Slam Dunk The Funk
The Effect of Injury on our Mental Health
Being injured sucks.
I spend all my time extolling the virtues of running for the benefit of our mental health and then suddenly I am stopped in my tracks by the order from the physio not to run.
Err….sorry, what? Brain cannot commute. Computer says no. My ears do not want to hear these words. It’s fair to say that I have been extremely lucky over the years, with only minor niggles that have caused no more than a short-lived inconvenience. But this recent medical advice – not to run for at least two months – has blindsided me somewhat and left me more than a little peeved.
In my role as a Mental Health Champion with England Athletics and as a Mental Health First Aider I regularly advise people to exercise and to move more, for the benefit of their mental wellbeing. The release of ‘happy hormones’ makes us feel more positive, aids concentration, improves sleep, alleviates worries and stress and generally makes us feel happier all round. The endorphin release (often referred to as the ’Runner’s High’) can become quite addictive and certainly encourages us to repeat the form of exercise, seeking out our next endorphin fix.
This powerful ‘hormone high’ does not discriminate between different standards of runner. I have seen complete beginners experience their first ‘buzz’ from running (occasionally accompanied by tears and gushing declarations of gratitude) alongside the more seasoned athlete who trains to the point of over-training. It’s certainly not a feeling reserved exclusively for speed-fanatics or distance-devotees. And in fact, for the new runner it can be quite a hard addiction to manage. In the early days, beginner runners can be more prone to injury – sometimes due to poor technique, or from trying to run too far too soon, and too often. Once bitten by the running bug, keen beginner runners might enjoy the buzz so much that they ignore the coach’s advice to slowly and gradually build up their distance and frequency, refusing to see the words ‘REST DAY’ on their newly-adhered-to-the-fridge training plan.
I first realised this was a concern when I began supporting runners who were not running. The impact of injury (or illness) on the keen runner can be significant, especially for those who have come to rely on running to boost their mental health. A sudden halt in this regime of happy hormone release can strike hard. This is when the unhelpful internal dialogue kicks in, the negative talk and self-doubt: “Will I ever get my fitness back?”, “What if I lose my mojo?”, “I won’t be able to keep up with the group”, “I’ll be back to square one”, “Maybe I shouldn’t bother”, “Maybe I’m not built for running”, “I’m not a runner after all”.
Such negative internal chatter could easily be quietened if only the runner could go for a run – exactly the sort of self-help remedy that they are prohibited from doing. And so the negative cycle continues.
It’s very easy to slip into an injured runner’s funk: to stay at home and do nothing, to stop socialising with other runners, to listen to the negative self-talk, all of which can unfortunately lead to feelings of low-mood, and sometimes anxiety and depression.
As a club we have put measures in place to support our injured runners. We appointed a member of our committee to reach out to people we hadn’t seen for a while, to see if the reason for their lack of attendance was down to injury or illness, and to enquire about ongoing injuries. We are introducing a regular walking group and our weekly slow run includes a shorter walk/run option, useful for those returning from injury.
But at the end of the day it is down to the runner to manage their injury. And despite what some die-hard running junkies say, it is possible to achieve the release of happy hormones through activities other than running!
Alternative forms of exercise (permitted by the physio or medic) can encourage the release of endorphins and serotonin and if these can be done outdoors, in sunlight, by the sea or in a forest, then all the better.
Oxytocin is known as the ‘love hormone’, and spending time with friends and loved ones (with the occasional hug thrown in) can boost this particular neurotransmitter.
And by volunteering at club events or the local parkrun, the injured runner can achieve a dose of dopamine, the hormone that is released when one experiences a sense of reward.
As frustrating as injuries are, it is worth remembering that the injury is temporary, and the best way to prevent an injury from recurring is to ensure all medical advice is followed and to resist the temptation to run too soon.
Being injured sucks.
But it doesn’t last forever. And while I’m waiting for my injuries to heal (I think the official medical term is: ‘tendons-in-my-knees-are-screwed-itis’) I shall seek my happy hormone fix through walking, swimming, upper body workouts and yoga. I shall continue to hang around with my running friends because they make me happy. And I will seek the feel-good buzz that comes from volunteering.
So that’s my plan to avoid the injury funk.
Wish me luck.
And lots of ‘power’.