How to Support Your Injured Athlete

Initially, I wanted to write a post about what NOT to say to injured athletes, runners specifically… you know, things like “well, maybe this is a sign you shouldn’t run” or “you always get injured during marathon training, maybe you shouldn’t train for marathons.” Really, I could go on and on… but I don’t think that’s really that useful. There are SO MANY things that you SHOULDN’T say to an injured athlete that I simply didn’t think it would be a useful list, maybe cathartic and amusing, but not useful. Plus, I really want to make something positive out of my most recent injury experience and I didn’t think that kind of a post was really Christian-like nor really useful to those who may also be experiencing an injury.   What I have realized after a few arguments with my irritatingly healthy, 100+ mile-per-week running husband is that most athletes and loved ones of athletes don’t really know how to support the injured among their ranks.
I’ve made a short list of what I think can be very helpful for individuals recovering from an injury. A use the word “runner” frequently but I think this will likely apply to athletes of all varieties. Here is how YOU can support your injured training buddy, spouse, friend, co-worker:

  • Let them mourn. Races were planned and paid for. Months of training had been carefully and painfully executed. Nutrition was on point. Paces were dropping… and now, much of what was worked for will be lost. There will always be other races/competitions and it’s fine to point that out but an injured athlete deserves and probably NEEDS some amount of time to grieve after they’ve received a diagnosis. I need an evening. I cried. I pouted. I spouted out my fears and my worries and my catastrophizing. Then, I got up the next day and started crossing training and ticking days of no-running off of the calendar. It may be a different amount of time for each individual and I don’t think a pity party of indefinite length is helpful, but it is okay and appropriate for your injured athlete to grieve the loss of fitness or competitive opportunities that will occur during their injured period. Just be prepared to give them the emotional space to let that mourning happen.
  • Validate them. Being injured sucks. It does. Does it suck as much as having leukemia? No. Does a stress fracture that requires 6-8 weeks of suck as much as a surgery that requires 6 months off? No. However, pointing this out to your athlete isn’t going to make them feel any less annoyed at the being unable to perform their sport of choice for a particular amount of time. Don’t try to lessen the blow of their injury by pointing out how much worse it could be, just acknowledge that being injured isn’t fun, even if you have a positive attitude.
  • Be interested. Chances are that a large number of your athlete’s social connections are somehow linked to their sport of choice. It can be very difficult to feel comfortable and happy in a room full of your running buddies when you’ve been on the elliptical for the last 4 weeks and they are all recounting their long runs or track workouts. Invite your athlete into the conversation by showing an interest in their cross training. Have you ever simulated a long run on an elliptical? I have and good God it’s horrible. It took far more self-discipline to remain on that treadmill than it ever did to finish a long run outdoors. Give them kudos for their hard work and don’t write it off just because it isn’t running (or whatever the sport of choice) or because you don’t understand it. Ask them about it. Ask them about all the things they are doing to stay fit while injured. It will help the athlete feel like they are still a part of the community and it will help them retain the sense of identity that comes from being an athlete in general!
  • Don’t sabotage. You may think that taking your injured buddy out for cupcakes and ice cream or burgers and beers may be a great way to cheer them up but it could add more stress. Chances are that even the most determined athlete will experience some reduced calorie burn when they are dealing with an injury. They may also need to modify their diet to ensure they’re getting enough of what the body needs to heal properly. Maybe they do want a burger and beers, but let them take the lead and don’t “drop in” with three pizzas and a tub of ice cream to perk them up. It’s well meaning but since they aren’t going to be doing a 20 mile run over the weekend, they may not be able to afford such a drastic splurge in nutrition.
  • Be there for the come back. The return to full activity should be gradual after an injury but that doesn’t mean it’s any less monumental. One of my first workouts back may be a walk run at an easy pace. I don’t care how short of a run it involves… I will be running! Weeeeee! The baby-step nature of a returning to normal activity may seem underwhelming to the uninjured but it is actually a beautiful thing that should be savored by every athlete. So when your training buddy puts up a Facebook post about their 2 mile walk/jog, blow that post up with motivating emoticons, youtube videos, inspirational sayings (hint hint ;-))… the sky is the limit, or at least that’s what your recovered athlete should feel like after reading your post about their awesome walk/jog.

 Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 4.18.43 PM

Making the best of my non-running by swimming 100x50yards with my cheerleader, Anne! – longest swim workout to date! 

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It may not seem like much but I couldn’t even use walk without my CAD boot or use an elliptical without pain for the first few weeks of my injury.  Being able to do THIS was a monumental step in the right direction and something I celebrated!

These are just a few things that I’ve found to be true for me in managing my psychological energy throughout the various stages of injury and recovery.  I’d love to know what I’m missing here.  And, if you enjoyed reading this blog post, consider donating a few dollars to my fundraiser for the Challenged Athletes Foundation by clicking here.

2 thoughts on “How to Support Your Injured Athlete

  1. pgithens says:

    This is just awesome and spot on.

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