Sam considers the big questions: When is an injury not an injury?
In light of the growing popularity
of our sport, I’ve been wondering recently whether we could argue for a unique running-specific subdefinition of the term ‘injury’ in the dictionary. It would be a great way to prevent those annoying conversations we occasionally have with non-runners. ‘Not running today?’ ‘No, I’m injured.’ ‘Oh! What happened to you?’ The answer, of course, is that nothing ‘happened’ – not in the sense that falling off a ladder or wiping out on skis ‘happens’. The injury just gradually emerged, like roots on highlighted hair, until its clamour for attention became impossible to ignore.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines injury as ‘physical harm or damage to someone’s body caused by an accident or an attack’ – but as used by runners the term has a different, more subtle meaning. This is mostly because, unlike the calamities described above, it is often very difficult to put a finger on the cause. Equally, the consequences are far less clear-cut and obvious than being encased in plaster or hobbling about on crutches for weeks. Runners in the middle of a six-mile run have been known to bemoan the fact that they’re injured, usually as an explanation as to why they are ‘taking it easy’. So no, proclaiming injury isn’t necessarily the same as saying you’re out of the game. (And there’s another source of irritating conversation right there: ‘You’re going for a run? But I thought you were injured!’)
The essence of the runner’s definition of injury would be ‘something pertaining to the musculoskeletal system that prevents a runner from performing to their usual standard’. (Not that catchy, I know; I’d be the first to admit it needs work). The word we most often use as a substitute is ‘niggle’. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the noun as a ‘small doubt or worry’, though the verb’s meaning – ‘to worry someone slightly, usually for a long time’ somehow seems more fitting in a running context. While the word ‘niggle’ might help you avoid the misguided concern of non-runners, it is, frankly, a little euphemistic and tame when you’re taping up your left leg from thigh to toe. I vote, then, that we stick with injury but define it not as a static event or status but as a position along a continuum – with ‘broken’ at one end and ‘perfect working order’ at the other. In truth, most runners – from elite Olympians to occasional joggers – are rarely entirely either. Mostly, we’re somewhere in between.
At this point I have to confess that this continuum idea is not entirely my own work. In 1972, an American physician, Dr John Travis, proposed an ‘illnesswellness’ continuum in medicine. It marked a departure from the standard health paradigm, which seeks to treat symptoms in order to bring a patient back to ‘neutral’, where no more illness or injury is present. But Travis viewed health as more than the absence of illness and his goal was to move patients further along the continuum – beyond neutral – towards optimal health. ‘ Wellness is never a static state,’ he wrote in his book The Wellness Workbook. ‘You don’t just get well and stay well. There are degrees of wellness, just as there are degrees of illness.’
The same is true of our running health. And there’s an important point here, which might just help you avoid becoming ‘broken’. If you see injury as all-or-nothing (‘nothing’ being the absence of injury) you absolve yourself of the responsibility of taking steps to keep moving towards better strength, muscle balance and biomechanics. It allows you to ignore the signs of an emerging problem by defining them as ‘not an injury’ – until the switch flicks and you’re out of action.
On the other hand, placing yourself on the continuum shows you that there’s always something you could be doing to edge a little further in the direction of ‘perfect working order’. That’s empowering. I look forward to explaining it to my non-running friends.
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