How to Keep Spirits High When VO2 Max Tanks: An Injured Runner’s Guide

Wah-wah. Image via wikipedia.

“We all have had injuries and disappointments.  It is a part of running.  It can bring us down and at times be overwhelming when we see how far we have to go.  But I encourage you all to take your time, stay inspired and focused.  Instead of stressing about how far behind we are, we need to focus on the progress we are making and continue to make.”

Kara Goucher, in her post “The Return

I read Kara’s wise words a few hours after receiving confirmation that I have a metatarsal stress fracture. Though I’d made it tear-free through a week with a 20:0 ratio of ice baths to miles, the simultaneous no-running, no-crying streak was about to come to an abrupt end. I dunked my foot further into the bucket of ice and sobbed, carrying out the Debbie Downer version of the ice bucket challenge. Not exactly a photo op that makes it to Facebook.

If you follow the training logs around here, you know that many of us are struggling to come back from a variety of injuries, set backs and even pregnancies. The last time I was able to string together more than two weeks of focused, high mileage training, there was still snow on the ground. And the way things are looking, there will be snow yet again by the time I’m back to logging anything close to marathon training mileage.

My first reaction is to focus on what I can’t do, and the list feels long. I’ve missed the opportunity to train hard during the summer and fall months when I don’t have to battle the snow, ice and cold temps of Alaskan winters.  I’ve been sidelined from a string of races I had my heart set on. And particularly in the last week, when the weather has been the epitome of autumn gorgeousness every single day, I can’t even walk a mile. I feel a pit in my stomach every time I pass a runner–in my blasted car, on my way to the blasted gym.

English: Traunstein Mountain seen from Traunki...
So what Mountain is this? Mt. McWhinerstein or Mt. Rollwiththepunches? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But here’s what I’m learning. I’m learning that whatever you focus on gets bigger. (Weekly mileage, notwithstanding). Sometimes I have to say it out loud, reminding myself that I have a choice. I can choose to focus on what I’m missing, the long list of speed bumps in my training cycle and the limited time Alaska offers me for pleasant outdoor running. Or I can focus on the much longer list of positives, starting with the fact that (a) I made it into Boston and (b) I still have PLENTY of time to recover and train for my first marathon as a masters runner.

Even as my physical resilience wanes with age, I take heart knowing that world class courage and mental fortitude require no age grading. And these injuries, setbacks and disappointments we encounter are perhaps the best (though most painful) training plans for growing stronger in character and in mental toughness. So how do we make the most of these setbacks? And how do we keep our spirits high even as our VO2 Max goes down the tubes?

1) Eliminate scarcity thinking. Brene Brown writes, “We live in a culture with a strong sense of scarcity. We wake up in the morning and we say, ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ And we hit the pillow saying, ‘I didn’t get enough done.’ We’re never thin enough, extraordinary enough or good enough – until we decide that we are. For me, the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s enough. I’m enough.”

Stuart Smalley
I’m enough. Bonus: people like me! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To apply this concept as athletes, we need to believe that whatever we can do in training on any particular day is enough. Forty five miserable minutes of elliptical? Enough. Thirty minutes on the bike? Enough. Sixty boooring minutes of deep breathing and yoga? I can’t believe I’m saying it, but yes, that too is enough. Focusing on our lack of speed or mileage will not make us faster and better trained. It will make us discouraged. Similarly, if we focus on the scarcity of opportunity–only having this race, this season, this year to make a comeback–we will only feel more defeated. I can choose to think about how I’ve lost the entirety of this fall running season in Alaska, or I can dream of spring, summer and of many more autumns to come. I have the rest of my life to run, and however long that may be, it will be more than enough!

2) Focus on the HAVES. Make a list if you have to. Write down the positives. Can you breathe? Can you bike?  Can you wear regular shoes and not a boot? Do you have the hope of another season? Find the questions that you can answer with “yes”, and write down the answers. Fill a page with “yes”! (If you have to ask if the sky is blue to get a full page, do it.) The positives are usually harder to find than the negatives, especially when the negatives rear their ugly aching stress fractured heads every time you take a step. But make it your business to find the positives and focus on them like the ticking clock on a treadmill tempo run.

3) Sidelines are for cheering. So go cheer, already. No doubt about it, the sidelines aren’t our first choice location. But this too can be an opportunity. For example, when I had to sit out a 10k this summer due to injury, it opened the door for my son to run his first 6.2. I wouldn’t have missed the sight of him crossing the finish for all the PRs in Portland! And it was fun to cheer for my friends in their home stretch agony as well. Here too is where we need to lose the scarcity mindset. A friend’s success (or even a rival’s!) doesn’t diminish our own success or potential for such. Unless we’re Kara, Shalane or Desi vying for spots on the Olympic team, there is endless room for all of us to succeed. A friend’s shiny new PR is to be celebrated, not envied. We lose absolutely nothing by giving encouragement to the athletes around us, and I’d argue we gain quite a bit. The sidelines provide a perfect opportunity to shift the focus from ourselves and to celebrate the success of our fellow athletes.

4) Don’t wait to be inspired. Be the inspiration. Be the heroine in your own story. Have you ever read a book where the protagonist didn’t have an obstacle to overcome or a hurdle to cross? Of course not! At  least not an interesting one! No great story is without struggle. And without conflict, there’s no climax, no goose bump inducing conclusion. These injuries and setbacks are the conflict. And the recovery, the suffering and overcoming, that’s what leads to the climax–the finish line! How many of us are rooting for Kara and Desi and Lauren even more, knowing the heartache they’ve endured in coming back from injuries and missing out on important races? And the story Kristin Barry shared last month with Salty readers resonated not because she’s an amazingly speedy athlete and everything has come perfectly easy for her. Rather, we find encouragement from her story because she has amazing athletic ability and yet shares the same human vulnerabilities that we all face–injury, aging, heartache. Again, it’s the struggle and the setbacks that make the finish line so much sweeter. So embrace that struggle! Make it part of your story, and be the inspiration to yourself and those around you.

Have you struggled (or are you currently struggling) with injuries and setbacks? What helps you to cope during these tough periods? What stories of comeback do you find inspiring?

Recovering corporate hamster-wheeler turned Alaskan hausfrau, mother of two and running enthusiast. Kind of a June Cleaver in tempo shorts...minus the makeup and vacuum. Will run to great lengths to get a moment of peace.

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  1. After 3 years of non-stop running setbacks (which includes my third kid which was .0000001% running setback and 99.9999999% other stuff!) I can say I’ve done a lot of thinking on this topic. I thought about quitting many times. Maybe it’s not meant to be. I really had to grapple with that for months. I wallowed in that question day in and day out. It was a really difficult time (#firstworldproblems), but by going through that I was able to really get to the bottom of why I run, what I get out if it and whether it’s worth the effort and time in my life. Obviously, I realized it was and I feel so much more at ease about it – I don’t have (well I have far less of it) that constant angst about taking the time to do it that I used to have and I appreciate the act of running and the process of training and this appreciation and enjoyment is not so tied up in race times. This has been a difficult, but highly growthful time in my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything … save an OTQ marathon 😉

    1. I agree with Salty. During times like these you have to find the silver lining to keep yourself sane, and though it completely stinks that you’ve had to go through all these setbacks, the wisdom you are gaining will carry you far once you are healthy again. I love this post because it shows the great perspective you have developed, and it strikes a chord with all of us who have had to go through a bad cycle of setbacks at one point or another. Wishing you speedy healing and thanking you for your inspiring words today.

    2. I had irritation in right leg medial collateral ligament area like all day yesterday. I almost had to call you this morning so you could talk me out of running on it. Like the stupid overachieving runner I am, I ran on it anyway.

  2. Your post was very timely for me. I am struggling with the dreaded plantar fasciitis. I have been feeling very down about missing the beautiful fall running weather and a few races I wanted to do. It seems just went things finally start clicking again I am hit with another injury. This time around I really want to focus on form and listening to my body first and distance and time second. I have thought running maybe isn’t more me but I do keep going in spite of my body. Wishing you a speeding recovery. Hopefully we’ll be back out there soon. Foot injuries do stink!!

    1. Oh Julie so sorry to hear about the PF. You’ve definitely had more than your share of setbacks. And good for you for continue to keep at it. Running IS for you if you love to do it, no matter what your feet tell you! Keep taking it slow and being smart about recovery, knowing that the end goal is to keep running (at whatever pace!) and enjoying the sport. When we can run healthy, it is its own reward.

  3. Running injuries are so heartbreaking. Whenever I get hurt, I’m immediately filled with despair over the fact that I try so hard to do everything “right” (rest days, balanced diet, stretching, yoga, strength, cross-training, sleep) and yet somehow, sh*t still happens. It doesn’t seem fair. And I despise hearing about fellow runners getting injured because it reminds me of the unfortunate consequences of this sport.

    But I always have to remind myself that for every down-and-out runner story, there’s a great comeback story…and having come back a few times myself (from injury, surgery and pregnancy), I know how much more I appreciate every workout and race. I have learned to appreciate and even welcome the crappiest of runs, knowing how much better it feels to have a bad run than no run at all.

    Hang in there – you’ll be back in no time.

    1. Thank you. The injuries really do make us appreciate the ability to run (even if it’s slow and short miles). And I’m determined to have a great comeback story to tell! 🙂

  4. Thank you for this post. As a newbie runner (an overweight one at that), I have been beating myself up for not being able to be faster, that I’m not losing weight, etc, etc, etc. Your post has reminded me I need to look at the positives.

    I’m running. RUNNING! I’m not losing weight, but I’m rapidly losing inches. And I have had no injuries yet, despite the fact this fat body is taking a pounding. Looking at the positives makes me feel so much better already. I must tell myself, “Patience, Grasshoppah”.

    I love this blog. While I will never be elite runners such as the Salties who post here, I feel I’m not the only one who may have a crappy run, that it happens to the best of us as well.

    Basil, I hope you have a quick recovery and that you rebound to be better than ever in preparation for Boston.

    1. Lisa, I love what you have to say here! Keep looking for those positives, and keep focusing on how you are getting stronger (and staying injury free!). You are going down a great path–try not to worry about the speed at which you go. Going the right direction is way more important than how fast you can get there!

  5. Oh shooooooot! First, that really sucks. Second, we know everyone who runs ends up injured at some point. I am currently in PT after a nice 2 year run. Third, you WILL have a comeback story. Fourth, BOSTON! I hope your recovery goes well!

  6. I can relate to this post in every way. I currently have a stress fracture of the 2nd metatarsal that was due in part to speed work and mileage increase while training for a 50K. However, I feel the real culprit is the fact that I had a baby in December and my body was robbed of calcium! I’ve been in and out of a walking boot since the end of July. Stress fractures a very frustrating injuries..physically and emotionally!