Musings on Injuries

injuryThe New York Times recently ran a piece by Gina Kolata that compared the injuries sustained running vs. those sustained cycling.   The article, entitled “Fell off my bike, and vowed never to get back on” contrasts the two sports in terms of the post-traumatic stress that cycling injuries can induce given their relative propensity for higher degrees of acute trauma.   Running injuries, on the other hand tend to be insidious and less dramatic.  Due to overuse and inadequate recovery, they tend to come on more gradually.  A key factor in the psychological impact of cycling vs. running injuries, this article argues, is the presence or absence of a sense of control.  The sense of lack of control in the outcome can result in post-traumatic responses of exaggerated caution, even to the extreme of not getting on a bike again.   On the other hand, when we can rationalize the outcome in terms of something we did wrong it becomes a lot easier to consider hopping on the bike seat again, or lacing up those running shoes.

We are meaning-making creatures and strive to create a sensible narrative out of our injury woes: Anton Krupicka’s recent blog entry being case in point.  After having summited Green Mountain 10 kabillion times over the past year in the context of an insanely prodigious training volume, Anton ‘tweaked’ his calf on a recent ascent, essentially preventing him from competing for the big pie this coming weekend in the North Face 50.  While initially “frustrated and generally pissed off” Anton finds solace and meaning in attributing this injury to too much intensity on poor footing and endeavors to fold this new insight into his future training.

All this is well and good.  I mean, what else can we do really?  We are all an experiment of one and the only way we figure out what works and what doesn’t is by trial and error and common sense.  We have physiological and biomechanical limits that are, in theory, objective and testable.  And hind-sight is always 20-20.

But meaning is not necessarily inherent in the world itself: we imbue it with meaning.  That is to say, just because our explanations provide a psychological salve doesn’t mean they are true.

Having spent a good many years running competitively and cycling avidly I’ve had my fair share of injuries related to both.  In truth, there have only been a few injuries amenable to a clear causal story and these have all involved cycling: “I swerved too tight on that corner and ended up catching my handlebars on those of the guy next to me.  We both went down, I smacked my knee and it hurt for a good long time.”  With running injuries, of which I must have had nearly all of by now, this clear causal story seems much more elusive.  It wasn’t when I quickly and irresponsibly ramped up to 140 mile weeks in marathon training but many months down the road when I nonchalantly did 3 sets of calf raises that my Achilles started hurting and then proceeded to hurt for a year.

Of course, I poured over my training logs for clues, for meaning.  “Next time I’ll do this or avoid that…”  What is also interesting is that my post-injury reaction is just the opposite to that purported in the article: after a year of chronic running related injuries I was so burnt out and miserable that I swore off it entirely and devoted myself to bike racing for several years.  I felt like I had no control.

In sum, I would advise the downtrodden injured athlete to keep doing what you always have been doing: devise a narrative to make sense of your misery.  It might help and probably couldn’t hurt.  But keep in mind that if you looks hard enough for meaning, you will find it.  And finding it doesn’t necessarily mean it was there in the first place.  Rather, with our injury stories there always seems to be a hint of the unpredictable, of the absurd.

Call for Comments
How have you dealt with your running injuries and how have these differed from injuries sustained in other sports?  Is injury simply an inevitable part of the game or can it be otherwise?  How much control do we have over our injuries? More generally, what have been your experiences with injury and how have they influences your understanding and appreciation of the sport?