much more.
Short term goals, long term dreams
Get used to setting incremental goals throughout each season and readjusting with circumstances (I think we’ve all gotten pretty good at that this year!) Maybe that’s a 10k PB on the road, or maybe it’s finishing your first ultra or increasing your weekly training load. Whatever your goals, making this a practice means when you get injured or sidelined you will be well versed at shifting your focus and setting new intermediate goals. Of course those goals will be different. They might be getting back to walking in 5 months or they might be following medical advice or eating better. While getting injured or sick isn’t easy, if you’ve trained yourself to be both daring and flexible with your goal setting, you’ll be better equipped when things get rough.
At the same time, I find it helpful (and fun) to always have some crazy project on the distant horizon. For me, it’s a huge motivation and something to work toward and be excited about when things get stale or when they completely come off the tracks. When you’re sidelined for weeks or months, that big goal may not even need to change. And if it does, it’s still something you can shoot for in the long run (pun intended).
Check in with yourself
Make it a habit. How are you feeling physically, emotionally, mentally? How did the workout feel? Where’s your motivation? Are you tired, stressed, sad, happy? Are you beating yourself up or are you mega-stoked? Noticing what’s going on in your head, how you’re feeling, and what stories you’re telling yourself is just a really good thing to get in the habit of doing. You’re taking care of the most important person: you! You can’t expect to do what’s best for yourself if you aren’t listening to yourself. And if you practice listening when it’s easy, you’ll have a better chance at hearing yourself when things get tough. This applies to running, training, injury, and perhaps most importantly to life in general.
Practice self love
Sounds cheesy, but seriously! Be good to yourself. Just as you’re not your last win, you’re also not your injury or illness. You’re something else, and you’re worth every atom, healthy or sick, fast or slow, active or inactive! Whatever you do, don’t forget that!
And if you’re thinking: so how’s all this going to make me go fast??? I’d challenge you to find me a a consistently successful runner who’s angry and negative. (Surely they exist, but they’re the exception to the rule.)