The 11 mental stages of an injured runner.

Today – right now in fact – I should be halfway up Fusedale in the Lake District with my good running buddy Rob Lister, part way through our second private recce day on the road to redemption towards the 2019 edition of the Lakeland 100.

But I’m not. I’m sat here in the office contemplating my longest injury layoff to date in the eight years since I realised that I wasn’t just messing about trying to get fit, I was actually something equating to a proper, regular runner.

Tomorrow will be seven weeks since I felt a little tweak in my right calf which I initially misdiagnosed as a bit of cramp. This led to me continuing for another eight miles through the mud when, had I stopped there and then, I would probably have not gone through the whole injury process at all.

It has been an extremely annoying and frustrating time. I mean, honestly – I actually tore my calf muscle seven years ago and I was back running quicker than this! But that was part of the problem, this niggle has been minor enough to trick me into thinking I was fine to get going again on more than one occasion: three times, in fact, I have set out on a comeback run only to break down again immediately.

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Rob and I viewing Fusedale for the first time, last July.

So, as I near Comeback 4 – The Final Return, I was thinking about the stages of mental torture I have been through in the last seven weeks. Stages that all runners will be miserably familiar with.

This is not a scientific journey – there will be an official Sports Psychology paper published somewhere. This is a personal journey. I may have inadvertently missed some stages out; please do message me to let me know.

Here, in my humble opinion, are the 11 stages of mental anguish you will pass through – from the moment the pain strikes to (hopefully) that joyous moment when you realise you are back on your feet and in your smelly trainers. Some stages are repeated on a loop within the process, some you will definitely only experience once. Obviously, this being my blog and I am prone to waffle, I will elaborate below…

1 – Panic

2 – Relief 

(You may be eligible to skip straight to 10 at this point.)

3 – Denial

4 – Depression

(You may well repeat stages 3 & 4 many times before ultimately reaching 5.)

5 – Clarity (Also known as the ‘Oh bugger’  moment.)

6 – Resignation

7 – Relief

8 – The Runners Bug

9 – Fear

10 – The Comeback

(Unfortunately there is the possibility of returning right back to 1 at this point.)

11 – Elation!

I’m guessing some of you are already recognising this pattern. Some of you may currently be part way through this process. For the record, I am at stage 9, contemplating stage 10. Some of you may be laughing at how much time you spend bouncing around stages 3 and 4 before you finally reach 5! (This is a common runner problem!)

So, what do they all mean in detail? (Here comes the waffle bit!)

Stage 1 – Panic.

You’re out running, minding your own business. Or racing, and therefore probably paying too much attention to other people’s business. Worse still, you’re not even running, or even exercising, it might be something as mundane as going downstairs or getting out of bed.

Then, out of the blue, comes the pain.

Whatever the situation, you immediately know something doesn’t feel right. If you’re anything like me you are immediately consumed with what this might mean to your current training schedule, or upcoming races and events.

I’m not a meticulous training schedule person. Our hectic family life means schedules can quickly be rendered irrelevant. It’s rarely written down. I hate those ‘1 mile at 50%, 3 miles at 75%, 1 mile at 100%, 1 mile at 50%’ style regimes. That’s why I naturally drift towards trail running and ultra racing – pace and schedule do not play as important a role and certainly do not define whether your run was a successful one or not. That being said, I DO have a plan for the week in my head, and I always know when and where the long, hilly training runs are taking place, (eg. TODAY!)

For most runners, deviation from ‘THE PLAN’ (however that manifests itself) will result in one thing – panic!

Stage 2 – Relief!

This is a slightly unusual one; perhaps contentious. Or maybe it should be called 1a?

But I think this is definitely a stage in it’s own right, particularly for us Vet category runners!

You see, I am of an age where funny pains are a daily occurrence. Rare is the 24 hour period where I don’t think that I’m having:

  • a heart attack,
  • a stroke,
  • a slipped disk,
  • a severe blood clot to the brain,
  • DVT,
  • A funny tingling feeling in my fingers and/or toes,
  • I’m losing my vision,
  • I’m losing my marbles,
  • Everyone around me is losing their marbles.

Therefore, I would hazard a guess that I hardly ever have a run where I don’t experience a fleeting pulse of pain where I momentarily think that I have picked up an injury of some sort.

I am also of an age where simply getting out of bed is painful. My back aches, my neck aches, my legs can’t get going etc. Indeed, if Lottie cries out in the middle of the night and I jump out of bed quickly (Leanne will tell you this never happens) then the temporary complete loss of balance usually results in me falling over anyway – and Leanne still has to go and see to the baby.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Stage 2 – Relief! is a real thing – 99 times out of 100 I am not injured at all. My next run is absolutely fine; that twinge I felt turns out to be nothing and I am good to go, either by ‘running it off’ (eg stiffness/cramp) or just that there really was nothing there in the first place.

Unfortunately, the above statistical likelihood, (which I have just mathematically calculated at 99% above – can you tell I’m doing Y6 maths this year?) results in Stage 3….

Stage 3 – Denial.

The singular stage which every runner will cling on to for dear life.

This is also the most dangerous stage as it often results in exacerbating the initial injury, (as my current situation proves!)

I bet if I turned up to my running club this week (“As if that’s going to happen!” shout my club mates!) out of the 100 runners who will be there I hazard a guess that 25% at least will be in some form of denial about an injury they have.

Runners at the denial stage are ridiculously easy to identify too. They will invariably be saying things like this:

“It doesn’t really hurt.”

“The pain wears off after a mile.”

“I can run it off.”

“I’m pretty certain it’s not going to drop off.”

“I googled it and it just said to go easy for a couple of weeks.”

“I’ve been training for this ****ing race for 15 ****ing weeks and I’m not ****ing dropping out now!”

Denial is dangerous and is really just an escalation of Stage 1 – Panic in which you cling to the last vestiges of possibility that there really is nothing wrong and your normal schedule can continue.

This inevitably leads to…

Stage 4 – Depression.

Obviously I don’t mean proper depression, I mean the kind of depression that runners feel when they have that nagging feeling that this isn’t going to end well. It’s not a nice feeling and, I suppose, for those who do suffer with mental illness and anxiety, it’s even worse.

This is the stage where you have that sinking feeling that all your plans, routine and organisation for the weeks ahead are about to come crashing around your ears. This is why people cling to Stage 3 – Denial – it’s a lot more tolerable to feel like it might be OK rather than confront what is becoming increasingly inevitable. (“I’ll just give it one more try…”)

As previously mentioned, I flitted between stage 3 & 4 three times before finally landing at stage 5. Each time I felt the niggle it would be gone within three days. First I waited five days before running, then eight days, then I cross-trained and did a little tester run with no ill-effects during an eleven day break. But each time the end result was the same. The third time, a wet Tuesday night three weeks ago, I genuinely thought I’d fixed it. I ran gently for two miles and began to feel that happy glow of what I thought was Stage 11 – Elation. But half a mile later the little nagging pain was back and I knew immediately that I was moving onto Stage 5…..

Stage 5 – Clarity (aka the ‘Oh Bugger’ moment.)

When realisation finally hits home, it doesn’t so much dawn on you gently, more like smacks you full in the face with a wet dishcloth.

Clarity. This stage probably only lasts an hour. In many ways it feels like the low point but, in reality, it’s probably one of the high points because you know you have reached the point of no return. “Oh bugger. I really am injured and I absolutely need to stop messing around and get it sorted.”

In my case, I knew I had totally wasted the last three weeks trying to dodge the issue when, had I stopped straight away, I would probably be running again. To be fair to me, the third time I thought I had done everything right by gently cross-training and throwing in a little tester run, but in my heart of hearts I think I knew that I was masking the issue rather than dealing with it. I had had such a good start to the year and had a pretty solid plan in place for the next two months – I desperately wanted to stick to it.

You only experience Stage 5 – Clarity once. And once you do, you cannot go back to stage 3 & 4 after that. If you do, you never reached stage 5 in the first place, you were still messing about in stage 4! Clarity is the point where you resolve to move on and solve the problem. But there are a couple of tricky stages to negotiate first…

Stage 6 – Resignation.

Maybe this should be stage 5b, it happens quickly on the back of stage 5. But I associate Stage 5 – Clarity with that angry feeling of injustice, Stage 6 – Resignation is more about plotting your next course of action, no matter what that might entail. It may involve time (and money) on physio, it might entail not participating in that race or event you really wanted to take part in as you know it won’t help, it will usually almost certainly mean an entire stop on all forms of physical exercise – at the very least completely resting the body part in question.

I used the word ‘resignation’ deliberately though, as opposed to slipping back to ‘depressed’ because, although the above list is full of bad news for the runner, you at least now appreciate that you are doing these things for your own good – stopping doing the thing you love is the quickest way to get back to doing the thing you love!

You have finally accepted your fate and are now formulating a new plan. It doesn’t feel great at this point but you have drawn yourself a new line in the sand and, initially at least, might even be a little bit motivated to do everything in your power to accelerate the process.

The only problem with this is that the next stage can become very nice indeed!

Stage 7 – Relief.

This is another contentious one but, for me at least, it’s the most dangerous stage of the lot. I know loads of runners and many of them will point blank refuse to accept that this phase exists at all. They’re the annoying ones who tell you that running is some other-wordly utopia where they experience inner peace and zen-like happiness – the running-magazine-front-cover land where every training session is like skipping through a sunny field of gently waving wheat to the bleat of new born lambs.

Bollocks.

Running is hard.

Not running, however, is easy!

Here are just a couple of reasons why NOT running is great.

  • No pressure to get out there and run – this is the whole point of Stage 7 – Relief. You can relax; there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
  • Less time constraints – it’s amazing how many more hours I seem to have in a day when I’m not trying to crow-bar a run into our busy schedule. School work is more likely to get done, housework is more likely to get done. Blogs are more likely to get written!!!
  • Quality time with the family – I’m not disappearing for a quick five miler at bedtime, I’m reading stories with the kids or doing bathtime. I’m not too tired on a Saturday to actually organise something else.
  • Weekend lie-ins – Saturday or Sunday is more than likely to start with a nice brew in bed. And it certainly isn’t going to involve an alarm clock! (Well, a little human one perhaps, but even that is preferable to the 6am run alarm with rain pounding against the window.)
  • The washing basket is 50% less full, and 95% less smelly – enough said!

I could go on – NOT RUNNING IS EASY!

Running is hard. If it was the other way around everyone would be doing it!

Hence, Stage 7 – Relief is potentially fatal for your running career. I can name runners who have slipped into this stage of injury and have never even bothered to re-emerge! What’s the point? It’s loads nicer drinking beer and eating crisps!

Once you enter stage 7, you’d better make sure you retain your focus. If you don’t, your only hope is that there is some sort of event to snap you out of the other side and into stage 8…

Stage 8 – The Runner’s Bug. (aka ‘Itchy Feet’!)

Once the pain has subsided and a suitable period of rest has been endured (or enjoyed!) hopefully your mind is going to start telling you that you want to get back out there. Sometimes that happens naturally, sometimes you need something to jolt your memory and remind you that you enjoy it.

In my case, the motivation to complete the Lakeland 100 has been enough to keep my mind occupied and keen to get going again. But other things help too, like last Sunday, when I volunteered to marshal at the Wigan Run Festival half marathon.

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Ready to greet the Wigan Run Festival half marathon runners at mile 9 (and mile 11!) in Haigh Hall, with my fellow Harriers friends Wendy, Stuart, Diane and Sarah.

There are few things I now enjoy more than helping out at a running event. It is great to be able to give people a little shout of motivation or, in this case, hand out gels just at the point that people really needed them! (Mile 8 to 10 of the Wigan half is a seriously tough climb up to local landmark Haigh Hall.)

Plus, seeing other people achieve things they are proud of certainly inspires you to go out and get stuck in yourself. Well done to the organisers, and all the runners who took part in the Wigan Run Festival last weekend, whichever distance you ran! I hope you had an enjoyable day.

Stage 9 – Fear.

I mentioned at the start that I feel this is my current point on the progress chart. So why fear?

Well, I am approaching three weeks since my last failed run. It must be well over a week since I last felt any pain whatsoever. So there is no reason why this comeback shouldn’t be a success – is there?

I’ve been sensible and stayed away from all forms of training. I was desperate to go to the Lakes today – I cherish every visit – but I knew it was ridiculous to push my body to try and do something which would do more damage. In short, I feel I’ve done everything right.

But what if it goes again? What if I start running and, 2.5 miles in, like the last three false starts, the pain returns? Do I have to wait more than three weeks? On top of what I have already missed?

Throughout this process, I have been consoled by my (our – including Rob) long-term plan. Rob and I (and the families) have a cottage booked in Snowdonia for the second week of the Easter. We can spend a whole week running in the mountains and relaxing. It’s exactly three months before the Lakeland 100. In other words, it would be the perfect starting point in order to peak at the end of July.

It wasn’t supposed to be a starting point. I was supposed to be super-fit by then to maximise the hill time. But I have to look on the bright side. If I can get a bit of running in my legs in the next three weeks, I can go to Snowdonia and really get stuck into some proper hill running and kick start 2019.

But…… Stage 9 – Fear; what if I break down again? That means a longer lay-off and I am in danger of not having time to train properly for such a big event. What if the injury just re-occurs and re-occurs?

I’m sort of pleased I have ‘The Fear’ as it is certainly holding me back from trying too much, too soon. But I am definitely a bit scared; and I am sure I will be extremely nervous when I resume training, however gently.

Stage 10 – The Comeback.

This time it’s going to be ultra-gentle. It’s going to involve lots of slow, short one and two milers and a lot of cross-training. I have to build-up gently. I have to be patient. So far I think I’ve been very patient, but that will unravel quickly if I feel any discomfort in those early comeback runs. (Hence I’m still at Stage 9 – Fear!)

Stage 11 – Elation!

I’m not entirely sure when I will first feel this. I thought I had it on the first three comeback runs when I seemed to be travelling smoothly. So I suspect I won’t feel properly elated unless I reach the Snowdonia training camp week feeling fully fit and ready to go.

Obviously, we will have a great week away with the Lister family in our little cottage, but it was booked for one reason only – to train for Lakeland 100. The hills are brutal, the running and training opportunities limitless, and we will all have a great time into the bargain.

But I can’t begin to imagine how I might feel if we go there and I can’t run. It would be a week long reminder of my uselessness. So I have to be fit for it; hence ‘The Fear’.

 

Soooooooooo, there you have it. Stage 10 – The Comeback will probably begin with some cross-training tomorrow, or maybe even a little one mile run. It can’t be anymore; I can’t cock-up Comeback 4! I know I am forever telling you I will blog more, I just don’t want lack of running to be the reason I am blogging!

Onwards and upwards, 18 weeks to go to the Lakeland 100! That sounds terrifyingly close, my margin for error is narrowing. Here’s hoping my next blog is full of pictures of hills and countryside!

Get out there and see it everyone!

Cheers for now!

Mark!

@GBSticks11

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“How many miles of the Lakeland 100 left now, Rob?” “103, Mark.” “But we’ve just done 2 miles?! How can there be 103 left?!” “Cos it’s 105 miles, Mark. That’s how long a 100 mile race is.”

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