Five Stages of Injury
Updated: Jan 30
There are only two kinds of athletes: those that have been and those that will be injured. You will probably be injured for one of any number of reasons during training or racing (if you haven’t been already) – improper intensity or endurance effort increases, insufficient rest, not listening to warning signals from your body, a lapse in concentration by a training partner, or some yahoo driver on a cell phone not paying attention to who’s around them.
This article isn’t about how to avoid injuries; a plethora (always liked that word) of articles and experts are readily available to help you train and race smart. What I’ve recently discovered is that the five healing stages from an injury are very similar to those an individual experiences from the death of a loved one or upon discovering their own terminal condition: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Of course there is no direct comparison to the ultimate grief and loss, but the names and the sequencing of the five stages also seem applicable to accepting and recovering from an injury.
So if I ignore it it’ll go away, right? Wrong. You do this initially with an injury to buffer the negative consequences until you can figure out how to deal with it. “I’m tough; I can train/race thru the pain; I can shake it off; It’ll pass.” are in immediate response to the disability AND precursors to the emotion that comes next.
So now reality sets in and you immediately rationalize away responsibility for what’s happened and blame someone or something else – your coach, the stupid steepness of the hill, loose aerobars, your Uncle in Florida --- you’ll try to displace all blame from yourself to more easily enter and rationalize the next stage of recovering from injury.
When anger doesn’t relieve the pain or make the swelling go down, you’ll agree to make a pact with yourself, the Devil, ANYONE who’ll help you face the initial denial and help get over being mad at the bike, cat, or anyone else nearby. You’ll try to cut the best deal with what you feel are the best odds of minimal rehab, all possible shortcuts, and minimal time with an elevated appendage. And when you don’t get to do it your way, the next stage is inevitable.
Then it hits you: confusion, self-doubt, fear. You withdraw, physically and mentally, because of a great sense of loss of control, be it money for race registration or travel, loss of connection with your contemporaries, or whatever it might be that’s disrupted your life and highlighted your vulnerability. You lose some of that mental sharpness and enthusiasm that previously sustained you. But somewhere in all this and the previous mental gymnastics, things get clearer and more defined and injury rehab gets on track.
OK, let’s deal with this and get through it. What are the options, what’s best for the short AND long term? You do what you can by yourself and in concert with a professional. Make the best of the scenario; if you can’t do one thing because of the injury, perhaps you now have the opportunity to focus your energy and motivation on something else to wisely use your time. Be positive, in plan and attitude.
The order that you go through these five stages is not always the same, nor is the time you may spend in any single one – it may be a few minutes to several weeks. But you DO go through these 5 stages; it’s natural and it’s OK to do it. The importance of the process is to get through the five stages quickly and without lingering on long-term negative effects.
Yeah, you messed up or somebody else did something stupid and you got injured. So prove your “metal” and get mentally and physically back on track as soon as practical. Similar to a training plan, your recovery must be systematic, realistic, and flexible for adjustment. Recognize and get yourself through the various mental stages of injury recovery and you can better help a friend when they go through the same process. You’ll be a stronger, smarter, and a better person and athlete in both instances. Just do it.