Growing Pains

Patience is key in coming back from an injury. 2016 Olympian Alexi Pappas reflects on lessons learned from the comeback trail. – Photo courtesy Alexi Pappas

As a runner, few things are more impressive than watching an elite athlete crushing a workout at the peak of his or her fitness. I’ve had so many moments just stretching on the sidelines of Hayward Field or the South Eugene High School track where I look at my peers in awe. But especially after my recovery from an injury last spring, I’ve also come to deeply appreciate, respect, and admire athletes who have come back from an injury and re-built their fitness from scratch. The journey from 0 to 1 on the fitness scale is just as awe-inspiring to me as the journey from 9 to 10. It takes mental and physical fitness to run insanely fast workouts. But it takes an entirely different kind of mental fitness – and pain tolerance – to get out for your first 20-minute jog when you’ve been sidelined from an injury.

Alexi on the cross country course, running for Dartmouth. – Photo courtesy Alexi Pappas

The longest break I ever took from running was 2 years—my junior and senior years of high school. After placing 4th in the California State Cross Country Championships as a sophomore, I was kicked off my team by a coach who felt I should not be spending any time with other activities – student government, theater, and soccer, to name a few. I wouldn’t lace up in running shoes again until my freshman year at Dartmouth. In my first workout with the team, I had to walk after just a few minutes into a five mile run. In my first cross-country race, I finished dead last, and in my first championship race, I crawled across the finish line.

At first I felt extremely frustrated. I knew I was capable of more, but two major hurdles were in my way. The first was extreme pain. Put simply, it hurts to run five miles when you’re not used to running anything at all. My memories of carefree hour-long runs felt like they belonged to someone else. There’s a steep learning curve on the road to regaining fitness. My coach likes to call this “getting in shape to get in shape.” There is a definite threshold to overcome – and until you do, every mile hurts.

The second hurdle was more mental. It was humiliating to have to walk during workouts when girls with PR’s slower than mine were running circles around me. I had to develop a different kind of mental fitness than I was used to. Luckily, I had an incredible coach and supportive family and friends. They helped me to understand that every runner’s journey is unique, and that all I could focus on was improving every day and to keep showing up. I took their advice to heart – rather than beat myself up every time I got passed in a workout, I consciously chose to focus on congratulating myself for walking just a little bit less on today’s workout than last week’s.

“It’s never healthy to try and take shortcuts along the path to recovery and, eventually, fitness.”
– Alexi Pappas

The lessons I learned and experiences I had during my transition from not-running back to running have proven to be invaluable assets to my professional career. I’ve written in other columns about my experience in Rio, where the ability to stay focused on my own pace enabled me to maintain composure in a record-breaking race where nearly everybody got lapped (many of my competitors didn’t handle that well and their races went haywire as a result). If I hadn’t had that experience at Dartmouth, where I truly learned not to compare myself to anybody else, I don’t know if I would have been able to stay as composed during that epic Olympic race.

Using core exercises to help recover from injury. – Photo courtesy Alexi Pappas

I also learned not to rush the process. It’s never healthy to try and take shortcuts along the path to recovery and, eventually, fitness. I’ve seen way too many runners (and coaches) who take an over-aggressive approach to re-introducing running after an injury, and every single time it just leads to more injury. I wasn’t injured when I was getting fit again at Dartmouth, but two years is a long time to take off training and I could have easily injured myself along the way if my coach and support network hadn’t been so careful and positive.

Then there was the physical benefit of being forced to take time off: my body was given a chance to replenish and grow during some critical teenage years. I didn’t see it that way at the time – I was pissed that I was missing out on races I knew I could have won – but now, my doctors tell me that my bones are much stronger and my blood chemistry is much healthier than it might have been had I continued to run at a high level through the entirety of my teenage years. I also had a chance to go away from the sport and come back to it in a different mind space. I ran in high school even though I didn’t love it because I was good. I ran in college because I loved it and wanted to be good. Looking back, I am very grateful.

There was also another benefit to taking it slow that wouldn’t fully reveal itself until much later. When I was unable to train as hard as I do now, other parts of my life had the opportunity to grow and flourish. It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to take a nap every day! My social life blossomed and I became involved in extracurricular activities that I might not have sought out otherwise, such as improv comedy—and being able to improvise definitely helps during races. Even after I became fit enough to train competitively again, these new friends and interests remained. In fact, I would not have met my now-fiancé, Jeremy, if I hadn’t used my forced time away from serious training to meet people outside of the track team.

This summer, I watched the World Championships from an indoor gym where I was doing strength exercises that my physical therapist Dr. John Ball and his team at Maximum Mobility showed me. Even though I had been racing alongside many of these women just one year earlier in Rio, in August I was still building my strength after taking time off due to a hamstring strain. Part of me felt a pang of jealousy, a surge of frustration, and a burning shame. But then the other part of me smiled, remembering all the knowledge I’ve gained. I cheered for the racers from afar. I knew I’d meet them again soon, when I was good and ready. But until then, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.