Running Scared? You Could Be Suffering From Sports PTSD!


Brace yourselves, Midpack Readers! I have an embarrassing confession to make.

I’m… afraid to run!

There, I said it! I harbor a great sense of fear around my favorite sport.

My fear is there each time I lace up my running shoes. It stands with me, elbow-to-elbow, as I line up in the starting corrals. And, as fast as I try to run, it’s always right behind me: my silent, unshakeable running partner.

It’s an awful way for a runner to live. But it wasn’t always this way…

Cue the flashback!

I was running strong this time last year aside from some minor and occasional iliotibial flare ups, easily managed with a good solid foam roller. I was cruising along in maintenance mode at a comfortable 30 miles per week. Things felt good.

Then, one day, everything changed dramatically.

I went out for a quick 5-miler. It was an easy out-and-back, and mostly flat by Seattle standards. My wife and I were running together (at her pace like a considerate running partner). But, around mile 2, she could tell I was getting antsy and told me to run off ahead.

Things were going fine, when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in the arch of my right foot. I knew better but, like a true runner (read: stubborn), I pushed through the pain for a few hundred yards. Stupid, stupid idea!

When my wife caught up to me, I was sitting down by the side of the road, unable to stand or walk.

Following the “car ride of shame,” a trip to the podiatrist confirmed my worst fear: plantar fasciitis. The doctor ordered a 3 month break in training and several cortisone shots from some very large needles.

But the real damage was deeper than some plantar fascia pain.

I spent months unable to participate in the one activity that brought me the greatest joy. I started to question my own identity as a runner. Would I always be in pain? Would I ever be able to run again?

When I was finally cleared to run, the very thought of running made me anxious. A lot of days, it was hard to get myself out the door. The fear that another injury could strike me at any time – that I could regain my running only to lose it again – was difficult to push through.

But I found some comfort in knowing that I wasn’t alone in my fear.

The psychology of injury

It’s been well documented that athletes who suffer a sudden, traumatic injury are prone to a whole host of psychological symptoms not unlike post traumatic stress. More insidious is that these same symptoms are common among athletes suffering from even relatively minor injuries for a prolonged period of time.

Following an injury, it can be difficult for an injured athlete to return to full, pre-injury form. Thoughts of the possibility of re-injury can become overwhelming. Even when you’ve returned to peak physical condition, you might not be performing psychologically.

In short, you’re running scared.

Scared of re-injuring yourself. Scared of losing your ability to perform and, with it, a part of your identity. What good is it being a runner if you can’t run?

Those who do return to running usually find, like I did, that they fear each run. And that fear can translate into altered form, and even an increased chance of re-injury.

So, how do you get over a traumatic injury? I wish I could tell you. Right now, I’m just trying to focus on the good times I’ve had running. They certainly outnumber that one bad run. With any luck, the good runs always will.

Have you ever fallen victim to a running injury? How did you ditch your fear of re-injury? If you’ve been lucky enough to run injury free, does hearing about other runners’ injuries make you worry about it happening to you? Leave me some love in the comments.

  5 Responses to Running Scared? You Could Be Suffering From Sports PTSD!
  1. About 5 years ago I was going for a long beach run in preparation for a half-marathon. I began my run as usual, and less than a 1/4 mile I felt a sharp, hot pain in my left calf and pulled up lame. I could walk, though I was limping, but certainly could not run. The next day the calf was swollen so that you couldn’t see a calf muscle. I went to the doctor: torn calf muscle. I underwent physical therapy. As it turned out, I quit running and did not start back until October of last year. Even so, after all that time, the injury remained in my mind, especially feeling vulnerable since it had been such a long lay-off. I walk my dog for 2 miles at a brisk pace to warm-up my legs now, and then do a good stretching routine before running. I am to this day always conscious of the state of my calves when I begin to stretch them: “Is the left one feeling tight today”? I simply had to resign myself to the fact that I warm-up well with the walk and do a good stretch before running. But, when running sometimes I may feel a little “pain” in one calf or the other, usually just a quick little jolt and then it’s gone. But, yeah, I haven’t forgotten it even after all those years. Peace and Love!

    • Tim Woodbury

      Ouch, Ricky!! That’s way worse than some fasciitis! You said it took almost 5 years to get back to running. How much of that was physical recovery time?

      I’m not sure I could bring myself to run again after a torn muscle. I don’t blame you for being hypersensitive on runs.

      • Hey Tim! No, it didn’t take the 5 years to recover. It actually was only about 3 months, but during that time I just succumbed to the stress and time demands of work and trying to find time for self and family outside of that. I just slacked off, got out of shape and gained a lot of weight. As a matter of fact, I went to the same spot at the beach Sunday where the injury occurred, for my first beach run of the year: 14 miles! That made a 65 mile week – the first time ever that I’ve had a 60 mile week, let alone 65! So the calf and all seem fine. I’ll just keep doing good pre and post stretches and stay tuned into my body. Peace and Love!

  2. Great post! I totally know what you mean, and having experienced (and recovered from!) many injuries, I can say that you just have to remember that you WILL recover. There will be a time when you look back on now and think, ‘Wow that sucked,” and then go on with your pain-free run.

    • Tim Woodbury

      Great point, Mollie. I just wish I were a more patient runner – although, in fairness, I don’t know anyone who likes sitting out.

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