Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Please seek medical attention with respect to your own injuries. These are just general guidelines for how to get over an injury.
If you're training for a big race, you will likely be upping your volume, mileage and/or intensity, as these are the ways to push your body toward improvements in fitness. With any increase in activity, you're always running the risk of getting injured. A good athlete can have a few good seasons, but may falter in the face of injury. A great athlete will find ways of turning their injuries into opportunities to become better, faster, and stronger—both mentally and physically.
After winning the team event of World’s Toughest Mudder with Jon Albon and running 105 miles together, I took a few weeks off to let my body heal from the long season. After this, I started into an off-season which I typically take to mentally re-set and forge into a few sports that I don’t usually get to do as often. These included: snowshoe running, fat biking, lots of bouldering, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, and ski touring. It's my belief that this dramatic shift in activities revealed a weakness in my body’s movement patterns—and BOOM, an injury presented itself. At first I thought it was minor and I continued to run, but then I realized it was something much more sinister. I had developed Plantar Fasciitis in my left foot. Anyone who’s been afflicted by this pain before knows how much it sucks. I won’t go into the details of my specific injury, but I will give you my process of how to overcome injuries and come out on top.
1. Identify your injury. Get to know it. Go to a doctor or sports medicine specialist whom you trust and get their opinion. Research your affliction. Learn as much as possible about it. Once you are certain of your diagnosis, keep reading. I find that the internet is a trove of information (both reliable and not) and you have to sift through it to identify any consistent patterns of what worked for people and what didn't.
2. Stop aggravating it. For a running injury, this will typically mean STOP RUNNING. This is the hardest step and the most obvious. Most people don’t want to give up all that hard-earned fitness they’ve been pursuing. Here are the facts: you won’t lose any aerobic conditioning in the first two weeks of inactivity. If you combine that with the exercise that you still can do, you probably won’t lose any fitness. So stop whining. You did this to yourself and now it's time to get down to business.
3. Talk to people. If you have friends or acquaintances who have had your injury, talk to them. Get to know what worked for them or maybe which specialist helped them overcome it. Understand their timeline for healing and exactly what they did to get over it. Also, realize your differences and take them into account on your healing timeline. Once you can wrap your head around two weeks, two months or two years, you can start coming up with timelines for your own recovery without seeming so depressed and sad about it.
4. Learn your limitations and what you can still do. I was able to still ride a bike, climb, and do a few other things. I proceeded with a modified training program that included lots of specific indoor bike work. It was boring and hard. It's true, this isn’t ideal for run training, but it's a great alternative and my heart, lungs, and many muscles didn’t know the difference. Also, use this opportunity to work on your weaknesses. This can mean getting stronger at upper body exercises or core work. Whatever the case, use the extra time to improve.
5. Attack your recovery. Do everything in your power to heal faster. This can mean hot/cold baths, massages, electric stimulation machine, etc. It often means lots of foam rolling. I like to foam roll the injury two days on, one day off, to allow some of the soreness and inflammation to dissipate between sessions. This also means getting lots of sleep and good nutrition to help your healing.
6. Register for a race, or buy some new gear. This is a great way to keep you focused on your progress and cheer you up about your injury. By looking forward to using your gear or doing a race, you’ll be able to better adhere to your recovery schedule.
7. Return to the doctor/specialist to evaluate your progress. They will often be able to tell you when it’s safe to “test it out”, meaning: go for a light run.
8. Follow the Rule of ¼. However long you’ve been resting, once you think you're ready to test it out…don't. Give it another ¼ of the time you’ve been letting your injury heal. This is a little insurance game I like to play. So, if you’ve been out for 4 weeks and it seems to be all better, wait another week. One more week isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of your season. By doing this, you can often prevent a big relapse in the injury from stressing it too soon. This can be the hardest part of the recovery process, and the one where athletes relapse the most.
9. Ease back into it. Don’t go out and resume 100% of your running volume. Keep up some of the cross training and gradually ease into your running program. 50% one week, 75%, 90% then 100% seems to be a good mix for me. A lot of your running muscles (calves!) will be sore. Keep doing any physio exercises you’ve been doing.
10. Take what you’ve learned from your injury and apply it to your training. Maybe this means more massages and foam rolling. More stretching. Maybe it means that you need to warm up more thoroughly. Or maybe your diet needs to change. Whatever it is, use your injury to make you smarter.
It's worth noting, that while you're injured, a decrease in training volume can be used as a “system reset.” Which means that you’ll be well-rested and super keen to take on a big new challenge, whatever that may be. Don’t dwell on the negatives of your injury. Just like in life, if you focus on the negatives, you will be left tired, sad, and unmotivated. Keeping a positive outlook during your injury can be hard, but by doing that, the decrease in stress that you are experiencing will actually help you heal faster. So cheer up! You’ll be back to playing in the mud and running through the woods with your friends in no time.