Becoming A Better Runner Through Illness And Injury

Geoff Roes writes about what we can learn from illness and injury that will make us a better runner.

By on July 29, 2015 | Comments

Anyone who has raced often enough knows it’s only a matter of time until one will have a prolonged tough stretch in a race, or even an entire race that seems to go poorly. No matter who you are you will have times in which you are not able to run anywhere near your usual level. Many runners are often unable to effectively cope with these tough stretches, but others seem to regularly be able to come out of these down times running stronger than ever. There is of course no exact science to any of this, but there certainly seem to be patterns to this which we all can potentially learn from.

I think confidence is the main thing we use to be able to get through these tough stretches or tough races. I’ve written a lot about confidence in the past, and the one thing to always keep in mind about confidence is that it’s not something you can fake. You can’t force yourself to be confident. This said, I do believe you can manipulate things in a way to gain confidence. One way to do this is to keep an intentional focus on the larger picture, and pay close attention to any time you do go through a rough patch and come out of it in an improved and positive way. This applies even in cases which aren’t isolated to an individual run or race. Prolonged rough patches in our health and in our training can also be used as very effective confidence builders that we can use to help cope with tough situations in future runs and races.

This is something that has taken me a long time to understand. I used to think that a down turn in my running for any reason was definitively a negative thing. If I was sick or injured I felt like I simply needed to get through the sickness or the injury before I could begin to grow as a runner again. Over time though I have come to understand the opportunity for improvement and learning through these times of illness or injury, and how I can apply these lessons to rough patches I am having within an individual run or race.

I have been in one of these rough patches lately. I have had lower-back and hamstring issues which have limited my running to less than 50 total miles in the past three weeks. It certainly hasn’t been mentally or physically easy to go through this stretch, but as I am now starting to come out of it I feel like I have been able to learn a lot from it that will make me a stronger runner in the future. More than anything I notice the confidence I have gained from knowing that with patience, determination, and hard work things will get better. The next time that I am in a rough patch within an individual run I will remember these past few weeks and be able to cope with things just a little bit easier.

You might think that recovering from a prolonged rough patch (typically in the form of injury and/or illness) is totally different from rebounding from a rough patch within an individual outing, but I do believe that there is more than enough crossover to make these longer term rough patches extremely valuable in getting through rough patches within individual runs.

First, and perhaps most important, is the value of recognizing and accepting when we need rest and recovery. This is pretty easy to understand when we are injured or sick, but it can be harder to recognize that in most rough patches within races or individual runs the same thing applies. More often than not when we are struggling within a run the most important thing we need to do is to rest and recover. Rest and recovery on the go certainly looks different than rest and recovery over several days or weeks, but the general idea is the same. Slow down, take it easy, and give your body and mind a break from the stress you are inflicting on it. There is typically an urge to keep running as fast as possible (especially within a race), but more often than not, when we are struggling mightily within a run we can slow down and take it easy for a while and bounce back faster and stronger than we felt just moments prior. It can often feel like we are never going to make up for lost time if we slow down too much, but in my experience, if things aren’t going well and I slow down considerably for just 20 or 30 minutes I am almost always able to make up any lost time very rapidly once things start to get back on track.

Another thing that goes hand in hand with rest and recovery is nutrition and hydration. One thing we always try to do when we are injured or sick is to eat and hydrate well, knowing that this will help get us back to feeling strong as soon as possible. Once again, the same thing applies to any struggles within an individual run. Slow down; take in calories; take in water, and things will almost always find a way of correcting themselves.

I could go on with other ideas, but the general notion is becoming pretty obvious here: any things we use to help feel better over prolonged stretches of struggles within our running can be used in very similar ways to get through isolated struggles within individual runs. This is a very simple notion, but one that took me quite some time to understand, and one that I often see others overlooking. The next time you are sick or injured you might want to think more specifically about this notion. If you look at things in the right way you can do more than just survive one of these rough patches, you can actually teach yourself to thrive from the things you can learn in these situations.

No one ever wants to be sick or injured, in the same way that no one wants to have severe struggles within a race, but the fact is that over time we are all going to deal with these types of challenges. The good news is that we can actually use these longer-term struggles to make ourselves better runners and racers by developing a better understanding of how to work through these things when they come up in the future.

I am more than ready and happy to be done with the minor issues that have been nagging me this month, but I certainly don’t feel that this has been a wasted month of running, as I know that what I have been through has undoubtedly made me a better runner going forward. The next time I have prominent struggles within a run or a race, I will have a little more confidence in my ability to get through those struggles. It’s only one small change right now, but when added up over time these small changes are what make us into individuals who can accomplish more than we would have ever thought possible. If we keep our minds open we keep learning. If we are wise enough to pay attention to what we learn we are able to keep growing, and keep moving forward, one step at a time.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

When was your last illness or injury? What did you learn from it?

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Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.