Being an injured runner has given me A LOT of time to think. I have been thinking about how ignoring my body exacerbated the problem and how the little voice inside our heads can both help and hinder us as runners. That little voice is what motivates us and potentially what holds us back.
As runners we often push through our perceived barriers and keep going when our bodies are telling us to stop. For weeks, I told myself I could run through the pain in my foot, that it was just a niggle, that it would resolve eventually if I stuck my head in the sand and hoped for the best.
Chances are if you have a persistent pain no amount of positive self-talk is going to make it go away. As runners, we want injuries to resolve quickly and with minimal disruption to our training and racing schedules. In my case, the little voice inside my head that told me to carry on regardless resulted in a more severe injury and a longer term lay-off from running.
So, how do you know when to mute your inner dialogue or listen to it?
When it comes to persistent niggles you should undoubtedly listen to your body and not the inner voice telling you to push through the pain. Listening to your body means learning to understand the difference between a pain that signals a serious injury and one that can be ignored. If you are altering your gait after 10 minutes of running, then it is likely an injury and not just a niggle. You should never run through sharp or persistent pain. Small weaknesses and imbalances in the feet and lower legs can result in compensation in other muscle groups and in your body recruiting the wrong muscles when running. What started as an ankle/foot pain can become an issue with the knee and hip.
There is an interpretation of “listening to your body” favoured by Asker Jeukendrup, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Birmingham, and an ironman triathlete. Listening, he said, means that you are supposed to listen for “valuable information” and learn to disregard “other negative information that is actually irrelevant.” Dismiss, for example, “some niggles, some feelings of fatigue,” he said. It’s easier said than done, he admitted. And, he added, not everyone can do it.
There are times when the mind will tell you it hurts and that you should stop. You need to work out if your reason for wanting to stop is really a physical one. If your hamstring really does hurt, then of course you should stop. If you feel like you are wading through glue and can’t take another step, then a little focus might just get you through. The aim is to recognise how to push your body to its limits, but not beyond.
George Sheehan, author of Going the Distance said: “It’s very hard at the beginning to understand that the whole idea of running is not to beat the other runners. Eventually, you learn that the real competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.”
Everyone struggles with self-doubt, and runners are no exception. There are so many ways a runner can undermine their own potential. Without even realising it, we can start our running journeys with a set of self-imposed limitations. I have often heard members of our beginners group saying things like “I’m slow”, “I’m rubbish at hills”, “I’ll never be that fast”, “I’m not a proper runner”. Those negative demons in your head can take a toll on your motivation, and consequently, your performance. Research suggests that this kind of limiting mindset can prevent us from achieving our full potential as runners before we even start.
If we listen to that little voice inside our heads that tells us we can’t do something, then it will inevitably become the reality.
Earlier this year, I completed the Northumberland Coastal Run – a tough multi-terrain race taking in trails, footpaths, beaches and roads. The actual distance varies from year to year depending on tides but is usually about 14 miles. Torrential rain and mud made for even tougher running conditions at this year’s race. I’m telling you this as it is a race I never thought I would be able to do. If you asked me a couple of years ago I would have said something like “I don’t do off-road running”, “there is no way I could do that”. For years I have limited myself with these statements. I believed them so completely that they became more than just thoughts – they became facts. The mind is a powerful tool, so by believing these negative statements, we really do limit ourselves. I’m not saying I didn’t find it tough. There were points during the race (soaked to the skin, up to my eyeballs in mud and fearing a catastrophic fall at any second) that I wanted to give up. I questioned what had possessed me in signing up for such a thing. It was probably the most challenging race I have done so far. But, the point is – I did it. I ignored the little voice in my head telling me to stop and I made it to the finish line. It was a great feeling. I hope it will even make me a bit less daunted by off-road running in the future.
Many runners make use of mantras to motivate them during tough training sessions or races. A running mantra can be any short, motivational phrase that you repeat in your head while running. It could also be a line from a song, an inspirational quote, or just a couple of words that motivate you. The repetitive nature of a mantra can act as a tool to focus the mind, as well as being used as a device to distract from pain or discomfort. According to Andy Lane, professor of sport psychology at the University of Wolverhampton “There is lots of evidence showing that positive thinking can improve performance in sport”.
Positive thinking also plays a significant part in injury rehabilitation and recovery, as I have discovered from personal experience over the last three months. Recovering from an injury is undoubtedly both a physical and a mental process.
A positive inner dialogue helps us to navigate the toughest and most frustrating points of injury rehabilitation. Using motivational mantras and positive visualisation is key in getting back to running and surviving long periods of relative inactivity. Positive thinking can also result in faster healing.
As an injured runner I have struggled at times to maintain a positive outlook. Being a self-confessed ‘Negative Nancy’ I have found it difficult to avoid bleak perspectives and dwelling on worst-case scenarios. The little voice inside my head often whispers phrases like “this is too hard”, “I can’t do it,” “I hate this.” Much of the rehabilitation process is about battling with this negative inner dialogue and not thinking too far ahead. Although it is tempting you shouldn’t compare your current state with your pre-injury self. Rehabilitation is all about being in the moment. You must live in the now and be content with where you are, allowing your body the necessary time to recover.
Active recovery is also important. Listen to your physio or personal trainer, and always obey their instructions. You should find out everything there is to know about your injury: how long it takes to heal, what type of rehabilitation plan you need to follow, how long until you will be ready to return to your regular training. Map out your short and long-term goals. Planning and consistency are vital for keeping a positive outlook during periods of injury.
Find motivation in each small milestone you achieve, tell yourself that you are strong, you will eventually recover and get back to your previous level of performance. Visualise achieving your goal of getting back to full fitness and the steps you need to take to get there. Remind yourself of the reasons why you started running in the first place or think about the goals you are working towards. Trust in the rehabilitation process, be kind to yourself and have faith that you WILL achieve those running dreams, whatever they may be.
In the last two weeks I have been told I am now allowed to run 5K without stopping. I have reached this point by working my way up from 1-minute running intervals with sets of rehab drills between each interval. It has been a tough, frustrating, and often mentally exhausting process but worth it if I can achieve my goal of getting back to normal pain-free running. The little voice inside my head has another function now. It is there to remind me to watch my form – “Head up, shoulders back, hips forward, knees high”. Of course, there are still times when it pipes up with phrases like: “Why are you doing this?”, “Everything hurts”, “I’m tired”, “I hate running”. I don’t think any of us will ever completely banish those negative inner demons. Running is all about hearing them, knowing the right time to listen and when to silence them and keep pushing on.
In summary, we all need that little voice inside our heads. Used in the right way, it can help us focus and be our inner determination when we need it most. It’s what gives us the strength to keep going when our body is telling us to stop. It’s what gets us out of the door on days when running feels like just another chore on the to do list. It prevents us from giving up during seemingly endless weeks of frustrating rehab exercises. It’s what tells us we can do this when we’re coming back from injury. It’s what keeps the fear at bay and stops self-doubt creeping in. It serves to remind us who we are and why we are doing this. As runners and in life, we would all be lost without it.