It’s Not Psychological!!

Over the last few weeks, I have been conversing with a friend (also a professional triathlete) about the difficulties he has been experiencing in his training. He had stagnated. His solution: train even harder. The daily floggings coupled with poor nutrition took its toll not only in performance, but in health. His new coach recognized this and set about undoing the damage. Doctors were consulted and the results revealed some significant issues that would need time and patience to overcome. His reaction was one of relief. Not the relief you would expect, though. His relief was not that there was a solution to his issues. His relief was that what he feeling was not in his head and he could justify his training lull to himself and those around him.

In my own career I have struggled time and again with my own feelings that something is “all in my head”. And, I am certain that onlookers to my racing probably uttered the same words when I dropped out of races when dealing with my back injury and even last year when I failed to complete many races due to dizziness.
Every time an issue has emerged threatening to derail my training, my answer has always been the same. Go harder. When I was struggling with back issues, I often felt that maybe the pain wasn’t truly there, that it was a figment of my imagination. I would go to the track and run workouts that I could nail when I was healthy. In my mind, if I could achieve that workout, then I wasn’t really injured. And how many times have I tried to beat the asthma and keep running when I was wheezing loudly enough to startle strangers running by?

Despite my years of experience, this past weekend I succumbed to the feeling that my pain was all in my head. Since the crash in November, my ribs have not fully healed, causing occasional flare ups. This weekend was an epic resurgence of rib pain. I tried to run, but could not even hold an easy pace. I had trouble breathing. My immediate reaction was that I must be out of shape. It wasn’t until a few hours later that my ribs started throbbing. The next day I set out to ride. The discomfort was immediate, but I shook it off. I told myself to be tougher. I imagined that the pain wasn’t there. I had an inner banter about whether to turn around. Finally, I came to my senses and realized that if I had to spend 20 minutes debating whether to go home, I should go home.

It comes down to this simple fact. If a workout is cut short, a race uncompleted, time taken off, it is not for psychological reasons. A deeper look will reveal an injury (or inconvenience) or an illness. We, as athletes, thrive on our workouts. Do we really want to sit on the sidelines or come home early or miss those last two intervals?

The rationale for these irrational thoughts is complex. Is it denial? Refuse to believe there is an injury it might go away. Is it fear of ridicule from others? Perhaps it is easier to accept a psychological reason for poor performance than another injury. Is it stubbornness? Deny there is a physical problem than training can continue. Is it a sense of infallibility? Our bodies cannot break down, but our mind can.

And here is the real difficulty. You finally admit there is physical problem and in the search for answers you are confronted with medical professionals, coaches, friends, co-workers, family, who may tell you that what you are experiencing, is a psychological problem. I myself had this predicament when investigating the cause of my dizziness. I also work with athletes that have had doctors tell them their fatigue was due to psychological issues. I refer you back to this statement:  Do we really want to sit on the sidelines or come home early or miss those last two intervals?  The answer is unequivocally, no. Because, if the answer was yes, we would just retire and not bother searching for answers.

Have you ever had any experiences with thinking something is psychological or someone telling you that it was all in your head?

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9 Responses

  1. MarkyV says:

    Wow, i wish that dude the best. LOL!

  2. cheryl says:

    10 days ago I had a bike crash, then I got sick, and have not felt right in any workout since. I kept telling myself I was better and just get out there and do it. Everyone else is training, surely it was just in my head that I was having so many failed workouts. This morning I got off the bike at 40 minutes and realized its not my head, its my body and it wants a break. So, its going to finally get one. This post of yours was so timely for me! I hope your ribs heal up soon (btw, I listened to your interview on rev3 last night – thanks for sharing your time and thoughts with us).

  3. Bobbysez says:

    Nice job Joanna – let yourself heal. You have so much to give on so many levels

  4. Brandon says:

    I think "It's in your head" is an excuse a lot of doctors use when they just aren't smart enough to figure out what is wrong. Granted, some thing are in the head…..

  5. MarkyV says:

    Oooooo I like Brandon's example. 🙂

  6. Vanessa says:

    I was feeling exhausted this winter and kept thinking that I needed to work harder/get more sleep/get over it and train. Then from a few friends I started hearing about a link between Vitamin D and fatigue, and about how many people are vitamin D deficient. I told my doctor about my fatigue and asked for a vitamin D test – it turned out to be low and she prescribed me a supplement. It's only been a few weeks but I have been feeling much better. Perhaps this may be of help to someone else… I am not sure if she would have tested me if I hadn't asked for it.

  7. Barbara says:

    I have spent two months (from November to January) being incapable of doing any training. I could not even run for 10 minutes. I had blood tests and several types of analysis, and all of them were negative, so everybody said it was mental: that I was too tired from last season, that I had not recovered well, that my job and personal issues added to the above… and so on. I don´t know if they were right or my doctors were not smart enough, but the truth is that I deeply wanted to train. I just simply couldn´t do it. (Sorry for the language mistakes, I am from Spain).

  8. Charisa says:

    Great post

  9. Doug K says:

    as we say in the corporate world,
    "The daily floggings will continue until morale improves !"

    it is a very great relief to find an actual physical problem for underperformance/fatigue. I went through a whole battery of tests before getting an EIA diagnosis. My doc was fine, but I was a bit embarrassed waiting for tests with my fellow patients, on their wheelchairs, walkers and oxygen bottle trailers..