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.