Ask the Coach: "Why Do I Keep Getting Hurt?"
When a high school runner has one injury too many, Norway's Gjert Ingebrigtsen guides her on the winding road to recovery.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
Just when I thought I was good to go after recovering from foot and knee issues at the start of the season, I tore my hamstring. It's the second time I've injured it in two years and the second time I've had to cut my athletics season short. I've been living the injury-recovery life for what feels like so long, I'm starting to doubt that competitive running is for me. I never used to get hurt but now I'm freaking out that the injuries will keep coming. My coach says I have major potential; I'm worried I'll never fulfil it. How can I keep up my commitment and stay positive through all the setbacks?
Often Unfit, Currently Hurt
Let me reassure you, OUCH, that one thing you don't need to worry about is whether or not you'll get hurt again. Because you absolutely will. Occasional injuries are included free with participation in every sport under the sun.
But if those injuries are coming back-to-back, as they are for you, it's time to troubleshoot. The usual explanation for a second injury: You probably hadn't finished recovering from the first one.
Right now, you have one goal and one goal only: to get 100 percent better. Until you reach it, every other goal needs to fade into the background. No personal records. No athletics races. No impromptu basketball games. There are no shortcuts and there is no cheating. To get where you need to be, you're going to have to shift the way you think about your injuries.
I coach three of my sons in middle-distance running. My son Jakob had a major injury in December 2019—a stress fracture in his lower back—and his recovery was scheduled to take four months. As soon as we found out, Jakob told me, "This is what I need to test my motivation".
He thought of the injury not as a problem, but as a challenge that would ultimately make him stronger. And he shifted his competitive spirit away from competition and towards recovery.
Jakob and I started his recovery process with mobility and core strengthening at 6am the day after his injury. There was no sitting around on the sofa watching TV and feeling sorry for himself. The longer anyone does that, the harder it is to get back out there. In our family, we train twice a day under normal circumstances. When we're recovering from major injuries, we train three times a day. By treating recovery as a full-time job, we create a real sense of accomplishment.
Over the next four months, Jakob did not miss one rehab session.
While you're doing this work, it's very important to keep your eye on the goal at hand—getting better—and not on any long-term goals.
I know that may not come easily for athletes. Let me give you more perspective. In Norway, where I'm from, many of the roads are narrow and winding, going left and right, up and down, along rivers and around hills. Because of these "scenic routes", even long drives seem to pass quickly. I recently drove across Nevada on the way to Las Vegas. That trip, down a broad, straight motorway extending all the way to the horizon, seemed like one of the longest trips I'd ever taken.
The mindset of effective recovery works in much the same way. You don't want to focus on the city in the distance, aka the competition. You want to keep your mind occupied with the scenery at hand—that is, your daily goals and achievements, which might be as basic as moving naturally without pain. This is the only way you'll remain patient enough to recover fully before so much as setting foot on a track.
There are no shortcuts and there is no cheating. To get where you need to be, you're going to have to shift the way you think about your injuries.
I can tell you that it worked for my son, Jakob. He came out of recovery in April and set a new 2K European record in June. He set the European record in the 1,500-metres a few months after that. He didn't just return from a major injury, he returned stronger. And I don't mean just physical strength. He gained mental confidence that he can handle future injuries as long as he sticks to the process.
I believe in this process, OUCH. I've seen it work again and again. It's as simple as it is effective: Mentally reframe the injury as an opportunity to improve. Focus only on each stage of your recovery and those everyday goals and accomplishments, never on the next competition. Stay dedicated to getting yourself to 100 percent, then move forward.
Like I said earlier, you will get hurt. That's inevitable. The true test of your mettle and your potential for success is going to be your dedication to getting better.
Gjert Ingebrigtsen is a Norwegian athletics coach and trainer to his elite-level sons, Henrik, Filip and Jakob. The family is dominating middle-distance running in Europe, with all three men having been crowned 1,500-metre gold medallists at the European Championships. Jakob also won the 2020 Olympic gold medal in the 1,500, holds a European gold medal for the 5,000, and is the youngest runner to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Having had no background in running, Gjert has developed his own coaching philosophy based on rigorous process and constantly verified results. He was named Norwegian sports coach of the year in 2018.
Photography: Constantin Mirbach