How Your Mind Can Make You Lose Heart

sports injury, sports psychology

 CEU Article Title: Head Strong

Whether you are a runner, cyclist, or tri-athlete you share a passion for your sport with fellow athletes. So when an injury prevents you from your passion, it’s hard to stay headstrong. As an athlete, you may not understand the chemistry of your endorphin high but you sure know how it feels. So when that high is taken away for a week, two weeks, a month or more… it can be challenging to keep your head in the game.

Endorphin acts like a drug

Let’s start by understanding why we feel the way we do: Endorphins are chemically related to morphine*. Morphine is extremely addicting as we all know. When you exercise for extended periods of time, during endurance sports, your pituitary gland releases substantial amounts of endorphins. They are released when you put your body under stress. These endorphins create a state of athletic euphoria. Athletic euphoria is a state in which an athlete “feels no pain” and surges through discomforts and possible injury. Endorphins act as analgesics. Analgesics create a lack of sensory perception to pain and an inability to react to pain while still being conscious; which basically means they diminish the perception of pain.

Endorphins also act as sedatives.

Sedatives tend to calm or tranquilize nervousness or excitement. Knowing how endorphins can chemically create that aforementioned euphoric feeling by allowing the body to mask, diminish, or simply push through pain and discomfort; you understand how this state can be a detriment to the athlete. Endorphins are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of your body and then released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neuron receptors that endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. Unlike morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence; as with some pain medications.

Science weighs in…

Recent studies have shown that the more physically fit an athlete is, the more receptive he is to endorphins. As intensity and duration of an athlete’s sport increases, so does the release of endorphins. The downside is that increased exposure to endorphins makes an athlete more addicted to their sport and it allows an athlete to train harder because of their higher pain threshold and increased energy enabled by the endorphins. You may be thinking this is great, especially if you are an endurance athlete. Unfortunately, this state of athletic euphoria can sometimes push athletes beyond their physical limits causing them injury. The good news is that regular exercise strengthens your heart, increases energy levels, lowers blood pressure, improves muscle tone and reduces body fat. The bad news is that all athletes will be injured at one point in their career; whether they are a weekend warriors or professionally paid. The common thread is that all sidelined athletes are susceptible to depression, anxiety, moodiness, irritability, weight-gain, insomnia and low self esteem. So whether you’re missing your weekend long run or your 5x week track workouts, you need to know how to cope with your injury. The sooner you can get back in the game, the better off you’ll be; both physically and mentally.

How to cope with an injury:

Athletes react to injuries with a multitude of emotion – anger, denial, frustration, sadness and sometimes depression. Here are a few psychological strategies to help any athlete keep their head strong and in the game.

First, learn about your injury**. The more you know, the better you will feel. You will have less anxiety and feel a greater sense of control over your injury. Remember, your injury is not you. It is merely a part of your whole.

Ask questions about the cause, treatment and prevention of your injury to your doctor, coach, or trainer. The internet provides a wealth of resources to educate you on common injuries. If you are not certain of your injury, seek medical attention. The longer you wait, the longer your rehabilitation.

Next, set appropriate goals for yourself based on your doctor’s diagnosis. Keeping a positive attitude is going to be your biggest asset in your recovery; remember back to a race when you had to dig deep…find that courage and remember how it feels. Once you’ve set your goals, stay focused on getting better. Your goals are no longer about performance. Your goals should be about your recovery. Athletes tend to try and speed up recovery by doing too much too soon. Know your limits. Be patient and create a healthy guideline using a calendar.

It helps to visualize goals. It also helps to be able to cross off days or milestones as your recovery progresses. Depending upon the type of injury you have, you may be able to modify your training. Many athletes have secondary sports they use on typical cross training days. Work with your doctor or trainer to create an exercise plan that will help maintain your cardiovascular conditioning and strength. Perhaps you can cycle, swim or study yoga or Pilates. A low impact sport may be an option.

Let the sunshine in…

Most importantly, maintain a positive attitude by staying connected. It is sometimes more comfortable to retreat when an injury has occurred. An athlete may no longer feel a part of his sport community, because he cannot train or compete. DO NOT isolate yourself. Go hang out at the track. Go volunteer your time at an aid station or SAG stop. Call your buddies to vent your frustrations. You may find comfort in knowing you don’t have to face your injury alone. Sign up at Runner’ and receive daily inspirational quotes, read your favorite cycling blog or follow a favorite athlete’s tweets.

Whatever you do, stay connected while remaining focused on your rehabilitation. Every athlete has been forced to take time off from their preferred sport. Armed with the right knowledge and attitude, your world does not need to be upside down. Your injury is not your identity.

You have the power to create. Stay headstrong and keep your heart in the game… even when your body can’t be.

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