Overcoming Mental Injuries

A physical injury creates ripple effects beyond competition and training. Here’s how a top athlete pulled himself out of the depression of not being able to run thanks to a solid support system.

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he injury was nothing catastrophic. I simply stepped into a hole on a run down a mountain near my home in Colorado Springs last July. At first, there was pain in my groin and pubic area. Then, frustratingly, it just didn’t go away, making me run awkwardly with each step.

If you are a runner, you are likely familiar with injuries like this, or worse. Running is great when it comes to adventure, challenging yourself and overall fitness, but, unfortunately, injuries come with the territory. You would be hard pressed to find a longterm elite or recreational runner who has not experienced a physical injury.

Those injuries have ripple effects. We fear them. And that trepidation can cause us to make certain decisions when training, to avoid the possibility of future injuries. After you’ve been injured once, you become a little more cautious the next go-around. Injuries stick with us.

While most running injuries can be diagnosed and rehabbed to get you back on the trail, some may require a long period of rest. That can be tough on an athlete. And while dealing with the physical effects of an injury is difficult, it’s the mental aspect that the running world often overlooks.

Many athletes take part in their sport instinctively on a daily basis without stopping to consider the psychological benefits. I wake up every day to run. Most of the time I’m just out enjoying the beauty of my surroundings and randomly pondering things. When I finish, I’m on to the next task. Sometimes, I may even have a problem I’m dealing with in life, and after a good run, I realize whatever it was really isn’t worth my energy.

I would argue that an athlete is affected more mentally than they are physically. While recovering from an injury, and possibly post-injury, they may end up dealing with those mental issues they didn’t even realize they faced. I coin this “mental injury.” And I speak from experience.

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y mental injury came alongside the long layoff from running I had to take due to the injury I sustained when I stepped in that hole. The pain in my groin made it difficult to run at all—and without running, I felt depressed, lonely, as if I had lost something. These negative emotions can have long term effects if not acknowledged

Mental injuries ruin your self-confidence. For years, I had thought that I did not need others to support me to attain my goals. Success takes nothing more than motivation, desire and a dedicated work ethic, I told myself. For the most part this is true—if you can stay completely healthy during your entire experience. When things don’t go as planned and negative emotions crowd your mind, you have to rely on a support system.

Having a support system of close friends and family gives you a shoulder to lean on. My group consists of close friends and family, as well as my teammates. When I was injured, my teammates cross-trained with me. Many times, I would feel depressed simply because I wasn’t able to run. But my teammates cross-training with me kept my spirits up.

Simply having someone to talk to while rehabbing through an injury can be a big boost. My family, especially my father, was a big support. In my depression, I had gotten to a point where I wanted to be alone, isolated, but he constantly gave me words of encouragement. He would call me almost every day. He wouldn’t allow me to sink further into sadness. In the moment, it annoyed me. Now, I know he saved me from a negative path.

When you take into account the notion of trust, a support system becomes even more vital. Sometimes an athlete may suffer from mental issues that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with someone they do not know.  But it’s important to express your emotions in order to deal with them. Having people you trust in your life is key to getting back athletic confidence and shedding those feelings of loneliness and depression.

It wasn’t until I came to the realization that I had lost faith in myself that I understood  that I needed my support group. And I realized that the ones who have always been in your corner and supported you are the best folks to nurture you mentally.

The next time you have a friend going through a rough patch during injury, remember how important you are to their mental rehab. And may they return the favor.

Joseph Gray is a six-time World Champion mountain runner, a 16-time USA National Champion and a 28-time Team USA Member. He is the first Black American to win the USA National Mountain Running Championships. In January, Elevation Outdoors readers voted him Colorado’s Resident Endurance Badass in our annual reader poll. Follow him on Instagram: @joegeezi

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