Psychological Recovery Part I

By Molly Breslin | June 15, 2015, 5:21 p.m. (ET)

Unfortunately, most of us have experienced an illness or an injury that has sidelined us from our athletic pursuits. It's challenging enough to deal with these events from a physical standpoint. Managing the psychological aspects of the recovery process is just as important as managing the physical ones and can make or break your return to optimum athletic performance.

We all talk about the rational mind — but the mind can be terribly irrational when dealing with events that have emotional components to them. Triathlon isn't just swim, bike and run with a bunch of gear, training plans, race dates and entry fees. It's something we've committed to, it gives us purpose, makes us happy, diminishes our stress, and provides a social network. Whether you are a beginner or an Olympic contender, hopes and dreams are inextricably intertwined with the physical labors of training and racing.

In part one of this two-part series I will discuss dealing with the initial stages of psychologically recovering from illness or injury. This sets the platform for the psychology of actual physical recovery that comes later. Part two will focus on actual techniques to recover psychologically so that physical recovery will be successful.

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously defined the Five Stages of Grief. We tend to think of these stages as only being applicable to very large, devastating life events but they also apply to smaller disappointments and setbacks as well. Understanding and thoughtfully managing these stages is really the first step in recovering from illness/injury. Let's examine the five stages as they apply to use as injured or ill triathletes.

Stage 1 - Denial:
“This can't be happening to me. I've put all this time and effort into training for X Event.” “There is NO way I've ruptured my Achilles tendon. The doctor must be wrong!” Sound familiar? In this stage the athlete is incredulous that the scenario is actually happening to him or her and constructs an alternative paradigm in which the injury is not real or is minimal and can be overcome easily. Recognizing this part of the process is important — denial can lead to attempting to train or race with an injury/illness and that can be damaging physically.

Stage 2 - Anger:
This stage begins when the denial process can no longer be maintained — for instance, the athlete cannot walk due to the Achilles tendon rupture, yet alone complete their next speed workout. “This is so @*%#$ unfair! I don't deserve this!” “It must be because of the new shoes I bought last week.” “There is no way this should be happening to me — I've been working so hard at my training.” This stage can be ugly and unpleasant — but it's normal and necessary. Go ahead and let it all bubble to the surface, just be careful not to harm any innocent bystanders in the process.

Stage 3 - Bargaining:
In this stage the athlete makes attempts to compromise in some manner that she or he anticipates will minimize the situation/damage/disappointment. “I'll just cut back on my workouts this week so that I can hit hard next week when I'm feeling better.” “I’ll promise my doctor that I'll get more sleep at night so that I can keep up my training program.” “Giving up that one beer I have on Friday night will be a good way to get better faster.” Some level of denial is still working behind the scenes here. Once again, it's important not to do any more harm and prolong the recovery phase or worse yet cause irrevocable damage.

Stage 4 - Depression:

“I'm so bummed out that I'm not going to be racing. What's the point of all this training I've been doing?” “I gave up so much to do my training and spent so much money on a coach — and now it's all for what?” “Things will never be the same.” Once again, this is not a pretty state of mind to be in, but necessary for the recovery process. Go ahead and let these feelings arise. They don't make you weak or more ill or more injured. Your loss is significant and recognizing and honoring that is important. Allow yourself to be sad, but also be aware when sadness becomes problematic and effects normal functioning in life. Out of this stage will come the gratitude that will help bolster your recovery.

Stage 5: Acceptance:
“OK, I’ve ruptured my Achilles tendon. My racing season is over. I guess I'd better listen to my doctor and my coach and let this heal or next season will be a wash too.” Acceptance does not equal defeat. Here is where the athlete starts digging himself/herself out of the hole of illness/injury and takes the initial big steps toward a full recovery. There is a lot of power in this stage — the seeds of optimism take hold and will be begin to germinate into the foundation for a solid and successful recovery. The positive energy generated here will translate into the fuel that feeds the action steps of the recovery process that we will explore in part two

Molly Breslin, RN, M.S., CRNA is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. She is a former Wyoming State Triathlon Champion and earned national recognition as one the top 50 female triathletes in the United States in the Best of the U.S. Amateur Triathlon Competition. She holds a professional certification in Sports Nutrition and Nutrition for Optimal Health and Wellness from San Diego State University and is a Certified Health and Wellness Coach for Wellcoaches (an affiliate of the American College of Sports Medicine and Harvard University School of Medicine). Molly is the lead coach of 22Tri, LLC and Chrysalis Coaching, LLC. With an extensive background in critical care nursing and anesthesia Molly enjoys coaching athletes with health challenges. She resides in Jackson, Wyoming, and can be reached at breslin.molly@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.