Race training was going swimmingly until you felt pain in your knee, ankle or foot. Now, you're staring down the possibility of missing your dream race, and you're not quite sure what to do.
Sound familiar? Runners pour their hearts and souls into race training and when the potential arises for all that to go up in smoke, it's a harsh reality to face. The dilemma is twofold: You need to determine what's best for you physically, while also managing the emotional fallout of missing something so important.
Here's how to navigate this stressful time.
Is Your Injury Bad Enough to Skip the Race?
This is the million dollar question — and to answer it, you need to do an honest check in with your body.
Meghan Wieser, a doctor of physical therapy at Recharge in Ellicott City, Maryland, suggests asking yourself these questions: "Is the pain worsening during your run? How about in the 24 hours after? Are your mechanics altered?" If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, forgo your race this time around.
Wieser likes runners to use a pain scale to help in their assessments. "If you can place your pain in the zero to two range out of 10, you're probably OK to race," she says. "When it gets into the three to five range, it's likely acceptable. But once you get higher than that, it's a pretty good indicator that you should back off."
Wieser points out that running a race in the lower end of the range may not be easy or comfortable, but the odds are you won't be doing lasting, long-term tissue damage. But there's an exception to this rule: "If you suspect a bone injury, don't mess with it," she says. "It can be tough to treat and can progress to a more sinister injury." (Watch out for tenderness, swelling and soreness in a specific spot, according to the Mayo Clinic.)
If the pain isn't too severe and you don't suspect a bone injury, you might be good to go on race day. "Make sure you do all the right things along the way," says Wieser. "Warm up, sleep well and keep your runs light leading up to the race."
How to Deal With the Mental Setback
Injuries aren't just physical problems, as any runner can tell you. They mess with your mind and emotional health just as much. Denver-based sports psychologist Justin Ross, MD, says that injuries deliver both losses and gains: "For some people, having an injury and giving up a race is like losing their identity," he says. "On the other hand, injuries add pain, uncertainty and sometimes anger. When it affects a race, it can fuel doubt for many people."
Dr. Ross says it can be helpful for runners to keep in mind that the emotions you feel are common. He recommends formulating a hierarchy to your injury, starting at the bottom and working your way up as you move back to health.
"Walking, potentially with a boot on your foot, would be a one," he says. "Being able to go for a short, light jog is a two. Getting back to racing would rank as a 10, because you feel good emotionally and physically." This emotional scale gives runners something to strive for and feel good about as they make progress.
On the other hand, if you're living in a state of denial about your capabilities as you wrestle with letting go of a race, you're doing yourself a disservice. "Your mind wants to race, even while your body tells you differently," says Ross. "Too often we listen to our minds in this case, and that's a mistake."
Remind yourself that there will be another race at another time — and your long-term fitness is more important than your short-term goals. "That same dream race is going to be there next year," says Ross. "Reframe the situation and find the mental state to say 'I'm willing to let this one go.'"