Updated: Apr 29, 2022
Today we explore how to work with a client who is an avid runner and competes in many road races and marathons on the weekends. She has sustained a stress fracture and cannot run for 8 to 12 weeks. She is very concerned about maintaining her fitness, being ready for an upcoming marathon, and managing her weight and her stress levels. She has not done any other type of training in a long time and seems very reluctant or fearful of doing anything else.
Anyone who depends upon regular exercise to stay sane in today’s crazy world could be terrified about losing the incredible benefits of exercise when stopped in their tracks due to an injury or surgery that requires a long recovery period. What are some tools and techniques that allow our clients and ourselves to recover well and return stronger than ever?
Be a curious explorer: A great antidote to feeling frustrated and disappointed during a long recovery is to cultivate a curious and open mind that is looking for new adventures. Questions to consider: How can I look at my situation in new ways? What can I do differently? What do my mind and body need right now? How can I recover quickly and well? What is there to learn? This is a time for new questions, and a time when there are more questions than answers.
Soften the need to be in control: The sense of freedom and being in control is heightened by mastery of an intensive exercise routine. It’s incredibly hard to watch others running when you are grounded for a long while. Perhaps the recovery experience is a way to learn to better accept what we can’t control, reminding ourselves of the serenity prayer, which I phrase as: accept the things I cannot change, be courageous about the things I can change, and get wise about knowing the difference.
Make the experience meaningful: A valuable tool to rising to the challenge is to have faith that there will be silver linings, although not immediately apparent. Humans learn and grow stronger through setbacks. Whatever led to an injury such as a stress fracture is the body’s way of telling us that something isn’t quite right. While the full value of a setback may not appear until long after recovery, an open and curious mind that is looking for new meanings will be a great asset along the way. For example, a good physical rest may lead to healing of all sorts of physical stresses and strains from head to toe that a nonstop exercise routine prevents. Or it will be just the catalyst needed to experiment with changes in a stable exercise routine. Even better, the time freed can be used to create and enjoy new experiences.
Learn new approaches to regulating emotions: If you use running or exercising to tame emotional frenzy, stress levels may get more challenging during recovery. The time saved during recovery can be invested in developing new mental skills for handling negative emotions. Mindfulness techniques allow us to unhook from a burst of negative thoughts that come with a post-injury phase (Yikes! My cardio fitness is dropping like a stone. My muscles are going soft. My marathon time will be shot. I will gain weight…). This is also a good time to invest the time saved in not running to harness and harvest positive emotions: What professional and personal tasks make you feel good and how can you do more of them? What blessings can you count?
Seek compassion and love: The biological method for soothing the scared emotions of a newborn is the tender soothing by the parents, which releases a neurochemical called oxytocin (also known as the hormone of love). This same soothing phenomenon works just as well in adults, except we can soothe ourselves with big-hearted self-kindness. A recovery period is an excellent time to exercise your self-compassion. And, connect with other people who have done well in recovering from long injuries and benefit from their empathy and compassion during this tough phase.
Enhance body intelligence: It’s time to improve the depth of listening to what your body needs each moment and over the next days and weeks. What adjustments to eating habits are needed to handle lower calorie needs? What exercises feel good and safe right now? Perhaps this is an opportunity to slow down your eating pace, savoring fully by chewing every bite at least 30 times. Or maybe there is an opportunity to trim some emptyish calories to keep weight stable.
Get creative: One of the best interventions for mental and physical suffering is to engage in creative tasks. You could experiment with cooking new recipes, write poems or blogs, play the piano, or submit funny lines to The New Yorker for its weekly cartoons.
Recalibrate self-esteem: If your self-worth is closely connected to the state if your physique and fitness level, maybe this is a time to have your inner judge go on vacation, detaching your self-respect from your physical fitness. You could then set a good standard for simply dealing well with the physical setback, focusing on healing, increasing equanimity, and learning new life lessons.
Build confidence: One of the main variables that predicts life satisfaction is resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity. Take stock of all your personal strengths that have made you resilient in the past and look for creative ways to use you strengths in new ways during the recovery phase. This is a great opportunity to build resilience muscles.
Reset goals: An injury is an opportunity to hit the reset button and to rethink fitness and life goals, at least in the short term. A great goal is to simply aim to recover beautifully, to not rush the biological processes, and to allow the body’s talents for healing to run well, so that you can run well when this phase is behind you.
Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column