IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

On the sidelines: Dealing with setbacks after an illness or exercise-related injury

The hardest part of recovery may be the mental work it takes to stay focused in the here and now.
By making some small adjustments in your routine you can still feel healthier.
The perpetual cycle of craving the next and bigger goal can leave you unhappy and unsatisfied.oneinchpunch / Shutterstock

Running is Alison Feller’s passion. Thanks to Crohn’s disease, however, the 33-year old freelance writer and host of the Ali on the Run podcast sometimes has to sit it out. In 2013, in fact, she entered a particularly long period of flare ups and missed a full two years of running.

Amazingly, Feller has learned to make peace with her reality, accepting where she is with her disease and ability to run. But it wasn’t without a good deal of dedicated hard work.

When it comes to fitness, the art of meeting yourself where you are — as Feller has done — can have a big impact on your sense of well being and happiness. This holds true whether you’re dealing with injury or illness, or at any point along your fitness journey. Staying present, realistic and accepting can lead to peace and positivity in your life.

“When you’re constantly looking to the next goal or place you want to be, you’re not enjoying where you are,” says Brad Stulberg, co-author of "Peak Performance" and soon-to-be-released "The Passion Paradox". “When you think of the future, it’s usually an emotion of excitement, which you can easily mistake for happiness.”

What’s at stake, however, is the very real potential for that excitement to eventually flame out. Left in its wake is a perpetual cycle of craving, which leaves you unhappy and unsatisfied.

Staying focused in the here and now

Meghan Wieser, a doctor of physical therapy and a CrossFit coach at Maryland-based Recharge, sees patients and clients alike who find themselves in this place of dissatisfaction. “Most people fall into one of two camps,” she says. “Those who take it for what it is and do what they can, and those who become frustrated and fight their current situation.”

Wieser works with patients/clients in the latter category to reach a place of acceptance so that they can get the most out of their therapy and/or workouts. “I like to help them remember a time in their lives where they’ve struggled and overcome the situation,” she says. “Then I remind them that at some point, they didn’t think they’d make it through, but they did.”

Pain and stress, says Wieser, manifests differently in each person and when you are fighting them, they will negatively impact your body and psyche. “Once I can get a patient to the point of acceptance, we start celebrating the little wins along the way. One more rep, for instance, or another degree of mobility.”

For Feller, the road to acceptance was long and bumpy. “I would try to run with flare ups but I finally reached a place where if I made more bathroom stops than miles run, it wasn’t worth it,” she says. “I wasn’t getting the mental benefits I needed.”

See clearly where you are right now. How do you feel in that place? Practice deep reflection without a goal.

Brad Stuhlberg

While she came to that realization, she still found herself pushing her return to running once her flare ups were over, and paying the price. “I would rush back in and wind up injured,” she says. “I finally learned there will always be a day when I can get back out there and that hurrying the process doesn’t pay.”

Stulberg says that excitement and having goals isn’t a bad thing, but that it’s risky when striving isn’t grounded. “Recognizing where you are is hard work, and few master it,” he says.

To get there takes practice, says Stulberg. “See clearly where you are right now,” he says. “How do you feel in that place? Practice deep reflection without a goal.”

Amelia Boone, a professional obstacle racer and endurance athlete, worked long and hard to get to this place. After suffering a femoral stress fracture in April 2016, she rushed her comeback and found herself with another that September, this time in her sacrum. “The pressure I felt to ‘come back’ on top was huge,” she says. “The first step I had to make was changing my language. I wasn’t ‘coming back,’ I was moving forward.”

The first step I had to make was changing my language. I wasn’t ‘coming back,’ I was moving forward.

Amelia Boone, professional obstacle racer and endurance athlete

Boone says that the process of trying to reclaim old victories made her miserable. “So I focused on one thing — enjoying being out there, regardless of how I placed,” she says. “Being thankful and grateful for every run and every race made me the happiest I’ve been with racing, even without the dominance I was used to having.”

As with Wieser’s advice, Boone has included the small victories along the way to help her stay present. “Find meaning in the process of where you are right now,” she says. “Trying to live up to a previous version of yourself is a fruitless endeavor.”

To find this peaceful place yourself, Stulberg recommends a few methods. “Journaling, meditation, and dedicated time to sit and feel everything are all good,” he says. “If you catch yourself drifting toward a goal, bring yourself back to the present.”

This is routine you need to return to over and over again, he says. “When you can recognize you are living in the future, switch behaviors and see how that feels,” he encourages.

Similar to Boone, Feller developed a practice of gratitude that aids in her acceptance — hers is a reminder that when she’s healthy, she gets to run. “It’s not easy, and we all have different approaches,” she says. “It’s important to find a healthy one that works for you.”


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.