On Injury, Comparisons, and Competition: Developing Maturity as an Athlete

Last summer was absolutely epic. Some of my personal highlights: knocked off three trips to the world-class Yosemite Park in California; a bucket-list trip to Lake Lovelywater in the glorious Tantalus mountain range in Squamish (a trip which included a river crossing via boat, an epic glacier trek and scramble up Iota Peak, then a helicopter off the top of a mountain like a rock star); three treks up one of my absolute favourite peaks (Sky Pilot); knocking off some Vancouver classics (the Lions, Brunswick, Elsay); and running a half-marathon every weekend like it was nothing. I was in great shape, fearless, and intensely excited for the trips I had on my list.

Sunrise Lake in stunning Yosemite National Park
Crossing the glacier below Iota, Pelops, and Niobe in the Tantalus range

As August was fast approaching (the best month to catch huge peaks free from snow), I had some serious adventures planned, and needed to be in top shape to complete them. I was climbing two to three times a week, and running, well, all the time. 6 am pre-work runs, lunch runs, post-climbing runs, weekend half-marathons, and of course, recovery runs (to recover from all the running, obviously). I figured my body must have adapted to some serious pounding, but then, a slightly uncomfortable 10 km loop post-work, then an excruciating 22 km run while on vacation, and that was it. The end of my 2018 running career. Marathon in the fall: cancelled. Trail race at Sky Pilot: cancelled. Trail race on Buntzen ridge: cancelled. Plantar fasciitis.

I felt the loss acutely as I pulled back from all things running. But I couldn’t stop moving entirely. And looking back, I will admit that it was insane to think of that period as a ‘recovery’ period. My master’s swim class met three times a week, I climbed two or three times a week, I biked at the gym after work or on non-swimming mornings, and of course, I knocked off a massive hike every single weekend. Guess what? My plantar fasciitis didn’t heal.

The second blow came in October. I badly injured my arm climbing at the gym in what we’ve affectionately called “Throwdown Thursday” (I had to throw down, I insisted, as if the arbitrary assignment was a binding rule entirely out of my control). After a trip to the ER, my entire left arm a whole two inches bigger, plus getting slammed with a host of opportunistic infections and viruses, I hit my physical low. Hard stop. Do not pass go.

My list of couldn’ts became bigger than my list of coulds: no running, climbing, swimming, yoga. I was reduced to indoor biking, and was restricted from carrying even light objects, like my morning tea, with my bad arm. Humbling. Maddening. Not only that, but crushingly depressing. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting about injury, and now that my usual activities are slowly being restored to me, I’d like to reflect a little on some lessons learned so I can shake this cycle of injury forever.

Progress is not linear

It is very easy to take the microcosm of each day and apply it to the rest of your life. I can’t count how many times I’ve enthusiastically laced up my shoes, exclaiming “my feet feel great today! I must be just about healed!”, only to sadly cross all the training runs off my calendar two days later. It is difficult to see progress when we’re so close to it, and it can be particularly defeating when you want it so badly. I try to picture recovery as a graph with a general upward trend. There are daily ups and downs, but with discipline, maturity, and patience, that line can slowly creep back to where it was.

Challenge identity

I read a lot of feel-good stories in running magazines about how anyone who runs deserves to call themselves a runner, like these labels we apply to ourselves are hard-won badges of honour. Humans apply labels to simplify and categorize, lest we be crippled by information overload. This is a useful heuristic, but I think the last thing you should simply is yourself. Why? Because we often experience a plethora of unnecessary and harmful negative emotions when our self-assigned identities are threatened. My identity – as a runner, a climber, a swimmer, an athlete – was seriously questioned when I could no longer do any of these. I felt bereft, lost, and unsure what to do with my time, and it was a horrible feeling. Every passing rest day made me feel lazier and more out of shape, and worse, increased my burning desire to get back to my schedule, and start pushing again before I had healed. Developing new skills and ways to perceive yourself is extremely useful, because people with many identities feel much less threatened when any one of those identities is challenged. Be cautious with the labels you apply to yourself, and just like anything in life, pursue balance, so that an activity loss is not an identity loss.

Compare yourself only to you yesterday

This one is particularly tough as a female. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone hiking, running, or climbing with men who claim to only casually participate in the sport, only to find that they’re faster, stronger, and tougher than me. I train all the time. Like literally all I do. You saw my schedule above. It is absolutely maddening that my sprinting pace after months of training is someone else’s jog, effortlessly maintained despite zero effort. But people are different, bodies are different, and you will hate your life if you compare yourself to anyone else except you. There will always be someone with more free time for training than you, someone who can afford dieticians and personal trainers and physio and all the latest equipment. Someone who doesn’t have to work and cook and clean. Someone with more suitable biology than you. So make your own baselines and crush them.

Take care of yourself

Take rest days. You need time to build muscle to properly perform again. Pay a professional to assess your biomechanics before you reach a point of irreversible injury. I’m grateful that I’ve learned this lesson at a time that likely will not compromise my future abilities. Everyone has funny asymmetries and imbalances, and pushing yourself will cause them to manifest as injury. Identify them, and work to correct them. Invest in proper shoes, and replace them often – it’s worth the money. Cross train for cardio/strength/flexibility (whatever you’re not getting from your primary sport). You’ll perform better, be less likely to injure yourself, and heal faster if you do get injured. Make goals, but understand that adaptability is a hugely important life skill. Injury is a rite of passage, and an opportunity for a lesson learned. Use that chance to better understand your biomechanics and your weaknesses, and note where your limits are.

Where is competition leading you?

You see this guy in every race: he sprints from the start line, but you pass him a kilometer from the finish, his face red and miserable. Don’t be that guy. Treat your training like a project – know your pace, know when you need to fuel, know if you run hot or cold. Don’t be embarrassed by having to slow down or drink or de-layer rather than burn yourself out and suffering. Train alone if needed. While friends can be fantastic motivators (to get you out the door, to push your pace, to make a hard slog more enjoyable), you’ll be happiest if you remind yourself that your competition is against yourself. I’ll grant that some people are intrinsically more competitive than me, and embrace that challenge as part of the game, but I’ve come to realize that competition and comparison have no place in the psychological relationship that I want to foster with these activities. Both are obviously completely acceptable, but if you find yourself harbouring dark thoughts when your friend passes you in a race, bikes a hill faster than you do, or climbs higher grades than you do, then perhaps it’s time to seriously reconsider your relationship with competition, and let it go if it doesn’t serve you.

I am not a professional. I do not get paid to perform, to train, to eat optimally and sleep perfectly and foam roll and deep-tissue massage. I have a demanding job, night classes, travel, a blog, friends, family, and a house to clean. I cannot expect of myself the same performance I see of professionals in my sports, nor can I expect of myself the same performance of someone with a uniquely different body. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to be more forgiving of myself. I run and climb and hike to escape to the outdoors, to breathe fresh air and feel sun on my face, to revel in how strong I am, and in the joy of motion. I move to feel gratitude of movement, of relative health, that my body is generally capable of what I ask of it, despite those demands sometimes being too much. I move to feel flow, because that all-consuming state of mind in which exists only the present is an absolute triumph of nature: primitive, simple, but what we were born to do.

A view of Mt Hood in Oregon from the lower trails of the park

Injuries can be surprisingly mental, and I’ve talked to enough people in the midst of the struggle to know I’m not alone in this. What’s your story? Share it with me in the comments below!

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