After a Runner’s Fracture Heals, Fighting the Fear of Re-injury

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As anyone who has suffered a running injury knows, it can be hard to start running again. The good news after being sidelined for several months with a stress fracture is that I can start running again.

The bad news: I’m scared to start.

In running, fear can be both good or bad. On the plus side, fear keeps me from charging down a rocky trail and risking a fall (that, and I like my teeth). But that same fear that tries to make me protect myself also means I’m so worried about re-cracking my leg that I am having trouble returning to training.

Carrie Cheadle is a mental skills coach and consultant who is certified through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. She is the author of “On Top of Your Game: Mental Skills to Maximize Your Athletic Performance,” and co-author of the forthcoming “Rebound: Training Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries.” I asked her about fear, regrets and how to move forward when things don’t run your way.

JAM: I suspect fear isn’t always bad. Fear of not being prepared for a race makes us train for it, right?

CC: There’s an inverted U relationship with fear for performance athletes. Sometimes fear can drive focus to what’s really important, and to how you want to prepare for an event. It’s a protective mechanism there to help you pay attention to what you’re doing, but sometimes it ends up going past that, over a tipping point into something that holds us back.

JAM: I know a lot of really good runners who won’t try a marathon because they say they’re scared of the distance.

CC: It’s something that they’ve never accomplished before. Also with longer distances, it’s this thinking about 26.2 miles instead of breaking it down into smaller, shorter goals.

You don’t have to run 26.2 miles right now, in this minute. You don’t need to think “Oh my God how do I do that right now” — because right now you couldn’t! Instead of thinking in that moment “how am I going to get through 26.2 miles?” it should be “what race do I want to sign up for, how many weeks do I need to train and what does my first week look like?”

JAM: My first marathon did not go well, and I thought I’d never try again because I was scared of failing again.

CC: What happens on one race day doesn’t mean it’s going to happen on the next race day. If you feel like it didn’t go well or didn’t go the way you expected, our brains want to generalize that as the entire experience. So think about what are some of the things you did well and what are some of the things you can do differently. Recognize all aspects of it.

It’s not like being a soccer player or basketball player or baseball player, where you have a lot of immediate feedback that you can implement right away. You can’t just go the next week and run another marathon — or most people won’t.

Also remember it’s not just that day. It’s every decision you made going into it: every time you ran when you didn’t want to run, every time you took a day off when your body needed it. It sucks when you do all the training and spend all that money and the race doesn’t go the way you want, but just because it happened doesn’t mean that’s going to happen again.

JAM: Right — I know a lot of people were disappointed in their Boston Marathon times because they struggled in the heat.

CC: Sometimes we have a secret goal. You may say that because the weather’s not that great, you’ve adjusted your goal, so you’ll be happy if you run it in X. But really you’re holding on to your secret goal and tell yourself “I’m going to be mad if I don’t hit the goal I know I’m capable of on a fantastic day.” We’re gauging our feelings of success based on that goal, even if it’s not realistic.

JAM: Is it common to be scared to start running again after an injury? I’ve been shocked at how fearful I’ve been about coming back from a stress fracture.

CC: Athletes can hold themselves back because they’re afraid that they might not be able to run. “I’m just going to avoid running so I don’t have to know that there’s a possibility that I can’t again.” Your body’s ready, but your mind isn’t. Your body has healed faster than your confidence.

It’s a stress response that’s also a protective mechanism. Your brain is wired to protect your body. There’s a corresponding physiological response in the body, and that physiological effect then feeds back into the fear. You need to throw a wrench in that feedback loop. You wouldn’t want that stress response to injury to not be there, but it comes to a point where it’s no longer serving you, and it’s holding you back.

I’ll have my athletes write out their sport affirmations to remind themselves that they’re ready for this and their bodies are ready for this. If they’re nervous, I might have them make an appointment with a doctor to ask really specific questions. They just need reassurance. Even if they’ve heard it, they need to explicitly hear it.


If you’ve been injured, what helped you rebuild your confidence? Let me know — I’m @byjenamiller on Twitter.

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Run Well!

— Jen

Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story.

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