Treating injured runners over the years has sharpened my appreciation for the harsh psychological effects of injury. Although these injuries are typically minor in terms of their overall medical impact (stress fractures are not life-threatening), I’m consistently reminded of the powerful negative effect they can have on the runner’s psyche.
Famous Swiss Psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, outlined 5 stages of loss in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. I’ve always felt these stages accurately describe a typical runner’s response to injury. The model helps us to understand the emotions the runner is experiencing. Here’s my running version of these stages:
1. Denial – The runner denies the existence of pain. We prefer to use the words “tightness” or “soreness.” Admitting we have pain means we’re injured, and of course who wants to be injured?
2. Anger – We are angry at our running shoes, angry at the coach. We blame our running partners for making us run too fast or too slow. We blame the weather. It might even be our spouse’s fault that we’re injured.
3. Bargaining – We want to make a deal. “If I take 2 days off, can I run?” “How about a whole week?” “What if I just run easy?”
4. Depression – All is lost. You notice EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOUR NEIGHBORS IS OUT FOR A RUN! You can’t even imagine yourself ever running again. Your life no longer has meaning.
5. Acceptance – Like Queen Elsa on the North Mountain, you “Let it Go.” You cancel your flight to Boston. You are finally ready for the long haul which lies ahead. You’ve dusted off the bike in your garage and realized it doesn’t hurt to ride it (except for that horribly uncomfortable bike seat)! Ironically, it’s in the acceptance stage that true physiological healing begins to take place. I swear, I’ve seen it in my office so many times. The day the runner calls off his next event is the same day they start to demonstrate healing.
The point of this article is to help people understand that they are normal. This emotional response to a running injury is common. It’s not to downplay the severity of the emotional angst which accompanies the physical injury, but rather an assurance that this traumatic emotional roller coaster is par for the course. At Clint Verran Sports Medicine, we feel your pain and are here to help. Your running is important to us!