In the third week of the Coping with an Injury series, we feature professional Asics runner, Rachel Johnson.
Please introduce yourself! (Name, age, hometown, event)
My name is Rachel Johnson. I’m originally from Plano, Texas (a suburb of Dallas) where I ran for Plano Senior High. After high school I ran at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Now I am running professionally for Asics and am on the ASICS Furman Elite Team in Greenville, South Carolina. I primarily run the steeplechase but I like longer races like the 5k and 10k too!
What are your interests outside of running?
I love anything outdoorsy with friends! Hiking, hammocking, and exploring are fun for me but I try to make rest a priority in intense training so I like doing that stuff in the offseason or easier weeks. Other than that I love reading, writing, doodling, playing my ukulele, coffee, hanging with friends, and music.
Do you believe getting through an injury is as much of a mental challenge as physical?
Yes! As runners, I’ve found that most of us are pretty hard working, determined, and Type A (at least when it comes to our running). It’s really hard to tell yourself to take a break or stop when really that may be the best thing for you so I think that’s the first mental challenge to get over; you have to know when to stop. If you can stop before something gets really bad, sometimes you just have to take a couple days off/easy as opposed to a few weeks or months. If your injury is something that will take longer to heal, I think it’s important to be calm during that time and know that time off is what is best for you. Sometimes injuries can be caused just because an athlete is super stressed so continuing to stress about things can just make the healing process longer or lead to an injury coming back. The next mental challenge comes up when you start running again. I’ve found that a lot of questions run through my head when I’m coming back from an injury: Is it going to hurt again? Is this feeling normal? Am I going to be in good shape coming back? Have I lost my season? Will I still be able to race well? How fast can I come back while still keeping safe and preventing this from happening again? How did this injury happen in the first place? Am I even confident in myself anymore? Does anyone believe in me anymore? Those are all real questions and thoughts that I’ve had to deal with coming back from an injury. They’re hard questions, questions filled with unknown answers and sometimes doubt. In the end, I have to tell myself why I’m still doing what I’m doing: I do still believe in myself. I believe in better training and faster times. I believe that I can find the reason why I got injured in the first place and I can prevent that in the future. I may not know what kind of shape I’ll be in coming back but all I can do is live where I am in the moment. If I can cross train, I’ll do what I can in each workout to come back strong. When I start running, I’ll accept where I am and not worry about where I “could” be because the truth is, that’s just a guess and it’s not where I actually am so thinking about it won’t help me in any way. If I can do my best each day in whatever situation I’m in then when I get in a race, I can tell myself that I’m in the best shape I could possibly be in at that point and that gives me a lot of confidence going into a race whether I had “perfect” training or bumps in the road because I know that I am the most prepared I could possibly be at that moment. I surround myself with positive people who believe in me, encourage me, and are honest with me so I’m strong because I am around other people who build me up and I believe in myself too. Getting through mental challenges is hard but you don’t and shouldn’t have to do it alone! Believe in yourself, live in the moment, and surround yourself with people who are real with you, encourage you, and want the best for you.
What advice do you have for those battling an injury?
Being injured, you kind of go through a mourning process; you know, the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance). The faster you can get to that acceptance part, the better it will be. I’ve found that if I’m injured, I’m a lot less stressed when I know what the problem is and have a plan in place to fix it or get better. If I know those things, it’s easier for me to set goals and feel like I’m moving towards something instead of feeling confused about what’s wrong or hopeless because something is hurting. So my advice is to get to a doctor and really figure out what’s going on. Once you know what the problem is, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to do moving forward whether that’s resting or some type of crosstraining. I think it’s also very important to listen to your body. If something is hurting, don’t push it; you could end up taking steps back instead of forward and making the injury worse. A couple days off or crosstraining is a whole lot better than weeks or months off!
What kind of experience do you have of dealing with an injury?
In high school I tore a ligament in my knee which is a really weird injury for a runner (I think that one happened from stepping wrong on a muddy cross country course). That was my senior year in January. I took three weeks completely off with no training at all, cross trained for one week, and then got back to running. I ended up PRing at the end of the season! I was very fortunate in college and never got injured. Since college I’ve had tendinitis in my Achilles and I got my first stress fracture this past summer so I am working with my coach now and trying to figure out what to change and how to prevent injuries in the future.
Looking back at injuries you went through, do you believe they made you stronger as an athlete? Please explain.
I think that my injuries are part of my story and what’s happened in the past is something I can’t change. I don’t know if I would be stronger as an athlete with or without them but I do have the chance to look back and try to figure out what caused them so I can prevent them in the future. I think it’s important to look back on the past and find out what caused a problem, come up with a plan on how to fix it, and then put that plan into action in the present. I don’t think that we are meant to dwell on the past for long amounts of time; we are in the present and that’s all we have right now so do what you can with the time you are given in the moment.
What are some of your favorite cross training and/or rehab exercises?
This summer I aqua jogged a lot! Furman has a great rehab pool that’s deep enough to aqua jog in so I spent a good amount of time in there. I think the pool helped me heal fully while still staying in relatively good shape because it is zero impact. I also really like the elliptical/elliptigo when I was able to handle more impact. We have a bunch of elliptigos at Furman and those are a superrr fun way to get in some crosstraining (and it’s funny to watch people’s faces when you roll by on one of those). I would use the stationary elliptical if I wanted to get in a fartlek or harder effort because it’s easier to get a good workout since there aren’t people or cars to avoid. I think biking is fun but it’s probably the least effective way for me to stay in good running shape because I’m using very different muscles and have to bike way longer than an ellipticalling or aqua jogging to get the same aerobic benefits. It all depends on what your injury is too; sometimes elliptical isn’t good for an injury but biking is fine so you have to take that into consideration as well. It was also important for me to keep up with core work while I was injured so I would do a core circuit three or four times a week with lots of planks, hip/glute strengthening exercises, and med ball/bosu ball exercises. Going to a physical therapist/athletic trainer can be great too! They can find where your weaknesses are and give you exercises to strengthen you and get you back stronger and more balanced than before.
Are there any specific quotes, blogs, podcasts, social media sites, etc. that helped you through an injury?
I can’t really think of any running sites that helped me through my injury. I really like TED talks because I find different perspectives on life and hear how others have handled adversity or bettered themselves but I listen to those even when I’m running well. Honestly, my faith, family, and friends were the things that helped me get through it the best. It was very important for me to lean on those things because I think that as a runner, whether you’re injured or doing well, it’s all about balance. When I was healthy and running well, I kept up good relationships. Now if I get injured or have a bad race or workout, I can lean on those people for support. In the same way, if I have a great workout or race and things are going well, I have people who are invested in me and want to celebrate with me which makes running much more fun. Keeping my faith and having my family and friends around me also reminds me that there’s much more to life than running. Running is something I love to do and I have very high goals set for myself in this sport but it’s not everything to me and I don’t think it should be anyone’s everything. When I was injured, it was definitely a hard time for me but life was still fun because I had other things in my life that were important to me. Balance is key for me in any point in my running journey, injured or not!
Any last words of wisdom (related to an injury or not)?
Wherever you are in running whether that’s injured, in a training hole, wondering why you’re not racing as well as you want to, or training and racing amazingly, remember to enjoy the entire process. There are things you can learn and that will help you grow as a person and as a runner at every point in your journey if you are open to listening for them and learning them.
So many thanks to Rachel for her vulnerability! Follow her on Instgram @rachrunsworld and be sure to check out her personal blog, rachrunsworld.com