As a committed runner, we all know that the hardest part isn’t the daily training we do. Instead, it’s coping with an injury when you can’t run at all. A non-runner would think downtime is a welcome break from running, but just the opposite is true. An injured runner often becomes cranky and irritable and lacks patience with everyone around him. Instead of seeing the bright side—i.e., that almost all runners are back after just a few weeks of laying off—an injured runner’s mood often worsens to the point where they are unpleasant to be around.
It’s called Runner’s Withdrawal Syndrome and it happens whenever a runner gets so sick or injured that he/she simply has to stop running. The psychological pain of runner’s withdrawal is often worse than the injury itself.
Runner’s withdrawal isn’t unusual when you consider it in the greater scheme of life. Whenever you have to give up something which is an important part of your life, withdrawal occurs. Typically, we associate withdrawal with negative habits such as addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling or tobacco. Such a negative addiction takes control over one’s life and the only way to retake control is to quit the habit. When you quit such a disgusting habit that has exerted too much control over your life, there are all sorts of physical and psychological dependencies that one must overcome.
Fortunately, running is a positive addiction. But it is an addiction nonetheless and it can exert some degree of control over your life. The basic difference between a positive addiction like running and a negative addiction like drugs is how much each can control your life. A cocaine-addicted person is consumed with the need to get high and this need can take precedence over everything else. A positively addicted runner enjoys running every day and feels the need to run, yet is able to skip a day or two without undergoing any withdrawal symptoms. Anything longer than that is when problems occur.
Most of us started running for varied reasons such as weight control, cardiovascular strength, conditioning or some other health reason. As we become fitter and fitter and more involved in it, runners discover the beneficial side effects such as an overall good feeling of accomplishment. The joy of running becomes an important element in our life.
To maintain these positive effects, running becomes habitual, a way to reinforce a positive sense of well-being. It becomes an intrinsic part of your life and daily routine. Just like you brush your teeth, you run.
This positive addiction works well until something breaks down. Usually it’s an injury which prevents the now addicted runner from what has become habitual.
Whenever the positively addicted runner is forced to stop running, withdrawal symptoms will begin within a few days. When this happens, the withdrawal symptoms can range from extreme emotions such as anxiety, tension, depression, irritability and guilt to physical sensations such as feelings of being bloated, sluggish, lethargic and there is often muscular twitching.
Why this happens so dramatically, many experts believe, is habitual runners who stop simply revert back to their pre-running emotional states. Another words, you go back to feeling like you did before you ran. You don’t necessarily feel worse than you used to, but you are no longer used to what that old sluggish feeling felt like. And, can’t remedy it with a run.
How pronounced the withdrawal symptoms can be depends on how dependent you are on running to cope with those old feelings. For example, if you use running to cope with stress or depression, when you are forced to stop running, it only makes sense that you will be more susceptible to that same stress or depression again. Others use running for their daily fix of positive self-esteem. But without being able to run and get that daily reinforcement, the self-image will suffer.
Typically, these withdrawals symptoms are the most severe with runners who are in their 30s and 40s. They have become so devoted to their running they have developed a dependency on it for all sorts of reasons, including the belief that running will make them live a healthier, longer life. When they can’t run, they have very real fears of ineffectiveness, aging and physical decline.
It’s not a pretty picture.
The most obvious way to deal with being injured is to take every step preventive measure you can take so you won’t get injured in the first place. Wear the right shoes, don’t overtrain, stretch, hydrate and eating properly should be the first orders of business.
But almost all runners get injured at some point and can’t run. If (when?) that happens to you, it is important to try to do something to maintain your fitness and give yourself an exercise outlet, other than running. Whether it’s golf, yoga, rowing, tennis, swimming or cycling—whatever floats your boat—find something physical you enjoy doing to substitute for the time you spent running.
Maintaining your fitness level while you’re injured will not only provide physical benefits, but will help to alleviate the runner’s withdrawal symptoms. The better you are at other recreational sports will allow you to switch gears easier if you are unable to run. That’s why it’s a good idea to not allow yourself to get totally dependent on running for your physical outlet. Learn other sports and learn how to enjoy them. Doing so, will make you less psychologically vulnerable if you can’t run. Plus, you’ll be a lot more pleasant to be around.
Lastly, try to understand what’s happening to you when you can’t run. It’s only temporary. Don’t try to deny your emotions, but understand you can counter some of them by doing something else physical and enjoyable.
And don’t worry: Most injured runners are back on the roads in a matter of weeks.