The following diagram is quite general, but it is a good representation of the steps that most athletes go through after an injury. Later in this article, I will go more into depth on how to tackle each of these stages. Keep in mind that I am not a doctor and give advice from the standpoint of a sportsman.
Beginning Stages of an Injury:
No matter how big the injury or how long the recovery period, the first couple of weeks after the injury involve a lot of mental strength. The most important is to follow the instructions of the doctors really closely. The tiniest mistake can have a huge impact on the success of your recovery. Resting, relaxation and accepting the fact that you are injured are important steps towards a healthy and steady betterment of your body. In this phase, you will have realized that your body is broken and needs rest. The acceptance of this is not as hard in later stages.
Slow Recovery Process:
In the second phase, you can feel the pain lessening and the ability to move is improving rapidly. The first steps without crutches or even bending the knee to a 90° angle are just a few achievements that might give you some hope. Unfortunately, this phase is also one of the hardest. You will slowly realize to what magnitude the injury will limit your everyday life. For me, the improvements in my mobility were a treat, but I also wanted more and got quite frustrated when further recovery only slowly progressed. At this stage, finding support in friends, family and your loved ones is vital. They will remind you that this pain is only temporary and in no time the next marathons, games, or races are just around the corner. Do not rush and keep your excitement levels at a point where you do not want to overdo yourself.
The recovery is now coming along quite nicely. You are maybe going to the gym now (training body parts that are not directly affected by the injury). In my case, the weight lifting and cardio exercises that do not involve my legs, are not of great interest to me. Yet, feeling muscle aches and being truly tired after a workout is really fulfilling. These small achievements you have to celebrate and take the positive out of the situation. Once you have managed to increase your happiness levels, then progress in your daily exercises and workouts will double. From experience I can say that the speed of recovery (even when it is a cold) depends a lot on the mindset that you are in. Try to keep the negative and frustrated thoughts away and focus on the small achievements.
The first run after an injury will be at the probably slowest pace that you have ever run. It will also be extremely exhilarating, especially if you have not run for more than 4 months. For a full-blood marathon runner, the absence of your favorite sport and activity can be hard. Yet, the feeling of being back on the track and running again will help you keeping up your spirits. I recommend running on soft ground, as it is easier on your joints and knees. Try to find the closest tartan track as it is better for running than grass or turf because of its flat, plane, and absorbing nature.
Last Recovery Phase:
This is the part of the training that is the most enjoyable. You can see it as a challenge for yourself not to only recover but come out stronger than you were before. At this stage, you can also include interval runs in your training. At the faster pace, you might still sometimes feel some muscle pain or stiffness, but your motivation and mental strength will help you to power through this. It is important that you do not assume that your body strength is at the same level as it was before the injury. If you do, then the risk of injuring yourself and having to go through another recovery period highly increases.
Pick your next marathon and start planning. Once you have a specific goal, you have something to specifically train for and look forward to. Out of personal experience I can tell you that the excitement before a marathon will always be there. After having finished four marathons, the excitement levels for my fifth marathon (Rotterdam, Netherlands) were just as high as they were for any of my other ones.
Reflecting on the recovery process and writing down the things that went well and did not go so well, is important for self-improvement. Obviously, I hope that there will be no further injuries in the future, but in a sport of long-distance running, another injury might be inevitable. So, make sure that you try to reflect on it, as it also gives you some closure.
Currently, I am recovering from an ACL operation. It is month 5 now after I injured myself while being on a ski trip. Not being able to run for that long has been hard, but from now onwards it will only get better. For this year, I have set myself the goal to run the Frankfurt Marathon in October 2018. I will not purchase my starting number though until one or two months before the race, as I want to be sure that my body has recovered and that a proper preparation season has been possible. I keep on hearing from others that had ACL injuries that it will never fully stop hurting. Yet, I believe if we keep on focusing on the small and incremental steps in the recovery process we will get back to where we were before the injury. Stay strong and recover well!