Written By: Ironwoman Champion, Harriet Brown.
I have been a professional athlete for the past 12 years and have had my fair share of injuries. Yet with every new injury, it is just as heartbreaking to be forced to sit on the couch and watch my fellow competitors out there doing what you love. When injured I always end up googling blogs or articles about other injured athletes. I’m craving to read about how they are coping in a similar situation. There is definitely a comfort in knowing you’re not alone!
I recently injured myself racing in the Nutri-Grain Ironwoman Series at the beginning of 2021. My recovery involves two surgeries, three months apart with screws in and screws out, followed by a LOT of rehab. So I thought I would share some of my experiences, frustrations and learnings provide other athletes with that same comfort I seek when going through the rollercoaster that is an injury.
Reach out for help.
The best thing I ever did when injured was to reach out for help and speak to Sports Psychologist, Chris. Everyone at Gold Coast Super Clinic Physio has been so supportive since my injury but speaking to Chris felt like a weight had been taken off my shoulders. I have been through some serious injuries before and feel like I am pretty well versed with dealing with injury having built up my resilience skills (I even do guest speaking about resilience!). Surprisingly, I struggled more this time around and I really wasn’t expecting it.
Speaking with Chris made me realise that it was okay to feel pretty overwhelmed. He pointed out that all the things I usually do to help me cope and feel better revolve around exercise and being outside… and temporarily I wasn’t able to do these. I wasn’t able to drive or walk and I had broken the toe on my other non-surgery foot as well so was pretty limited. I also had a few other stressors going on in my life that were out of my control. Chris reassured me that I was doing all I could in my situation by journaling, meditating, positive thinking and reaching out for help, but still, this may not be enough. He reassured me that for now if I could just make it through this time, things would improve. To have validation from a professional that it was okay to feel like I wasn’t coping made me feel a whole lot better. Family and friends are also great at this, but in addition I would highly recommend athletes in a similar situation speak to a sports psych.
The power of the mind
Your mental health needs to be cared for and nurtured just as much as your physical health. When I am feeling mentally strong I am much more likely to look after my physical health by having the motivation to do my rehab, eat well and exercise. I try to do a little bit of meditation each day to clear my mind. I journal every night using the Resilience Project’s well-being journal which makes journaling so much easier. I went outside when I could - this was usually when a friend was free and could drive me to grab a coffee and sit by the beach. Just looking out over the ocean is calming to me. These are such simple practices yet so effective in improving my mood. Explore what might work for you to improve your mindset and wellbeing too.
Get your body moving
Endorphins are real. This is very well known and researched. Anytime I don’t exercise for a little while I fall victim to what I call the lack of endorphin blues, a low and frustrated feeling when you haven’t moved for a while. I knew I would get these feelings after spending three weeks in almost bed rest. I knew the benefits of exercise but because I was so limited I didn’t realise that even small movements could make me feel better. I started doing 10 minutes of basic stretches, sit ups and activation. Immediately after I felt the endorphins creep in – happy thoughts and feelings.
Compared to my usual daily routine of a two-hour swim, one-hour gym and one-hour paddle session, 10 minutes of basic movement seemed almost pointless. What was it going to achieve? Well certainly not strength or fitness. However, my mind felt so much better afterwards. I found that I could concentrate on work so much more efficiently after moving. This soon became part of my new daily routine. On the days that I didn’t move much I became grumpy pretty quickly – just ask my mum. Endorphins are real, even in very small doses.
Do your rehab.
I know it sounds boring and yes, rehab can be pretty tedious, but your exercises and stretches (whatever they may be) are super important. Like most things in life, nothing beats hard work. Unfortunately, there are no magic, quick fixes for recovery - even if your Instagram may be filled with new recovery devices. If you stay consistent with your rehab exercises, you are more likely to recover properly and quicker! I am an Exercise Physiologist and I see first-hand the benefits of doing things right versus the long-term impact of being lazy. Don’t be lazy. I understand it’s challenging to try and fit this in, especially as we progress back to our ‘normal’ busy lives. Personally, I set aside time for my foot exercises, balance and calf strength first thing in the morning with some good tunes playing to boost motivation.
Laugh when you feel like crying
This is potentially unorthodox advice. I hit a few low points throughout my injury and making light of the situation was what pulled me through.
One was when The Sports Anti-Doping Drug testers knocked at my door 3 days after surgery. I was pretty groggy and in pain. I had to pass a urine sample under their watchful eye. Usually athletes just kind of squat and the testers stay standing and view the so-called ‘exit point’ from a distance. However, I couldn’t weight-bare properly so had to sit down, roll down my pants, roll up my top and the tester lady had to come really close to me. It was quite awkward but one of those times you just had to laugh.
Another low point was just simply trying to carry a cup of tea to my bedroom. I was focusing so hard on carrying the tea and steering my mobility scooter at the same time that I didn’t notice the table. I clipped the table leg, fell down and spilt my tea. I lay on the floor for a little while with hot water around me and a broken cup. At that moment I felt pretty useless; I couldn’t even do the mundane task of carrying a cup of tea. After a while I started to laugh at how ridiculous and helpless the situation was.
I am aware that other athletes experience more extensive injuries than me. However, it’s important not to compare too much, our reality and our struggles are all meaningful and important.
Whatever you are going through, your situation is usually only temporary and things will change and improve. There won’t always be an upwards trajectory. Injury is a rollercoaster! Many people have ridden this roller-coaster before you and many will after you. Personally, being back out in the surf doing what I love is well worth the injury risk. I hope my advice has helped even just one person who can’t (for now) be out there doing what they love. Please share with any injured athlete you know who might need to hear that they are not alone.