How to Get Over the Fear of Losing Your Fitness

Mental Training

A struggle very close to my heart, but yet again, a struggle that is never talked about in a real way.

I am going through this right now, and it sucks.

I don’t even have it that bad.

Firstly, if you are in the situation where you had to have 6-8 weeks of total rest (or longer), my heart goes out to you. My longest injury ever was a month off running, and thankfully I was able to pool run, which kept my cardio somewhat decent, BUT regardless of what your injury is, returning to running after an injury is….well, humbling to say the least.

There are three ways you can be injured and going through this:

The first is the one I just mentioned; a big injury with time off and no exercise.

Second is an undiagnosed setback injury with lots of back and forth with stopping and starting, resting and running.

Third is an injury with a set amount of time off, but you can cross train as much as you like.

Each brings its own set of frustrations, heartbreak, and emotions.

Regardless of which situation you are in, there is a constant fear of your hard-earned fitness just melting away, and it is hard to go on any form of social media without feeling depressed. It seems like everyone but you is running so well, feeling so good, and PRs with smiling faces are just all around.

It’s not that you want the other people to fail, in fact, you are happy for them, especially if you know they really worked hard, and even more so if you know THEY were in the exact situation (injured) just a short time ago.

Seeing others overcome their injuries is inspiring, but at the same time, it is not long before we forget what it feels like, and take it for granted once again.

There has been a little discussion on the sadness we feel during injuries, that is expected, but what is not talked about, is just how hard it is on us as we are able to run again, but you realize that you have a long way to go before you even get close to being fit.

When you are in the thick of injury, you have a vision of your return to running, that it will be a struggle, but you will appreciate every step, because you know just how crappy it feels not to be running.

But when you finally get to the part where you can go out and run, if you are anything like me, pretty quickly you realize these first few weeks of running are not as wonderful as you hoped, and you end up feeling worse than you did while injured.

“At least you are running” others say, and you chime in with, “yeah, I know….but”

Because at that time, you know you SHOULD be grateful, and you are, you know you would rather be where you are now, running, feeling like junk, than not running at all.

But it doesn’t change that it feels so awful.

Last week I felt so exhausted on each of my runs, my legs hurt from the pounding, I was in constant fear of the pain coming back, and having to stop again, that it made it hard to enjoy.

Then the real reality check came when it was time for my first workout back.

Steve and I had already decided I was not going to wear my GPS watch, no good would come of seeing my pace while I was running hard, all that mattered here was effort. We knew I wasn’t in great shape, and we knew that the priority here was making it through 7 miles of hard effort plus 6-7 miles of cool down without the pain coming back.

However, of course during the workout, my mind was not on the pain, it was about trying to survive.

I often use the 3.5 mile flat part of legacy trail around Coldstream park, and when we have tempo efforts on this course, I usually start to feel tired around 1-1.5 miles in.

This time, I was only 600m in when I was already thinking about how hard this felt.

Steve had told me to keep the effort at a 5/10 for the first one, but I was already on a 6, edging on 7, by a mile in, I was already thinking about how the heck I was going to even make it to the 3.5 mile mark, let alone run another one HARDER.

It wasn’t that I was trying to run faster, like I mentioned, I had no idea about my pace (although, looking back, if I had, I think that would have been game over for me), it was just hard.

My legs hurt. My lungs hurt. My core hurt. Everything just felt like it was working 10 times harder than it usually was and it wasn’t even because I was trying to force it, I was just running.

Somehow I made it through that first one, and mentioned to Steve that I wasn’t sure I could do a second. While I gasped for air and tried to calm my breathing down in the few minutes recovery, I fought back thoughts about just how much harder everything about this was compared to usual.

To usual. To the past. To some unknown number that means nothing.

The comparison trap once again rearing its ugly head.

And I didn’t even have any idea of my pace.

All I knew was that this felt hard, really hard.

I started the second one, and ran along the path trying to maintain positive thoughts and reassure myself, once again, trying to use the be kind to yourself approach:

“Are you doing your best right now, Tina?”

“Yes”

“Okay, then that is all you can do, just keep going”

Obviously, internal dialogue, but helped me to focus on what I was doing in that moment. Steve then took over and started to tell me to focus on points up ahead, just get to the corner, just make it to the bridge.

Somehow I made it through the repeat; wheezing, whimpering, struggling.

My face was BRIGHT red all over, and even though it was 7 miles of effort slower than I ran my marathon a few months ago, I was absolutely exhausted.

But I made it through, and I knew that even though it was probably a lot slower than I wanted or hoped it to be, I had taken one step towards coming back to fitness, and my body would repair and recover, slightly stronger this time.

The rest of the week did not provide any respite.

I kept my runs slow and easy, but every run my legs hurt, and as much as I hate to say this, part of me just wanted to finish each run.

Partly to make it through without pain in my foot, and partly just because I felt so damn bad, and my ego couldn’t handle it.

Okay, so this post has been a little all over the place, and I fully intend on creating a guide and plan if you are going through this with tips and tricks of how to make it through, but for now, I thought maybe this would help a few people out there feel like they are not alone.

Returning to running is one of the biggest mental challenges we face, and I hope you will share this with your running friends if they are injured right now, to let them know that everyone goes through this, or at least I know I do.

I know I have a lot of humbling moments ahead, but I also know that every day I do the right thing with my training, do my best in workouts, taking it SUPER easy on recovery days, and look after my body with the little things, my fitness WILL come back, and I will make it back to fitness with a level of grit and determination that I did not have before, as I know just how far I have come.

How do I know this?

Because I have done it before, I will do it again, and so will you.

Hang in there.

Returning to running after a setback, how do you handle it?

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • OH I ADORE THIS AS HERE IT APPLIES TO EVERY DAMN THING IN MY LIFE AND NOT JUST FITNESS.
    My marriage when Ive pulled away.
    My writing when Ive slacked off.
    And yes, the weights when Ive wandered accidentally into a hiatus of sorts.
    SO HARD TO RETURN.
    Harder than I always thing. But worth it.

  • Of course I can identify with this SO much! I was just thinking of writing a post on it myself because I run though all these comparisons of my previous self while I’m doing training sessions in the present. That mindset is keeping me from doing my best so I’m working hard to change it. Thank you for this! So needed, as usual!

  • I’ve been on many running setbacks and it can be tough. I find myself comparing to my PRs a year ago which I haven’t been able to touch. I appreciate your honesty Tina!

  • Oh my gosh yes yes yes! This is so true and while it’s easy to just tell yourself you’ll be happy to run again, it’s hard to lose that fitness! I feel that way after pregnancy and getting back to it after A!

  • Thank you for this! I’m two weeks into training for a half marathon after eight weeks off for a hamstring injury (at least I was able to cross train), and I’ve been freaking out! The runs are hard, my times aren’t what they “should” be, and since I’m sore after workouts that used to be easy, I worry that I’m re-injuring myself. After reading about what you’re going through, at least I know that I’m normal!

  • I’ve had to return to running after several months off because of an unrelated illness/surgery. When I finally got the green light to run again, I think I ran my first run at an 11:00 pace, which to me is practically walking. It was so hard and I felt like a turtle. I think you just have to tough it out through those first suckful workouts. Then the fitness and the muscle memory really does bounce back. Thanks for your honesty, Tina, and speedy healing!

  • I know exactly how this feels. Since 2011, I’ve had about six surgeries all at different time frames. Plus, I have dealt with an ongoing IT band issue that just doesn’t seem to want to go away no matter how much rest or stretching or strengthening I do. So, I’m constantly starting and restarting. It sucks. I think the worst for me is the motivation to get back out there, especially after a hard, exhausting first run (or workout) back. The excuses come to quickly and it just makes it harder to get my shoes on and get out the door.

    But good for you on sticking it out!

  • I really needed to read this right now. I am training for Big Sur at the end of April and out of the blue (its always unexpected isn’t it???) my shin is acting up like it never has before. Frustrated that I need to take time off of running but at least I take comfort in knowing I can still cross train (weights/strength intervals this morning, spin, barre, etc-anything that doesn’t pound on my legs). It’s always hard not to compare ourselves to a more perfect version of ourselves/fitness/performance that maybe even never existed. We are always a work in progress but just need keep moving forward and be the best version of ourselves at this moment in time. We are our own worst critics, myself included.

  • You hit the nail on the head – it is so hard to come back. I felt exactly like this after four weeks off of running (I could cross-train) when I sprained and dislocated my foot this past summer. My first run back was almost painfully slow and a bit disheartening. But your fitness will come back and you will be even stronger!

  • A stress fracture in my right foot left me almost unable to do any cardio for about 2 months last year (I don’t have access to a pool). The injury fueled a period of bad depression and anxiety that lasted long after my foot healed, and made it almost impossible to motivate myself to run. I tried starting back at the very, very beginning with run/walk intervals but I got bored and lost interest. After months of maybe one run a week, a friend’s passing finally woke me up and reminded me to not quit just because it felt hard. I’ve been running regularly and luckily injury-free for almost 7 months. Thank you for sharing your struggles, Tina, much love and hope for your continued recovery and renewed enjoyment in the sport.

  • It’s challenging to remain humble after an injury and workout guilt is something I’ve been struggling with, but at the end of the day you kinda have to treat yourself like you would a best friend by telling yourself what you would tell them!

  • This is everything I’m feeling right now! ““At least you are running” others say, and you chime in with, “yeah, I know….but”” spoke to me as well as how I pretty easily ran 26.2 miles at a sub-8 pace but now 3 miles at 8:15 min/mi pace feels like death. It’s discouraging, but I am trying to be positive. I just want my speed back!

  • I’ve come back from injuries so many times and those first couple of runs are always so humbling! Fortunately, I’ve always been able to maintain some sort of fitness through cross training–pool running or cycling, mostly. But I did have a few times where I was recovering from surgery and wasn’t able to do anything at all for about 4 weeks. That was rough!

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