Psychology of Running Injuries
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
In my opinion as a running strength coach the vast majority of common running injuries I see happen often get explained away very quickly in physical terms. The runner didn’t warm-up properly, the runner tried to sprint too hard too early, the runner didn’t cool down properly, the runner ran too many repeats, the runner didn’t take a rest day, the runner tried to lift too heavy a weight in the gym etc. And from an immediate perspective and literal stand point these reasons might be correct. But smart coaches and scientists know that the brain controls the body (re: the psychobiological model proposed by Prof Sam Marcora) and psychology is the single most important factor in training and competing.
the brain controls the body
Hence ultimately when we diagnose the mechanical reason why a runner got injured we should also be addressing the psychology that lies behind it. Particularly in the case of athletes that have a history of being plagued by injury. Of course there are some runners who’s bodies just break down under an applied training stress even with great psychology. But for most, the truth is that avoiding injury starts with cultivating a better psychological approach.
cultivating a better psychological approach to training
In nutshell from all the examples I’ve seen the kind of preventable, unnecessary injuries I’m talking about result directly from poor decision making. This poor decision making seems initially as if it occurs in the heat of the moment, on the fly during the training sessions or racing, but in fact comes down to poor or a lack of decision making before the event and then a compounded lack of sticking to this made decision in the thick of the action. (How many runners knew they should have done this or that but never actually did it when it mattered?) This poor decision making most often results from a lack of impulse control. The impulse that pushes runners to out sprint an opponent to the line is also the impulse that if uncontrolled leads to a poor decision that can lead to an injury.
poor decision making resulting from lack of impulse control
I once heard a well known running coach state that there is no such thing as a bad coach. And that a coach should adopt a singular personal style of coaching all their athletes and it should be up to prospective coached athletes to decide whether that coach’s style is right for them. I don’t believe in either of these statements and certainly don’t coach this way on a weekly basis (even if it creates a lot less stress and work for the coach). I believe a coach is not just a mechanical teacher and programmer but is also an ad-hoc unofficial sports psychologist of sorts. If the coach wants their athletes to avoid injuries they should of course teach them physical skills like a thorough prep/warm-up but more than this they should coach them mentally to develop a calm, stable and controlled approach that will see them control their impulses, make better decisions and keep injury threats at arm’s length. This is a long term sustainable method that will better develop the person behind the athlete and empower the athlete when the coach is not there to help them.
a coach is also an ad-hoc unofficial sport psychologist
So in short what I’m describing is.. listen to the runner, understand their particular traits and psychological approaches (how they instinctively react to stress/pressure/setbacks), strengths and limitations and support them, guide them and verbally cue them during training in way that makes them feel self-assured, confident and trusting. Because when the athlete feels truly confident and trusting in their training, they’re much less likely to push too hard, cut corners in warming up, cut out their rest days or act on misguided impulses (particularly if the coach explains the point of the session or training plan to the runner).
If I was going to reference a well know endurance athlete who embodies this brilliantly, who has a long standing coach, who trusts their training is right, who controls their impulses masterfully and who has been at the top of their game for more than 20 years and is still breaking records injury free today. It would be Eliud Kipchoge.