Injury, Cross-Training & Missing Motivation
Over the years running has taught me a whole lot about myself, both mentally and physically. Sometimes these insights are powerful “aha!” moments that shift my entire perspective. Other times they're a slow burn process, like piecing together a string of injuries to uncover muscle imbalances. This self-discovery can be a great tool for identifying weaknesses and improving as an athlete. It can also be incredibly frustrating, especially when coming to terms with the fact that your body and mind may not always be on the same page. But there’s something to be taken from every lesson, and lately I’ve been working on being a better student. Since logging my very first miles with the high school track team, running and racing have always gone hand-in-hand for me. I’ve never been a “casual” runner, and I can honestly say that I might not enjoy the sport the same way if I were. For better or worse, I’ve accepted that I'm incredibly goal-oriented when it comes to running. I love putting in the training, seeing improvement and counting down the days until a big race. Mile or marathon, track or road, it doesn’t matter. All starting lines have a finish—and a clock.
(I will admit it wasn’t until the last few years that I really dialed in my training for optimal results, thanks to hiring a coach. And it’s only this spring that I started to get smart about my racing calendar, but it does make a difference. In 2017 I set PRs for every distance from the mile to the half.)
This competitive mindset is great when I’m healthy. Give me a training schedule and consider it done. The problem, as I discovered recently, is when I’m not healthy. My calf issues leading up to the Philly Marathon ended up sidelining me from almost all fitness for two weeks, but even in the month leading up to the decision to not race I was struggling to stay positive. My legs hurt; my goal was in jeopardy; and as everything got worse, I was losing my motivation to do any training at all.
When I got the okay to start working out again after the break, I found myself dragging. I was (and still am) navigating a fussy injury that prevents me from running most days. That left cross-training as my next best option for maintaining fitness. Although I still enjoyed lifting and running whenever possible, I absolutely could not get myself to the pool. Or on the erg or bike or elliptical, even for an easy 30 minutes. I just didn’t have the energy.
I’m sure that losing my goal had everything to do with this total lack of motivation. If I didn’t have anything to work toward, then what was the point? Once I realized where my mind had gone—and, truthfully, feeling really bad about it—I knew I had to do something to get myself back on track. Some downtime was beneficial; completely abandoning all the activities I loved when I was healthy was not.
Here’s what's getting me going again:
1) Eat like an athlete. This might not be a problem for everyone, but I have a major sweet tooth and the taste buds of a five year-old. I originally planned for one week of completely guilt-free eating after calling off Philly. Unsurprisingly, that soon turned into four weeks of stuffing my face with trash whenever I felt like it. I wasn’t thinking of myself as an athlete anymore, so I wasn’t concerned about fueling like one. I still didn’t feel good about it, though.
After coming home from Thanksgiving with family, I decided enough was enough. I went straight to the supermarket to stock up on fruit, veggies, lean protein and healthy snacks, and prepped everything I’d need to get back on track the following day. It’s much easier to avoid temptations when you have good food on hand and ready to eat. Simply eating better not only made me feel better physically, but also shifted me back into an athletic head space that got me out the door to train.
And if you really need an extra push to get started (like I did), find an accountability buddy who you can text with your daily food log. After a few days of cleaning things up with their support, it’s much easier to keep the momentum going on your own.
2) Do what you want to do. Don’t feel bad about what you don’t. The only thing worse than not training is beating yourself up for not training while you’re injured. Be kind. I’d make excuses for why I wasn’t cross-training, all the while feeling terrible about losing fitness. I still liked lifting, though, and made an effort to spend 3-6 hours/week getting stronger. Finding a rhythm with that made me more amenable to adding cardio back into the mix later.
You can also take this time to try new things that didn’t fit into the plan while you were training. I took a calisthenics class the other day—usually the same time that I’d be doing a run—and am signed up for boxing tomorrow. I’m considering training for a powerlifting competition in the spring. Put your focus on what you can and want to do, and you’ll spending less time stressing about what you can’t or don't.
3) Ease into things and plan ahead. I just got my first swim in yesterday after weeks of avoiding any cardio that wasn’t running. I cleared my entire schedule for the day, picked a shorter afternoon practice and packed my bag the night before. No excuses. It’s a little extreme, but I knew that getting started would be the hardest part. Now I have two more swims planned for the upcoming week and am much less apprehensive about them.
Don’t feel like you have to jump right back into a track workout, long effort or killer bootcamp class after time off. Put something doable on the calendar and give yourself time to mentally prepare. I was worried I’d be struggling through the entire swim, but fitness bounces back. The longer you put off starting, the harder it’ll be when you finally do.
4) Focus on your long-term goals and plans. If I’m being honest with myself, Phoenix Marathon probably isn’t in the cards for me at this rate. I don’t even know when I’ll be able to consistently log marathon miles again. That makes it difficult to get motivated for spring, but I’m confident that if I’m smart about it now, I’ll be healed up with plenty of time to train for fall races. The short-term may be disappointing, but it’s not permanent. Better to take the time to properly recover and rebuild now so that you can prevent future problems.
5) Surround yourself with people who believe in you. A friend, coach, running buddy, physical therapist, partner—anyone who’s seen the training that you put in while healthy can remind you what you’re capable of when you feel like you’ve fallen off the wagon. I get down on myself quickly but am incredibly lucky to have people in my life who always pick me up again. Although running is ultimately a solo sport, it often takes a village to get you to the starting line ready to race.
So, what’s next? I’ve mapped out a very conservative mileage build for December in the hopes that I’ll be able to start a fresh, healthy marathon training cycle come January. In the meantime, I’m paying my dues in the weight room with a February powerlifting competition in mind. I’d be lying if I said I rediscovered my motivation overnight; it’s still very much a work in progress. But little by little I’m finding my way back, and I hope that some of these tips might also help anyone else who’s struggling to get moving!