Mental Health in Injured and Non-Injured Athletes: My Story

Over the months I have been dealing with my injury, I have realized more than ever the importance of both athlete’s and injured athlete’s mental health. In writing this, I hope to help others who are struggling and feeling alone. If you are reading this and hurting right now, I want you to know that this moment is temporary and better days are ahead. Keep your head up, and see that it’s more than okay to get help. 

photo credit: Gregory Brown @gregoryebrown

As someone who has been running their entire life and competing competitively in both cross country and track for eight years, being pulled away from the sport was not something, I was prepared for. Before this, I had been battling an eating disorder for four years and finally took the steps I needed to get better. I went to counseling, phycologist, dietitians and wanted so deeply to heal the wounds within myself, not only to be healthy for my sport but to be truly happy. I realized that a life worth living is not one trapped in a vicious cycle of self-destruction and hate. I wanted to live a life that little Amber would be proud of.

After years of competing while not treating my body with respect, I was excited to see what I could do with a healthy body and mind. Over the next six months, I gained 25+ pounds and began training for my Junior season of cross country, I was not only running faster than ever, but I was also genuinely happy. As someone with as much ambition and drive as me, it’s easy to overdo yourself and get caught up in where you are heading that you forget to slow down and trust the process. Four weeks before state, I got a muscle strain in my inner thigh and cross-trained every day leading up to the race. I got an okay from my doctor to compete, so that’s what I did. I gave it what I had, and it was enough to win a state title. I was on top of the world, knowing how much more I had in me; this was before I realized the long road I had ahead, and to be honest, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the difficulties I was about to face. 

photo credit: Tyler Copeland @tylercopelandandphoto

I have always been an advocate for athletes’ mental health and the power our minds have over our performance and life. A strong mind and positive mindset are the foundation for both a successful athlete and fulfilling life. In saying this, it has taken me going through some pretty dark times to realize this on a much deeper level.

After competing in my state race, I thought my injury was over; the muscle strain was healed. I had plans to compete at many postseason races, including nations and indoor track. But as I started running again the week after state, I noticed my leg did not feel right. I went back to my doctor and was told to give it some time, so I did. A few weeks later, it felt the same (at this point, I had missed postseason XC races and was now missing indoor track). I was beginning to get discouraged but still was confident I would be better by track season. I began to see a PT and found out I had a lot of imbalances. I thought this was the answer to my injury, and I honed in on getting strong. A few months later, I was still dealing with the same pain in my leg, yet I was running faster than ever, with this newfound power from gaining 25+ pounds over the summer and from the immense amounts of strength with my PT. I truly felt the most powerful and strong I have ever been, except for the constant discomfort in my leg. In my first and last race of the season, I ran the 1600m and had difficulties running because my pelvis was off, and I was disappointed with my performance. I knew deep down; I needed to sit out of track season. 

After countless breakdowns during practice, school, and at home over frustration, my coaches talked with me about taking the season off. Once again, I was in tears, but this time because I was relieved. I knew this was the right choice to get strong, come to find out, in many more ways than expected.

I am not sure how to put into words the feeling I began to feel, and there are simply parts of this story I will be unable to explain. If you know me, I am known for my positive outlook and strong mind, but this can be both a blessing and a curse. My life is so busy with morning gym workouts, school, practice, homework, PT, etc.… that I don’t have time to think. Constantly being consumed by thoughts of where I was headed lead me to plaw through my emotions and masked them with positivity and running. But this time, that was no longer an option; I was forced to face my thoughts and emotions head-on. As I noticed my mental health wasn’t doing well, I immediately contacted my sports psychologist to make an appointment and sort through my thoughts that were causing me unnecessary anxiety. After meeting with my sports phycologist a few times, I learned some valuable coping mechanisms to deal with my irrational thoughts. But although these ways of coping helped my fears that had nothing to do with running, I still felt lost. I felt like there were bricks on my shoulders and a rain cloud hovering over my head. 

My whole life, I have been so focused on where I wanted to go with running that I never thought about much more than that. I felt like a different person, I no longer looked like I had before, and now my thoughts felt out of control. I felt like I was going through an identity crisis. This may sound dramatic, but I genuinely have no other way of putting this. I no longer felt like Amber in both my mind and body. For years, I used running and my eating disorder as a way to keep myself ‘in control’ when in reality, I was completely out of control. When I decided to recover from my eating disorder, I had to let go of that ‘safety’ it provided me. I have goals I want to achieve with running, and I can control all the factors to get me there. Running is a fantastic sport and will always be something that I hold deeply close to my heart. But without caution and awareness, it can become something extremely toxic. Without realizing it, running became my only outlet to deal with my emotions. It was my primary source of ‘happiness.’ My whole identity has always been a runner, and although this isn’t true, now that I wasn’t running, I felt like a failure.

I share this experience with you because I believe this topic needs to be brought to light. For months, I didn’t see the purpose in life or trying anymore because I felt trapped and as though no one understood me. This is true; no one can ever truly understand your unique situation. What I can say is, you are indeed not alone on this journey. At the moment, when things are crashing down, it’s easy to let your emotions and thoughts take over. Although you can not control your thoughts, you can control how you respond to them. We can look at life through countless lenses; it’s your choice to choose the one that will uplift you. 

It isn’t till now that I realize running is a tool, but it can’t be the only tool in your toolbox. External sources do not lead to happiness; happiness is found within yourself. Yes, running brings me peace and joy, but it can not be my only source of those things. For athletes, it’s easy to let your sport become almost your entire identity, and when that is taken away, you feel like you are left with seemingly nothing. All the goals you wanted to achieve are now put on hold and replaced with fear. Although this looks different for everyone, there’s no doubt being taken away from your sport is hard.

Many athletes are also facing added pressure presented by social media. As little as 1 minute of scrolling through Instagram and TikTok can leave you comparing yourself to someone else. For me, I had to take time off social media, unfollow running accounts and completely distance myself from the sport while still supporting my team. One of the hardest things was feeling completely disconnected from this sport and being asked, ‘do you run anymore?’ ‘Are you still a runner?’. But I knew I needed to find who I was outside of my sport so that my worth no longer relied upon my ability to perform and compete. 

Although this journey isn’t over, I finally feel stable and can see the countless lessons this situation has taught me. I feel truly grateful for where I am; my heart and thoughts go out to everyone who is hurting right now, emotionally and physically. I may not know you or understand your situation, but I see you, and I want you to know that you are stronger than you will ever know. 

This experience has taught me to look at life through a much different lens. I know this has happened for a reason, vaster than what meets the eye. One workout, one race, one season, one YEAR does not define you as an athlete, or you’re worth. Running is a sport that requires intense physical excursion but also requires great mental strength. You can’t have one but not the other. A strong athlete who will have longevity in the sport can push themselves physically and, most importantly, can be strong mentally on and off the track. As a long distance runner, we all know that we can’t start a race too fast or else we’ll burn out. The same goes for our intentions with the sport. 

After months of being in a self-destructive mindset (with the help of my coaches, parents, and doctors), I realized that my desperation to get back to running as quickly as possible was only prolonging my recovery. The countless meltdowns a day because I wanted to compete made the recovery much more miserable than it needed to be. 

Your mind is more powerful than you may realize. If we have the power to make ourselves sick, why can’t we heal ourselves? I switched my focus to what I could control. I began to journal, get off social media, reach out for help, talk about my feelings, meditate, light cross-training, and truly focus on myself. 

I could not have gotten to where I am now on my own. Talking with people and asking for help gave me the courage to keep going and the confidence in knowing I would be okay. Wherever you are, this is only one chapter in your book of life and does not define you. This chapter, for you, is going to look completely different from someone else’s chapter. 

I honestly didn’t see a difference in my recovery until I healed my mind and mental health. Although  I have no idea when I will get back to training consistently again, I have peace in knowing that running isn’t going anywhere. When the time is right, I will be back to doing what I love. But this time, much wiser and stronger than before. 

my eating disorder became my biggest competitor.

Everyones story looks so different and I think it’s important to remember that there is no “bad enough” and there is no “look” to an eating disorder. We also often hear this is a topic for “female athletes” but eating disorders affect ALL PEOPLE. EVERYONE at any stage deserves help<3 To whoever may have stumbled onto my page and is reading this…. your body is the LEAST interesting thing about you and you don’t need to change. Theres so much life to live out there for you and im sending every ounce of love your way. We are in this crazy journey of life together and I believe in you.

Both of my parents were athletes growing up and maybe that’s why I’ve always loved to compete. Part of me thinks it’s in my blood. 

My mom is a competitive runner and my dad was a pro bodybuilder. As soon as I could walk, my parents put me into kid’s races and i’d run as fast as my little legs could take me. I loved it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been running and racing. I still have a cork board full of kids’ run ribbons. I played soccer and did triathlons throughout elementary school, but running was always my favorite. I loved being fast. I consistently beat the boys during PE, no matter what sport we were playing. The competitive drive has always been in me. Although there have been many times it became toxic, I’m convinced it’s also the thing that saved my life.

I had a healthy relationship with food and my body during elementary school. I was outgoing, loud, strong, energetic, and ready to conquer the world.  I wrote down my goals on my mirror, eager to achieve them all. I still hold the mile record for fifth graders at my elementary school with a 6:04. But it wasn’t until middle school things started to change. 

During seventh grade, I started taking running a lot more seriously. I idolized pro athletes, my mom, and girls that were faster than me. I noticed differences in my body compared to theirs. I started noticing that I ate more than my friends. I hated the way my body looked and became consumed with the idea of looking like the pro athletes I followed online, with ripped abs and a slim figure. I began eating what I perceived as healthy, but in reality I was starving myself. I cut out almost all food groups, only ate at certain times, never ate out with friends and would deprive myself of the foods I used to love. Including my favorite chocolate cake for my birthday. I thought that the less I ate, the better. In two months I lost a significant amount of weight. I was still feeling good during all of my runs and races. But my parents, family, and friends all began to notice and ask questions.


My dad explained the importance of fueling my body for running and life. So I doubled what I was eating and started fueling my body correctly. I began to understand why food is important. I got faster, felt stronger, and was happier. I got second at the middle school state championships and fifth at the 2017 Junior Olympics, where I medaled for the first time. The competitive drive inside of me was still hungry for more, I had goals to be the best and losing weight was what I thought would get me there. I picked my body apart, analyzing my idols’ bodies desperately wanting to look like them. That day, I decided to lose weight again. This time, I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t care. 

I entered high school, and my parents got divorced. I moved with my mom 15 minutes away and switched schools, a different school than my friends. I had a reputation as the “fast freshman,” which, at first, was true. I ran a 17:56 5k and was the regional champ in the “region of death.” I remember grueling hours of working out, feeling dizzy but refusing to stop. Every night I’d lay in bed checking the steps on my watch, calculating what I ate that day. I’d lay there for hours trying to quiet the noise in my head and stomach. This made me feel in control, even though I was completely out of control. At school, I ate lunch alone and had almost no friends. In order to achieve my goals of looking and performing like an elite athlete, I isolated myself and kept to my rigid schedule. My brain was in a constant haze, fixated on getting faster, always thinking about what I’d allow myself to eat next.

It’s hard to think about who I’d become during this time because it wasn’t truly me. I judged everyone and was disgusted by people if they questioned my behavior. I felt attacked when people asked if I was okay.

Of course I was okay. I was running faster than ever.

At least that’s what I wanted to believe. If someone mentioned my eating or weight loss, a sense of panic sent through my body. I’d immediately avoid the topic. The Amber filled with passion and love had been chained up by an eating disorder. It convinced her that the only thing that mattered was running fast and staying as small as possible.

I remember going to my chiropractor and he stared me up and down, looking at me with sadness, saying, “You’ve lost a lot of weight.” This was the moment my mom realized how much weight I’d lost. They made me get on a scale and my mom began to cry. My parents decided to make an appointment to get my blood work done. Once we got the results, it was clear that I was concerningly malnourished. I sat in the doctor’s office, my heart pounding, as the doctor came in with a concerned look on his face. He sat down in front of me and my mom looking over his computer. After a few moments, he looked up and told me I was classified as anorexic. 

I was somehow still convinced I was okay. I did an excellent job convincing others the same.

I’d grown three inches and lost more weight. I remember sitting in my room as my mom knocked on the door in tears. I could see the desperation in her eyes as she tried to explain to me my behavior was not normal. But she was wrong. She didn’t understand that my goals exceeded anything she could ever comprehend. But I couldn’t finish track workouts. Race after race, my body began to break down more and more. I remember feeling like my body would shatter at any moment. I was so wrapped up in winning that somehow I always managed to pull through on race day. This made it easy to hide behind a good performance and a smile, but looking back, I see how obvious it was. I think the scariest thing is that no one ever actually made me stop. 

At the State Championships, the damage caught up to me. I felt broken. I ran 90 seconds slower than my 17:56 5k season-best. But I decided to keep my season going and ran Footlocker South. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was at the peak of my eating disorder, and all I remember is the frigid cold against my frail body and the pangs in my stomach. I ate a salad to fuel that race. My body barely had enough energy to stand and keep myself warm, let alone try and race 3.1 miles with some really strong athletes. After the race I remember being flooded by followers from my instagram telling me what an inspiration I was. But why? I was miserable and people were telling me they looked up to my positivity. I felt like a hypocrite. That was the first time I admitted to myself I had a problem and agreed to go to therapy. 

At first therapy didn’t do much. I knew I had a problem but only wanted to do the bare minimum to fix it. During track season, I started eating more, but just enough to maintain my low weight. Even though I had the ripped abs I wanted, I was the least confident I’d ever been, and my eyes lost all light. I was no longer Amber. I was the product of fear.

I performed incredibly well during track. Race announcers and officials called me a “freshman phenom.” I placed third at states in the 3200m with a 10:43 and then finished third at nationals. Fast forward to sophomore year cross country and I’d gained a little weight back, got fourth at States, and was the fastest lower classmen. I was seeing a sports physiologist who helped me see how irrational my fears were. Just like it’d happened before, I quickly slipped back into my old habits and lost all my progress. Track season started, then ended promptly because of COVID. 

I’ve always been online. I’ve shared my journey on social media since the beginning. I wanted people to come to my page and feel inspired to work toward their goals and be who they were. I always felt like I was different and I wanted people who felt the same to know that wasn’t something they needed to change, it was their super power. I posted my food, workouts and daily life. I even started a youtube channel. 

I feel like social media is what really kickstarted my eating disorder recovery. I met friends online who shared their journeys and realized I didn’t have to stay trapped in the vicious cycle I was in. Their stories inspired me to get help. It was like a light switch had gone off. I finally understood that if I wanted to be a good athlete and live a fulfilled life, I needed to change. I was tired of being weak. The strong girl who loved beating the boys was now struggling to hold her own. I wasn’t becoming the athlete I wanted to be but instead was risking my long term health for what I thought would bring short term success. 

Within a few months, my weight was restored. I began running faster but more importantly, was the happiest I’d ever been. I still struggled with comparing my body to others and my old self. I remember feeling homesick for weeks in my changing body not recognizing who I saw in the mirror. But I channeled my competitive drive to recover and become the strongest version of myself. Recovery became a competition to me—one that I would not lose. I wanted to recover not only for myself but to show other struggling people that they can recover. I wrote a note to myself:

I kept this note in my drawer.

“Would you rather be remembered as the girl who broke down to look a certain way? Or remembered as the bad ass runner who was confident, strong, determined, and had a zest for life?”

I’m 18 now. I’ve won a state title in cross country and I’m committed to run D1. I’ve found the little Amber I once was. It was beautiful to watch myself form into a much wiser version of the girl I was before my eating disorder. Recovery has shown me how wonderful life can be. Ive been able to travel to Oregon attending a running camp where I created memories and friendships I will carry throughout the rest of my life. I traveled with my team to a running camp where our bond grew stronger than ever. I’ve even gone skydiving and shark diving. I’ve been able to be present with the people who mean the most to me, and yes, even eat the chocolate cake I used to love. All of which my eating disorder would never have allowed me to do.

Getting to this point has been more challenging than any race or workout could ever be. But it’s all been worth it. I’ve dealt with so many injuries and setbacks, but they’ve taught me to be a more resilient version of myself.

A strong mind and positive mindset are the foundation for a successful athlete and a fulfilling life. You can’t run fast and have longevity in the sport if you neglect your body. I’ve had to go through some pretty dark times to realize this sincerely. At the worst times of my eating disorder, I believed that my worth was based on my looks and performance on the track. I now realize that running is what I do, not who I am, and my eating disorder is part of my story but is not part of my future. My strong support system helped me realize this.

The running world can be a toxic place that promotes shallow comparison, but we’re all writing our stories, on entirely different pages and chapters. So remember the question I did: What do you want to be remembered for? Would you rather be remembered as the person who broke down to look a certain way? or remembered as the badass runner and PERSON who was confident, strong, determined, and had a zest for life?