Can Mindfulness Help Injury Rehab?

Our physical therapist's take on how practicing mindfulness can help aid your recovery.

All our injury and recovery resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Injury Guidelines.

Running has been a mainstay of mine for as long as I can remember. I learned from a young age that I could effectively channel anxious emotions before I had any concept of what anxiety was.

Amateurs and pros alike, you probably run for a wide array of reasons. Running has been shown to have profound positive effects on your physical, emotional, and social well-being.

When a pesky injury rears its ugly head and forces me to hang up my running shoes for a period of time, it’s always a mental and emotional battle, as well as a physical one.

Turns out, this is a common experience for many runners. Any runner, regardless of how fast or far they can run, is likely to experience a degree of sadness and even depression when injured.

Research has confirmed that there is a positive correlation between mindfulness and being better able to regulate emotion.1Tang, Y., Liu, Y., Jing, L., Wang, H., & Yang, J. (2022). Mindfulness and Regulatory Emotional Self-Efficacy of Injured Athletes Returning to Sports: The Mediating Role of Competitive State Anxiety and Athlete Burnout. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(18), 11702. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191811702

‌Let’s delve into the science, the practices, and the anecdotes that unveil the intersection of mindfulness and running recovery.

Mindfulness written in the sand.

What is mindfulness?

The concept of mindfulness finds its historical origins in ancient Buddhist and Hindu spiritual traditions. The term ‘mindfulness’ is derived from the Buddhist notion of sati, denoting “awareness” in Pali.

In contemporary Western understanding, mindfulness has evolved from its spiritual roots to predominantly secular applications.

Mindfulness, as a learnable technique, revolves around the act of observing and acknowledging the current moment without passing judgment. It involves cultivating awareness of one’s thoughts, body, or immediate surroundings.

The skills cultivated by mindfulness are versatile and can be applied anywhere, at any time, regardless of the activity at hand. While meditation serves as an effective means to enhance mindfulness, it is by no means the exclusive avenue.

What do you have to deal with when you get injured?

Let’s unpack the reality of injury for many runners.

A runner with their hand on their head, in pain.

#1: Physical Pain

First and foremost, there’s the immediate physical impact. Injuries can hurt, and that sucks.

But it’s not just pain; the journey is marked by a series of emotional and practical hurdles that demand resilience and careful management.

#2: Loss Of Identity

For a runner whose world revolves around the rhythm of the road or the track, the inability to maintain that routine due to injury can be disheartening. This can lead to a momentary loss of identity.

For many runners, their sport isn’t just an activity; it’s a part of who they are. Losing that identity, even temporarily, can lead to a sense of emptiness.

This can be a painful process and a search for alternative ways to look after oneself, good or bad, during the healing process.

Purpose, intricately linked to identity, also takes a hit. Unable to pursue training goals or participate in races, the athlete might grapple with a sense of aimlessness.

A runner lying on a track, injured.

#3: No Running!

Then comes the inevitable shift in priorities and a loss of the actual experience of running. The time that was once dedicated to running through woodland trails is now redirected toward medical appointments, physical therapy, and rehabilitation exercises.

Runners find themselves recalibrating their daily lives, adjusting to a new normal that revolves around healing rather than running.

#4: Lack Of Psychological Coping Mechanism

Running is a great emotional regulator. There are few things that are more effective than popping on some good tunes and blasting out a run in the wind and the rain.

On the emotional front, the psychological toll can be profound. Anger, frustration, and anxiety can become frequent visitors as uncertainty about the extent of the injury lingers.

Sometimes, it feels like an injury will go on forever.

#4: Loss Of Social Life

Additionally, losing the social aspect of running contributes to the challenge.

If you lose the camaraderie built during group runs or races, it is at risk of being replaced by a sense of isolation. Watching fellow runners continue their journeys while sidelined can intensify the feeling of being left behind.

A person speaking with someone.

How does mindfulness help with recovery?

The primary intersections between mindfulness and injury recovery are:

#1: Pain Tolerance

When applied to pain, this practice can reshape the way individuals perceive and respond to their physical discomfort.2Mohammed, W. A., Pappous, A., & Sharma, D. (2018). Effect of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Increasing Pain Tolerance and Improving the Mental Health of Injured Athletes. Frontiers in Psychology9(722). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00722

‌Mindfulness directs attention to the current moment. When individuals are in pain, rather than projecting into an anticipated future escalation of discomfort, mindfulness encourages them to focus on the sensations they are presently experiencing.

Pain is not solely about the physical sensation; it is profoundly influenced by the emotional and cognitive responses to that sensation.

Mindfulness helps individuals disentangle the actual physical sensation of pain from the anticipation of its escalation. By staying attuned to the current moment, individuals can observe the pain without being overwhelmed by the fear of it getting worse.

Scientific studies have supported the efficacy of mindfulness in influencing pain perception.

Research indicates that mindfulness meditation can lead to changes in brain activity associated with pain processing, potentially altering the emotional and cognitive dimensions of pain.3Zeidan, F., Grant, J. A., Brown, C. A., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters520(2), 165–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2012.03.082

A person with their eyes closed.

#2: Awareness Of Physical Sensations

Mindfulness becomes a powerful ally for injured runners undergoing physical therapy. It encourages them to tune into their bodies with heightened awareness, recognizing subtle changes, discomfort, and progress during rehabilitation exercises.

This self-awareness aids in customizing the physical therapy routine, ensuring exercises align with the individual’s current capabilities and needs.

#3: Stress Reduction

Catastrophizing, or expecting the worst possible outcome, is a common cognitive response to pain. Mindfulness promotes non-judgmental observation of thoughts.

By acknowledging and accepting the current situation without catastrophic projections, individuals can mitigate the mental and emotional burden associated with pain.

#4: Emotional Regulation

Injuries often bring a flood of negative thoughts regarding setbacks, fear of re-injury, or doubts about recovery. Mindfulness equips individuals with coping mechanisms that extend beyond the avoidance of discomfort.

A person breathing deeply.

Instead of instinctively trying to escape or resist discomfort, individuals can develop a more adaptive response by acknowledging the pain, understanding it as a passing sensation, and responding with mindfulness-based strategies.

Mindfulness empowers injured runners to regulate their thoughts and emotions during challenging exercises or moments of frustration.

By cultivating a mindful approach, they gain control over reactions to physical discomfort, fostering resilience and a positive mindset crucial for successful rehabilitation.

#5: Cultivating Self-Compassion Throughout Recovery

Physical therapy can be demanding, both physically and mentally. Mindfulness plays a pivotal role in cultivating self-compassion among injured runners.

It encourages them to treat themselves with kindness, acknowledging that the recovery journey is a process.

This positive and nurturing inner dialogue becomes a source of strength during physical therapy, fostering resilience and supporting a healthier approach to rehabilitation.

A person taking a deep breath.

How to get started with a mindfulness practice

So, we’ve covered the ins and outs of how mindfulness can affect recovery from injury. These exercises aren’t directly related to injury rehabilitation but will help foster a more present awareness.

Now, let’s dive into four practical exercises tailored to integrate mindfulness into your daily routine seamlessly:

#1: Mindful Breaths

Tap into the power of the breath, a natural ally in managing stress and enhancing focus. Throughout your day, take mindful breathing breaks – a few deep, intentional breaths multiple times.

Whether it’s in the morning, during work, on a lunch break, or before bedtime, these moments of focused breathing take just a few minutes but can significantly reduce anxiety, promoting a calmer and more centered mindset.

People lying down on the floor.

#2: Body Scan

Introduce a brief body scan into your routine to bring your focus to the present moment.

Close your eyes if comfortable or keep them open; start by paying attention to sensations from the top of your head down to your toes.

Notice how your breath aligns with each area of your body. This practice helps release tension, providing a mindful pause during potentially hectic or stressful moments in your day.

#3: Engaged Conversation

Incorporate mindfulness into your daily interactions. When engaged in conversations, put away distractions – let your phone rest.

Maintain eye contact with others, signaling your full presence and engagement. Practice listening actively, letting the other person finish before responding.

This mindful communication fosters connection, enhancing the quality of your interactions throughout the day.

People in conversation.

#4: Gratitude

Regularly practice gratitude in your daily routine.

Take mindful moments to appreciate simple pleasures – the fact you can run, the warmth of your morning beverage, the beauty of nature, or a moment shared with a friend.

Express gratitude for the small joys and the people around you. Whether it’s savoring a bite of food or thanking someone for a kind gesture, these gratitude moments amplify positivity in your everyday life.

These uncomplicated yet potent mindfulness techniques can transform your daily experiences.

Final Thoughts

Integrating mindfulness into the rehabilitation journey of an injured runner undergoing physical therapy brings multifaceted benefits.

It enhances self-awareness, promotes a sense of calm amid stress, empowers emotional regulation, provides tools to address challenging thoughts, and cultivates self-compassion.

Collectively, these aspects contribute to a more holistic and effective recovery process.

The words mind, body and soul written on rocks.

References

  • 1
    Tang, Y., Liu, Y., Jing, L., Wang, H., & Yang, J. (2022). Mindfulness and Regulatory Emotional Self-Efficacy of Injured Athletes Returning to Sports: The Mediating Role of Competitive State Anxiety and Athlete Burnout. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(18), 11702. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191811702
  • 2
    Mohammed, W. A., Pappous, A., & Sharma, D. (2018). Effect of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Increasing Pain Tolerance and Improving the Mental Health of Injured Athletes. Frontiers in Psychology9(722). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00722
  • 3
    Zeidan, F., Grant, J. A., Brown, C. A., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters520(2), 165–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2012.03.082
Photo of author
Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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