By Gates Palissery
When you’re coming back from injury, things are going to feel weird at first. You have to adjust to a new status quo. It’s really important to pay attention to that feeling and understand it to make sure you’re not hurting yourself or your recovery.
When I first started running again, my gait was totally off and it started affecting my non-broken leg in a bad way—for a little while, it felt like I might have shin splints and like my knee was being pulled the wrong way when I ran. Meanwhile my broken leg felt like it was being dragged along for the ride. I understood what my body was saying—broken leg, you are not strong enough to contribute to this run—and learned to compensate by changing how I ran so neither leg hurt. Eventually I regained enough strength to resume my normal gait, though it wasn’t exactly the same as before because my ankle still isn’t at 100% mobility.
This lesson stayed with me the entire time I was training for Berlin. I knew when I started training that I wasn’t where I used to be, so I’d have to make adjustments to the training plan I’ve always used to account for that. Some days my ankle was stiffer or sorer than usual, so I took it easy or cross-trained instead. Other days it was so hot and humid I was starting to get dizzy and lightheaded, so I split my long runs into parts so I wasn’t pushing my body too hard, too fast (again). I discovered that certain stretches feel really good and started doing them after almost every run because it feels good to feel good.
I listened to my body during the Berlin Marathon. I wanted to go for a PR, and I actually started out at a PR pace, but I had to slow it down after 10k. I was getting lightheaded because I lost too much liquid via sweat, so I did a run/walk. I’m glad I did, because I probably saved myself from a more agonising post-race recovery and ensured I wasn’t setting myself up for injury. If I hadn’t mentally framed my run/walk as listening to my body, I probably would’ve felt a lot worse about my performance in the race, but as it was, I was happy that I finished. Here are a few lessons I took away from this journey back to running.
Look, I am not a patient person. I typically hate waiting for things. When they told me surgery was 8 days after I broke my ankle, my first response was is there any sooner date? My surgeon said I would have to wear the walking boot for weeks, but I started walking around the house without it (with my PT’s permission) after 7 days.
I am really not a patient person.
The entire recovery process felt like it took an agonisingly long time. I wanted to do things I really wasn’t capable of doing (see: trying to run a half marathon in May) because I wanted to get back to where I was fitness-wise. The countdown to Berlin was on and I didn’t have time to waste being injured when I could’ve been training and preparing for a World Marathon Major.
My body disagreed.
Physical recovery takes time. You cannot rush biological processes. You have to work with yourself and your support team and know that if you’re putting in the work, if you’re giving yourself time to recover, you’re going to get to where you want to be. But it takes time.
Mental recovery also takes time. I slipped while running downhill in the cold/dark/slipperiness and broke my ankle. That’s a pretty serious event, maybe even to the point of being considered traumatic.
Full honesty: it’s been over 9 months and I’m still wary of going downhill and running when it’s wet out. Every time I’m biking or walking or running downhill, I slow down and make every movement as deliberate as possible. Going downhill, especially if it’s steep, puts me on edge. If it’s raining, I won’t run outside, and I hesitate to go for a walk. If the road/sidewalk is wet, I won’t even take my bike out. If I want to run, I’ll hit the treadmill (aka the dreadmill) because…I’m scared.
I’m scared. I don’t want to slip again. I don’t want to go through this again. It’s been really hard to come back from this, it’s been extremely draining in every way, and the thought of doing this again (especially without Berlin as a goal) is so exhausting.
I think I’m pretty well-recovered physically, but mentally, I’m still grappling with everything that happened. But someday this will pass. Eventually, given enough time, I’ll be okay. And whatever your injury looks like, you will be too. It just takes time and patience.
(To be fair: Even after this entire process, I am still not a patient person. This fall, I’m running 3 marathons in 6 weeks, and I’m already planning my spring races.)
This is REALLY HARD.
Show yourself some grace. This is so much easier said than done, but it’s also really important. When you don’t meet your goals, it’s okay. When you take two steps forward and one step back, it’s okay. When you feel like you’re never going to get back to where you were before, it’s okay.
It sounds corny, but it’s true: you get out what you put in, and if you put the work in, you will see the gains. Baby steps, cross-training, goals, listening to your body, patience—all of those are key parts of this really hard process. You have been through a lot. Recovery is not a physically easy thing. It’s gruelling and exhausting and takes so much out of you. Your body is literally rebuilding itself!
Recovery takes a lot out of you physically. It can also take a lot out of you mentally. And that’s what the rest of this point is about, because I don’t think we talk about it enough.
Being kind to yourself, showing yourself some grace and accepting where you are, it’s not always easy. It can be just as hard as relearning to walk or rebuilding muscle—I daresay it can be harder, depending on your personality. When you know you were capable of something, when you start comparing where you are post-injury with where you were pre-injury, that can take a toll on you.
TW: talk of depression and mental health ahead
It’s so, so easy to fall into the Pit of Despair when you’re injured. I know this because it’s something I’ve been dealing with for the last nine months.
When I slipped, everything in my life changed in a matter of seconds.
Running has been one of my coping mechanisms for years now. Stressful day? Go for a run. Feeling icky? Get some miles in. Need to escape reality for a little while? Lace up those shoes and get lost in a run. It’s become something I rely on to get through tough times.
I’m in grad school (I work in a lab), and things started to ramp up in lab and outside lab just when I lost my primary coping mechanism. I was so stressed and completely unable to get rid of the feeling because I couldn’t run. It grew. It festered. It rekindled a darkness long buried in the depths of my mind.
I started dwelling on dark thoughts and worst-case scenarios. On what if I never rebuilt my strength, what if I could never get back to where I once was physically, what if I could never run again. What would I do if I couldn’t call myself a runner anymore? It’s become a piece of my identity, one of the ways I introduce myself to people. I don’t know how I could deal with losing it.
When I had to cancel my Atlanta Marathon plans, I was completely crushed. It wasn’t just because I couldn’t run. One of my best friends in the world, someone who’s incredibly important in my life and means so much to me, lives in Atlanta. We haven’t seen each other in 5+ years, and we had all these plans to finally catch up in-person. And in the blink of an eye, that all became nothing. Even now, my heart aches just thinking about it.
I lost the opportunity to see someone I love and my coping mechanism. That, combined with stress and creeping depression, snowballed into actively avoiding other friends and making everything worse.
See, in addition to being my coping mechanism, running is also my primary social outlet. It’s how I make friends every time I move: my running group is my social group. Not being able to run meant being cut off from my non-lab socialising. I became very isolated very quickly.
Immediately after surgery, I went to my parents’ house in Pennsylvania to recover because I wasn’t capable of living independently while in a cast. I needed help with everything from showering to cooking to taking care of my cats, and it was really hard to accept that. I felt like I was alone. I followed my friends’ training on Strava, silently cheering them on from afar while also wishing more than anything that I were running with them. I missed my friends and my routine. I’ll go so far as to say I missed running up Mill Mountain.
Even after the cast came off and I was in a walking boot, I felt like I had to stay away from my group until I could run again. I know I would’ve been welcome at group runs no matter what, but it was really hard for me to be that vulnerable and watch everyone run without me. I stayed away a lot longer than I should have. I really needed to be around them, but I was too prideful, too ashamed at my current state, to let anyone see me unable to run.
After I started running again, I had moments where I started to think I shouldn’t have been with the group and wished no one could see me. I used to power up hills and cheer everyone on from the top because I like running uphill—the first running group I ever joined used to say, “hills pay the bills,” and that’s my mantra when it comes to doing hill work because if you can keep a good pace going uphill, you’re set. But I lacked the strength to power up hills the way I used to, and it was so hard to try to run up them and stop halfway through because I couldn’t do it.
(It should be noted that this is very much a me-thing, this was all in my head. I love Team RunAbout so much, and I am so fortunate and thankful to have everyone here in my life. No one has ever been anything but supportive, and for that I am eternally grateful.)
Recovery has taken more out of me mentally than physically. There are still some days when I don’t have a great workout or my ankle just randomly starts bothering me where I wonder if this is it, if I’ve already peaked and now it’s all downhill from here. There are still days where I get really angry at myself for running outside on that January day because I didn’t want to clean off my car to go to the gym and run on the treadmill. If I’d just cleaned the snow off my car and gone to the gym, this might never have happened. Granted, if I’d gotten in my car, I might’ve also gotten into an accident and things could’ve been much worse because the roads were in really bad shape. It’s a massive game of what-if that messes with your head, and it's really hard to deal with because either way, you’ll never know how things could’ve been.
Anyone who’s ever dealt with depression will know how hard it can be to claw your way out of the darkness and into a better place. It helps that I have my coping mechanism again, that I’m socialising again, that my life has come to resemble what it was before. It really helps that my physical fitness is actually better than it was before so I can start testing my own limits and proving that the hardware in my ankle, this little setback, isn’t going to stop me from improving.
But it’s hard. All of this recovery, it’s really, really hard. If you ever find yourself in a similar position:
1. Know that you will get through it, even though it’ll be tough and
2. I invite you to reach out to me. I will talk or empathise or listen or whatever you need. Seriously. I know how much it sucks, and I’ve got your back.
DON’T go it alone.
You are not alone. Period.
I know it can feel like it, especially if you’re like me and you isolated yourself during your recovery. But you will need support as you recover from injury. Build a team that’ll support you every step of the way, because that is one of the most important things you can have. My support crew was my friends and family, my running group, my PT team, and my lab, and it made a massive difference.
My family, of course, was critical support. My parents literally took care of me and my cats. My sister who runs kept up a steady stream of encouragement, shared lots of running-related things with me to boost my spirits, and dedicated one of her Strava runs to me. My sister who doesn’t run kept me company when I was lonely. My close friends fro
m school, most of whom I haven’t seen in-person in years, checked in on me frequently throughout my recovery and gave me some ideas to help with mobility and strengthening after I finished PT.
I am so fortunate and thankful to have so many amazing people from Team RunAbout who rallied around me throughout injury and recovery. One of them worked in the hospital I was taken to and checked in on me while I was there. Another set up a Meal Train that even more contributed to. The delight everyone had when I came to the Peakwood and Pancakes after-run event (still in a cast) reminded me that I have this incredibly supportive group of people in my life. As I eased back into running, others slowed their pace down to stick with me or would wait for me at certain points even though I knew the route. Small gestures like these mean the absolute world during recovery.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my physical therapy team. Shoutout to University Physical Therapy in Roanoke! My first day of PT they asked if I had goals I wanted to work toward. I told them I have a marathon in September and I need to get back to running, whatever they tell me to do, I will. Every single person I worked with there was fa
ntastic. Even when I made mistakes and slid backwards (it really wasn’t a good idea to try running a half in May, I deserved the Disapproving Dad look I got for that one), they were still supportive and got me back on track. They knew what I needed to do to get back to running, and they got me there. It took about 12 weeks of PT, going 3x/week, and it was worth it. There’s nowhere else I would send anyone in the area.
The amount of support I’ve had from the day I broke my ankle to the day I ran the Berlin Marathon has been absolutely incredible. I would not have been able to make it this far on my own. Words will never be enough to express how much it means to me, how much love and gratitude I have for everyone who’s been here during my journey. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I’m writing it on the plane home from Berlin, while the thoughts and feelings are still fresh in my mind.
250 days taught me a lot about coming back from injury. It’s a long slow process that requires a paradigm shift: speed no longer matters, giving it your best effort does. Keep going. Don’t give up halfway through recovery or you’ll never get back to where you were pre-injury. One mile at a time. One day at a time.
When I was struggling to run during the half marathon in May, I questioned whether I’d be able to finish a marathon come September. I did finish. I didn’t PR, but that’s okay.
That’s what the next race is for.