I was training for the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan, last May when my ankle began to ache at the end of a 20-mile long run. After a few days of rest, the pain subsided only slightly. So I went to my podiatrist, who broke the news: I had a stress fracture in my fibula.
Not only would I miss the race, I had to wear a walking boot for weeks while my bone and surrounding soft tissues healed. My typical routine of running, yoga, and full-body strength training was out of the question for the foreseeable future. I was disappointed, frustrated and, without my typical sources of stress relief, more than a little moody.
The magnitude of my emotions didn’t exactly surprise me: After all, I literally co-wrote a book about this very topic called Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries. I knew all about the ways that getting sidelined can suck, as well as ways to cope during this not-so-joyous time. Still, every injured athlete needs support, and I was no exception. So I turned to my co-author Carrie Jackson, MA, a certified mental performance consultant, for a refresher course on putting these lessons into practice.
Everyone who incorporates movement into their lives will likely, at some point, face this type of challenge, she reminded me. Whether it’s an injury, illness, medical treatment; caregiving responsibilities, new parenthood, or even a change in your work schedule, any number of life situations can lead to short- or long-term pauses in your regular fitness habits.
When exercise breaks happen, the effect can be more wide-ranging than you might expect. For most of us, after all, exercise is about more than the physical effort or the health benefits. “It’s your stress outlet, it’s the place where you hang out with your friends, all these things,” Jackson tells SELF. “And then all those things are suddenly gone.”
Fortunately, with mindfulness and attention, you can fill some of the gaps with other meaningful pursuits. Plus, deliberately working on your mental skills during these times can help you build a toolkit for navigating other types of adversity. In fact—as Jackson and I have found, over and over, during interviews for the book and podcast—people often come out the other side of a setback stronger in many ways, mentally and physically.
“Everything’s a learning experience, and our hardest moments—moments that take a little bit more grit or resilience—are teaching, learning, and growing moments,” says Kelsey Ruffing, MA, MS, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Bloomingdale, Illinois, who specializes in sports injuries and chronic health conditions.
Of course, the road to get there isn’t always easy. Here’s what Jackson, Ruffing, and other athletes and sport psychology experts had to say about how to navigate times when movement isn’t much of an option.
1. Realize you don’t actually have to stay positive all the time.
Paradoxically, the first thing to do is accept the emotional roller coaster that comes with injuries and other interruptions. “We want the net result of any situation to be positive, right? So that’s the goal,” Lisa Folden, DPT, a licensed physical therapist and wellness coach at Healthy Phit in Concord, North Carolina, tells SELF. “But the reality is, we’re humans, and we’re supposed to experience a range of emotions.” When you’re injured and out of the game, you’re probably going to touch on some of the not-so-pleasant feels first.