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Dealing with Injury: This Too Shall Pass

Dealing with Injury: This Too Shall Pass

Ani Freedman

I don’t think I’ve ever had this healthy of a mindset while dealing with an injury or setback in training. I know I’m lucky; not only did this injury emerge after I already completed my marathon, but I also met it with an optimistic mindset, which is surprising since I haven’t been able to run in over two months —the longest stretch I’ve gone without running in four years.

In the days following the Mount Desert Island Marathon in October, I could tell something was wrong with my ankle. It hurt while walking, driving, and even when I’d wake up in the morning. Unfortunately, it took far too long to get an appointment with a physical therapist, where my instincts (from quick Google searching) were confirmed: posterior tibial tendonitis, an overuse injury.

My run coach has made coping with this injury easier. She has remained supportive, optimistic, and flexible as we focus on recovery to get back to running fully healed. We agreed that if I was going to get injured at any point, this was the time for it to happen: when I wasn’t training for a race and when I wanted to focus more on strength training anyway. At first, I was looking forward to getting stronger by incorporating cross-training through swimming and cycling classes at the gym.

But now, that excitement has vanished.

I miss running more than anything. It is a core part of my being. It is a time unmatched by any form of exercise, when I get to see so many different things in as little as a 30-minute run. Even if I run the same streets over and over, there is always something new to see. I’ve grown frustrated as it seems this injury will never heal, and my pain will never cease. I simply don’t feel like myself and I don’t trust my body to regain the strength to return to the sport I love so deeply.

To maintain fitness throughout this time, I’ve been consistently cross-training and strength training. If I can’t run, I want to still strive to be as strong as I can be for when I do return to running. When I first realized I wouldn’t be able to run for a while, I tried to have as positive as a mindset as I could. I told myself that when I did make my comeback, I would be stronger than ever before. I told myself this downtime was a new season, a new opportunity to take time and work on my weaknesses so that when I do run again, I’d be running on stronger legs and with a more resilient mind.

I pride myself on my consistency and commitment, but it has been challenging. Sitting on a bike or swimming in a pool for an hour, in my eyes, pales in comparison to running. I feel limited, not going anywhere beyond the confines of the gym. Running is freeing, joyful, at times painful, but most of all it is a chance to feel more connected with my mind and my body than anything else. The longer I cannot run, the more I struggle.

After I finished the marathon, I immediately began planning what races I’d want to go for next, something I know many runners can relate to. Last year, I had to drop out of the NYC Half Marathon due to an IT band injury. Luckily, I was able to defer my entry to 2023, after getting in last year despite the slender lottery chances (but I still had to pay the race fee again). I saw 2024 as an opportunity for redemption from overtraining last year. I was excited to return to New York City after moving from there when I graduated from Columbia, once again reunited with my favorite place to run, Central Park.

When I began physical therapy in November, I was assured I’d be back to running in time to train for that race. But now, I’m unsure. My recovery has progressed at a snail’s pace. I find myself restless, irritated, and down more often now as I wake up every morning knowing it is another day I won’t be running.

I consider running — especially now that I have the itch to race more — as part of different seasons of life. For a good part of this year, I was in the season of training for my first marathon. When I envisioned the months that followed the marathon, I had been hopeful and excited.

I know every runner has felt this same mental and physical pain. I know other runners who have endured far more serious, far longer-lasting injuries as well. I once heard on a podcast about how when runners get injured, it takes quite the mental toll. We are not only left with the physical pain of the injury, but also the emotional despair that comes with it as something so essential to our everyday lives feels so suddenly ripped from us. On that podcast, that runner had said once we experience an injury like this, it becomes hard to trust our bodies again.

I’ve felt that so deeply lately as my hope dwindles for seeing improvement. How can I trust my legs to carry me far as they once did, knowing the pain that emerged from running? It’s left me fearful. I fear that once the pain goes away and I’m cleared to run, that it will only return. I fear that my body is too weak to live up to my ambitious running goals and support all the muscles and tendons that are vital in running. I fear that I will return to this dark place again, where running is absent, and I am trapped in a gym.

I feel wrong, dramatic, over-the-top for writing words like that. Most people on this planet don’t choose to run and are perfectly fine without it. Many people don’t have the privilege I do to go to a gym every day or have health insurance that covers physical therapy. I recognize my privilege and I laugh at my struggle, knowing firsthand there are far worse things I could be experiencing. But right now, this is one of my battles that swells into a storm cloud over my head daily.

Despite my pessimism, I’m grateful for the people supporting me as I complain, anguish, and express ongoing anger at this injury. The physical therapists I work with, who are also runners that care deeply about me being able to run again and make me feel cared for, are so essential to battling this injury; my run coach, who patiently waits for me to be pain-free and ready to run, while always supporting me; my family and friends who show me compassion, despite their complete disinterest in running, because they know how much this sport means to me.

Most of all, I am endlessly grateful for my boyfriend, who listens to my complaints, who lets me cry out my frustration, who dislikes running but validates the importance it carries in my life. He reminds me that this will pass, that I will run again, and it will all be okay.

Although pessimism and hopelessness feel suffocating at times, I still try to look at this injury as a learning opportunity. All I want to do is run, but throughout this time I’m developing greater mental resilience and learning about my body’s mechanics to hopefully keep further injuries at bay. I’m learning new exercises and new areas to strengthen so that one day I will run pain free and powerfully again. I’m also developing an even greater appreciation for the sport and the incredible ways in which our body allows us to go so far.

While I can’t run, I still try to engage with the running community however I can: through social media, reading books and articles about the sport, or by being inspired by runners like Olympian Kara Goucher and ultrarunner Sally McRae, and more recently, by beginning to coach runners myself with my newly earned run coach certification.

There are many races ahead of me. I’m only 23, and I know I have decades of running left. Like many other runners, I’m restlessly stubborn. But to those many other runners, I want to echo the support I’ve had around me during these past couple of months: If you are injured, burnt out, or in a period where you’re finding it difficult to run, you will get through this. There will come a day, hopefully sooner than you or I think, where you are nearly busting down the door to get outside and let yourself fly. People might drive past and think you’re crazy to be running with a grin on your face; but they won’t know what it took for you to make it to that run.

Most importantly, seek out the help of a physical therapist, one who knows how to work with runners specifically, to get you back on the roads and trails soon enough. Just like I try to remind myself, the races, roads, and trails, are not going anywhere and will be waiting for you to return, stronger than ever.

If I get to drive or walk by a runner with a smile on their face, I will know exactly what they are feeling, and I’ll feel lucky to have witnessed it. Not everyone can understand the pure joy that can emerge during a run, but once you do, you never want to live without it.

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