Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Every fitness enthusiast knows this inevitable truth: At some point, injury will strike. And being told to lay off training for a while can send your spirits plummeting.
If you want to recover more quickly and effectively from an injury (speaking here of a non-life-altering one), you’ve got to work on that mental game. “Your psychological mind and physical body are intertwined, and when you lack healthy outlets for your emotional content, your body can suffer,” says Allison Belger, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and owner of TJ’s Gyms in Marin County, California.
To get through this tough time, take the two-pronged approach below.
Use Your Mind
Mental imagery is nothing new in the world of sports. Athletes use it all the time to prep themselves for competition. Now fascinating research shows that if you’re laid up with an injury, simply picturing yourself exercising could help prevent strength loss.
The idea sounds too simple to be true. Yet when college-aged young adults wore a fake cast on a non-dominant arm and then underwent four weeks of mental imagery in which they visualized themselves contracting those muscles five times a week, they lost less strength than another group who wore fake casts but didn’t do visualization. While the non-imagery group lost 45 percent of their strength, the imagery group experienced only a 24 percent loss, according to a study in the Journal of Neurophysiology.
What’s going on? It comes down to brain stimulation. “When you do imagined contractions like this, parts of the brain involved in motor skills light up,” says Brian C. Clark, Ph.D., lead study author and professor of physiology and neuroscience at Ohio University. “Imagery helps the brain remember how to activate the muscles maximally.”
To make it work, picture yourself doing the moves. “Although there’s evidence that you can learn tasks by watching other people, mentally seeing yourself do a move is more effective in activating the part of the brain responsible for motor-task performance,” Clark says.
No question injury can be a serious setback to the fitness-minded, not only physically but also psychologically. As a result, it’s normal to feel emotions like anxiety, isolation and depression.
Some individuals, though, can suffer more than others. “People whose identities and social lives are significantly linked with their fitness are more likely to experience a great deal of sadness when they can’t participate,” says Belger, adding that they may feel left out of their social group, even envious of non-injured friends.
If these feelings lead to obsessive rumination about the injury, serious feelings of isolation, pronounced thoughts of worthlessness or depressive symptoms that affect your work, relationships or other aspects of your life, seek professional help. You can take care of that psychological self and help maintain a positive attitude to bolster your recovery with three simple strategies:
1. Get social: Make sure your social connections are strong. Easier said than done when laid up? Not necessarily. “There are ways to stay engaged, and you need to work to make sure that happens,” Belger says. Start by looking for an alternative role with your team or health club. For instance, try sideline coaching or help record workout stats.
2. Keep a journal: The more negative your feelings, the more crucial it is to get them out. “Research has shown that these feelings can pose problems when managing injuries,” Belger says. Use that journal to set and record recovery goals, too.
3. Diversify: Fitness fanatics can be guilty of getting caught up in busy workout routines and placing social lives second to fitness. Yet as Belger cautions, “Putting all your eggs in one basket is risky, as your whole world is then affected by injury.” In addition to training your body, cultivate other aspects of yourself so you’ll have something else to focus on while your injury heals.
Plain and simple, injury can be a real bummer. Fight back by putting your brain to work while you’re recouping, and you might find yourself back in action sooner than expected.