Being injured sucks. It’s that simple. And when fitness is a major part of your identity, it can seem like your whole life is thrown off track.
Watching your goals and aspirations slip through your fingers can cause even the most resilient of us to spiral into sadness. While feeling down may be inevitable at times (it’s OK to cry it out!), know there is light at the end of the tunnel—and probably a silver lining. An injury can help you realize you’re not defined by your workouts, and it may even open the door to discover new passions or ways to exercise.
Most of all, keep in mind that others have gone through the physical and mental challenges, and they’re ready to help you cope. We asked 11 athletes, serious competitors, and general fitness enthusiasts to give us their best advice for staying sane while sidelined with an injury.
1. Remember you’re not a one-trick pony.
“While it is perfectly fine to be sad, angry, and disappointed for a little while, it’s important to remember there is more to you than your sport or fitness passion. Even professional athletes who do this for a living have other interests and hobbies. There are so many other activities out there that can make you happy. Go find them.”
— Emelie Forsberg, 29; professional mountain runner and ski mountaineer; tore her ACL during the 2016 European Ski Mountaineering Championships
2. Don’t get stuck in the denial phase.
“It’s tempting to stay in self-denial about the severity of an injury. Unfortunately, there are only two ways to escape the denial phase: Either you train through the injury and end up making it a lot worse, or you go get professional help. Be smart and do the latter—it will be a much more pleasant experience.”
— Krista Tuomi, 37; recreational marathoner; has struggled with hamstring tendinitis for the past four years
3. Face the facts: You have a new normal.
“With serious injuries, you simply have to realize that your life has changed. It’s tough, but you need to move old goals to the back burner and start finding new ones. Comparison is the thief of joy, so try not to view your current situation through the lens of your former self. Oh, and stay away from Instagram—especially on powder days.”
— Brenna Schwert, 27; skier, runner, hiker, and all-around outdoorswoman; out of commission for a year after dislocating her pelvis while downhill skiing
4. Plot your comeback.
“Work with your doctor or physical therapist to define a realistic timeline for when you can expect to be fully recovered. Then sign up for a race, plan a hike, or register for a competition—and plan your comeback in detail. Research has shown that planning and anticipation can be a real happiness booster.”
— Kathy Harwood, 25; recreational runner; out of commission for four months with IT band troubles
5. Trust the process.
“Realizing how long the road to recovery is can be very difficult. You’re going to want to get back out there as soon as you can. But going out too hard too soon will only hurt you. Trainers, doctors, and physical therapists will help keep you on track and see to it that you make it through.”
— Steve Dircks, 28; professional lacrosse player; missed a full season after fracturing his knee cap
6. ID the root cause of your injury.
“There are no mysteries when it comes to injuries; there is always a reason why they happen. Spend some time figuring out exactly why you got injured and go to task on your weaknesses to prevent a relapse. Recovery is about more than just healing. Spend the time understanding and remedying the root cause of your injury.”
— Mike Hamberger, 36; sub-elite runner, triathlete, and running coach; suffered from shin splints
7. Nerd out about your recovery.
“Your recovery is in your hands, so take responsibility and get invested in the process. There is a lot to learn about the human body. My injury may have ended my pro-football career, but it ignited my passion for kinesiology and sent me on a new journey—one that led to me opening a personal training studio in DC. Who knows where yours might take you?”
— Josh Allen, 32; dislocated his knee playing football; out of commission for a year and lost his chance to play in the NFL
8. Find ways to give back to others.
“Even when you can’t train the way you used to, there is probably still a role for you in the community. Take a step back from your personal aspirations and focus on helping others. When I was injured, coaching others and helping them reach their goals was very rewarding.”
— Juliet Fielding, 22; competitive weightlifter; struggled with a back injury for six years
9. Think of rehab as training.
“Avid exercisers are really good at following training regimens. Apply an athlete’s mentality and discipline to your rehab program. Do the work and do it every single day. Just like in training, you will see progress and hit new goals, giving you that much-needed sense of accomplishment.”
— Erica Gminski, 33; ultramarathoner; out of commission for six weeks with a knee injury
10. Challenge your body in a new way.
“Active people need to do something to work off energy. Being unable to do your favorite activity forces you to get creative. It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that there are so many ways to stay active. Who knows, maybe you’ll fall in love with a form of exercise you wouldn’t have tried were it not for your injury.” (Here are 21 low-impact workouts that are more effective than you think.)
— Mallory Scott, 28; marathoner (and now swimmer); out for eight weeks with an ankle sprain
11. Revisit your priorities.
“An injury can be the wake-up call you need to realize what your true priorities are. If you love working out and want to do it for a long time, you may need to take a step back and be less hard on yourself in your training.”
— Sara A., 26; marathoner; out for a full year with a torn hip muscle