Injuries, Podcast, Psychology

The mental and emotional rollercoaster of dealing with injury with Carrie Cheadle | EP#118

 April 12, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

The mental and emotional rollercoaster of dealing with injury with Carrie Cheadle | EP#118

Mental skills coach and sports psychologist Carrie Cheadle discusses the emotional and mental challenges of dealing with injury, and how triathletes can make the most of their forced time out if injury strikes. 

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Adjusting triathlon goals and making new injury recovery goals.
  • Visualisation to get healthy and improve performance once you're back racing. 
  • How breathing exercises and meditation to manage stress can speed up recovery. 
  • The importance of acceptance of the situation. 

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About Carrie Cheadle  

  • Carrie is a mental skills coach and has been working in the field of sports performance since 2002, and got her Master's in sports psychology from John F Kennedy University
  • She works with athletes of all ages at every level - from recreational age groupers to elite professional athletes competing at the highest national and international levels
  • Carrie has written her own book: On Top of Your Game - Mental Skills to Maximise your Athletic Performance

General advice on recovering from injury 

5:52 -

  • I'm seeing more and more articles about this topic in popular media.
  • People are starting to recognise that when you're physically injured, your first experience is in your body.
    • You're very consumed with healing the body and doing your rehab.
  • People don't often recognise that there's a mental health process that has to happen as well.
    • You often need this to come back to your sport with confidence, and feeling like you're the same athlete if not better.
  • People are slowly recognising there's an important mental aspect to coming back from injury.
  • I'm a co-author of a book coming out on this topic!
    • Myself and Cindy Kuzma were both passionate about this topic and we recognised there wasn't a good resource out there about it, and there needs to be one.
    • Our book is being published by Bloomsbury and it's projected to be published in 2019.

Typical mental responses to injury

9:00 - 

  • We usually see a big emotional reaction at the onset of injury, and a second reaction as you get close to getting back into your sport.
  • There's different emotional reactions that are happening throughout the entire process.
    • You're on an emotional rollarcoaster - sometimes you're up, or down, or upside down.
    • You can experience a multitude of emotions in just one day: sad, angry, hopeful, excited, guilty etc.
    • Those emotions happen throughout the process in general but they can also happen in just one day.
  • Recovering from injury is a psychological experience as well as a physiological experience.
  • The emotions that are the most identified for injured athletes are depression and sadness at the loss of your athletic identity.
    • Also the loss of not being able to use your body the way that you want to or are used to.
    • For a lot of people, it's also a loss of a social outlet and the relationships you have in your sport.
    • Grief is part of the process of not being able to participate.
  • Anxiety is another big emotion that people report.
    • A very common emotional reaction is a fear of re-injury, and not knowing if you can trust that body part again.
    • This becomes more prominent when you get into different activities again.
    • Fears around pain are also common, trying to figure out what pain is normal and what pain you should push through.

Facilitating the psychological healing process

12:49 - 

  • There isn't necessarily a good or a bad way to respond to injury.
  • However, some ways may be more facilitative to the healing process.
    • Your level of stress can have an effect on the whole process.
    • Anything that you can do to empower yourself to manage the amount of stress you're under will be helpful.
      • A lot of the tools that I suggest are around stress management, accepting the place you are in and moving forwards from there.
      • For example, different breathing exercises or meditation. I usually suggest the Headspace app, or others such as Calm or Buddhify.
      • These help you proactively work on your relaxation response.
      • They are something that are in your control, which helps take your mind of all the things you can't control.
  • You need to focus on the fact you are still an athlete, but for now your sport is your recovery.
    • You need to put all the energy you'd usually put into training and competition into your recovery.
    • It's a part of your athletic journey.
    • You're still an athlete, but your playing field is a little different.
  • Another thing I'll have people do is to think of things that bring them joy or make them laugh, to balance the stress that they're experiencing.
    • For example, think of funny movies you love, or people that make you smile and laugh.
  • Be proactive in setting goals around having experiences that bring you joy every week.
  • There's different tools depending on where people are at in their injury recovery process.

Adjusting goals after injury

16:24 - 

  • Adjusting goals after injury is a significant part of the process.
    • If you don't consciously adjust your goals, you might psychologically be gauging your feelings of success based on your original goals which are no longer feasible.
  • It's important to have specific injury recovery related goals and engage your feelings of success based on these.
    • This will feed your motivation and confidence.
  • If you're in the middle of your rehabilitation and all you think about is not accomplishing your goals, it can have a detrimental effect.
  • One of the biggest factors affecting success rate of coming back after injury is whether the athlete has committed to the rehabilitation programme exactly as written.
    • Not doing any more or any less.
  • Anything to help you stay motivated or confident through the rehabilitation process is really important.
  • The goal will depend on the injury.
  • You might do goal setting with your treatment team.
  • For example: you have a knee injury and you're working on range of motion, and it's being measured by how far your knee is able to bend.
    • You might set a specific goal for what percentage you want to be able to bend your knee by a certain date.
    • You're gauging your feeling of success based on this specific goal.
  • You may also have to adjust those goals along the way because sometimes you identify a goal and later realise it's not realistic in the timeline with how your body reacts.
  • Sometimes we'll work on setting goals for mental training.
    • Looking at aspects of your game and fitness that you would be able to improve on while injured that will help you once you get back to training.
    • For example, setting goals around working on strengthening your core if it's possible with your injury.
    • Alternatively, goals around improving the skill of visualisation and using it in a more deliberate way as you get back to training.
  • Sometimes the goals you're working on are things that will serve you well once you come back in to the sport.

Best mental skills to practice

20:37 - 

  • Visualisation can be incredibly beneficial.
  • Meditation and breathing are also great.
  • All of these will not only help through the injury, but they will continue to serve you once you are back to training.
  • Deliberately working on improving those skills during injury will be a really good use of your time.
  • The Headspace app have added a sports section.
    • They have visualisations there that are specific to injury so if you want a guided exercise, it's a nice place to start.
  • There's so many different uses of visualisation while you're injured.
    • When you are engaging in it, your brain is using the same prepatory neural pathways as if you are doing that skill, but the execution of the motor skill is blocked.
    • You could see yourself competing or doing certain skills - e.g. visualising yourself doing a new rehab exercise before you actually start.
  • You can also use a healing visualisation by imagining your body repairing itself, seeing it healing and coming back strong.
  • It can also be used for motivation by seeing yourself competing again.
  • For some athletes, visualising some of this stuff can produce anxiety, and that just means you're not quite ready for that tool yet, but there are others you can use.
  • I get athletes to write injury affirmations - powerful positive statements which are stated as if they're already true.
    • They are statements you can pull out and be able to read them in moment when you're doubting yourself and feeling down and frustrated.
    • It can help remind yourself you are getting stronger and can handle these challenges.
  • A common fear in injured athletes is losing their fitness and returning significantly less fit than they left.
    • Part of recovery is accepting this is true. You probably won't be as fit as you were before you were injured.
    • You haven't been able to train on a consistent basis.
  • I always tell athletes that their recovery is never going to happen as fast as they want to.
    • Even if you're only out for a week, you want to not be out at all.
    • It's important to just settle in, and be okay with how long your body needs to heal.
  • It's also good to keep reminding yourself that your fitness is going to come back.
    • Make the assumption that this is an injury you're going to recover from.
    • It's not a matter of 'if', it's a matter of 'when' your fitness will return.
  • This shows why making sure you're adjusting your goals is key.
    • If you're getting back into training after injury and you're comparing your ability right now to what you were doing before injury, it can have a detrimental effect to your confidence.
    • You have to accept that this is where you are right now, and decide where you want to be tomorrow or next week based on that.
      • Not based on what you were capable of doing before you were injured.

Real world example

  • Mikael noted that he finds it helpful to look at examples of other athletes that have come back from injury.
  • For example, Alistair Brownlee had hip surgery last autumn, and has just crushed the half ironman in Dubai.
    • He did a sub 2-hour bike ride and won it by a landslide!

Top tips for injured athletes 

28:00 - 

  • If you're on Facebook, come be a part of the Injured Athletes Club!
    • It's a group of injured athletes who are there for each other through all the trials and triumphs of being an injured athlete.
  • It can feel really isolating when you're an injured athlete, and people may inadvertently say unhelpful things, so it's great to see these injured athletes supporting each other.
    • Finding your tribe when you are injured is really powerful.
  • Make sure that you're reaching out for support.
  • You can also seek support from people in your life - coaches, team mates, friends, parents etc.
    • Know that you're building your own team right now, particularly if you're used to team sports and are missing this.
    • Be proactive with doing this for yourself.
  • I have lots of different blog posts on my website that are specific for injured athletes and different tips and tools that you can use to navigate your injury recovery process.
  • For some people, they might have recovered totally fine from injuries in the past and then suddenly with this injury they find themselves struggling.
    • Know that that is normal.
    • Just because you haven't struggled with other injuries, sometimes this still happens.
    • It doesn't mean that you're not going to be able to psychologically recover from this injury, you just have to have the tools to be able to work on moving forwards.
  • Another tip that can be helpful is creating your own anxiety pyramid.
    • Brainstorm a list of all the things that make you feel uncomfortable or nervous.
    • From things that give you a tiny niggle of anxiety to the big mother of worries.
    • On the bottom of the pyramid are the ones that produce the least amount of anxiety, and this is where you want to start building your confidence back up.
      • How can you set goals around these ones, then think about going to the next step.
    • Don't push yourself more than you're mentally ready for.
  • Sometimes you are physically ready before you're mentally ready.
    • Make sure you do both your physical and mental rehab!

Key takeaways

  • It's important to adjust your existing triathlon goals and make new rehab and recovery goals instead.
    • Other complimentary goals, such as improving visualisation, can help improve your performance when you do get back to racing.
  • Tune in your visualisation skills, it can help recovery and rehab, as well as your triathlon performance.
  • Work on breathing and meditation to manage the stress that can impair or slow your recovery process.
  • Accept that your recovery is never going to happen fast enough. It will help you not be as down about it.
    • It will happen at the rate that it happens.

Links, resources & contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Carrie Cheadle

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

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Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 

Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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