If there’s one athlete who demonstrates the importance of resilience and a positive mental attitude to bouncing back from injury, it’s Eilish McColgan. The Scottish 3,000m steeplechase record holder and daughter of Olympic silver medallist Liz McColgan has been plagued with more injuries than most during her athletics career. In 2011 she broke her foot at the London Diamond League and, in 2015, fractured her ankle, while training in South Africa. And, on both occasions, she’s made jaw-dropping comebacks. She earned a place at the 2012 Olympics in London and, after making the decision to switch from steeplechase to 5000m, following her ankle injury in 2015, joined Team GB in Rio at the 2016 Olympics, where she qualified for the 5000m final. Her successes have continued into 2017, too – on 13 January she ran a 10K PB at the Ooredoo Doha 10K, positioning her as second all-time Scot behind only her mother, Liz. So how did the 26-year-old make such a strong return to athletics? We caught up with her about how she lay down the foundations of her recovery and grabbed her best advice for amateur athletes on how they, too, can do the same.
Throughout your career, you’ve had your fair share of injuries. Mentally how did you cope with these setbacks?
In 2008 I had problems with my knee – it was just through growing pains and things like that. At that time, not that it wasn’t as big of a deal, but running was just a hobby to me. I was only 16-17 when the problem started. I was going to university and enjoying life in different ways rather than my running. It was much different becoming injured in 2011. I was on the brink of becoming a professional athlete and making a jump to that elite level. It was difficult – mentally – to get round because it meant a little bit more to me. Running was almost in every aspect of my life at that point – to try and make the London Olympic Games. I totally shattered one of the bones in my foot and I had to get five screws and a plate in my navicular bone – it was such a big knock back. I thought, “That’s it, the chance has blown, it’s not going to happen.” But I was so determined to try and turn things around and I was very, very fortunate to get back fit and healthy but I wasn’t quite the same fitness level as I was before the break.
Whereas this time around in 2015, I thought I’d learned quite a lot from that year. Mentally I knew I could get back from it – I’d done it once, I could do it again – even if other people thought it was going to be much more difficult to get back from this injury. I was so determined to get back. I knew it was going to be tight to try and make the games but I’d almost learned from that mistake to try and get myself in better physical shape and I came back this time around fitter and faster than ever before. I broke every single PB on the track in 2015 off a very limited running programme but it is just purely because I’d learned so much over the years about me and my own body and what I need to do in order to perform.
Following surgery, what did your rehabilitation and cross-training programme look like?
I started off aqua jogging for a couple of months and then, very slowly, once I’d got the boot off and the crutches, I started on a spin bike at a very low level with the boot on and then eventually managed to get on a cross trainer and eventually to walking and running. It took a long, long time to get back to that. I got back running again in January but, through to March, I was really struggling with pain because of the surgery. I then had a nerve pain that had referred up the leg up through my groin and hip. In my mind I thought, “I’ve just got to run through this pain and, if it pays off then it pays off, and if it doesn’t, then least I’ve given it a go and I’ve tried.” Month by month, the pain started lessening. I don’t know why. I don’t know whether the nerves started to release or what it was but it wasn’t until about April that I started to run with the least amount of pain and I could pick up my training quite a bit. In my mind, I almost believed I would never run again pain free. It’s such a silly statement. It sounds so over the top but, when you’ve had that pain for over a year and it’s so chronic and it’s so ingrained, you almost just accept that it might be there and that’s it but it was so nice to know it was slowly disappearing every couple of weeks. It definitely made me a lot stronger physically and, because of the pain, it meant that I couldn’t do what I normally do and go straight back into running as quick as I could. It was almost a cleverer and smarter approach to training and, in the end, I had bigger benefits than ever, just purely because I halved my running volume and was doing a lot more on the cross trainer, and it allowed me to do what I did this year.
During that time, you were running on the treadmill. How do you think this helped with your recovery?
I don’t know why I made that decision. Obviously I broke my ankle on uneven ground so there was the fear of running on uneven ground anyway, but every time I was outside, even if there was a little stone or a tiny bit of uneven ground or pavement the pain would be really sore within the ankle. So, for me, it made logical sense. I spoke to my physio as well and we said, “Right, what if we start to build up running on the treadmill in a safe environment.” At that time of year as well, it was starting to snow and get icy, it wasn’t worth the risk of falling or slightly tweaking it because of all the mental work in there. I had five screws from the previous injury and now another two within my ankle. We did pretty much all of my build up on the treadmill. After a few months, I was then confident that the foot was strong enough to go outside. Now I run outside a lot more. I use the treadmill for my tempo runs and runs that I need to be more even pace. The treadmill has gone from being a rehab implement to now being a performance implement.
What advice would you give to amateur runners who have been injured for some time and are perhaps losing motivation?
It would be to have confidence in your cross-training programme. I found it very difficult to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to run as much as other people. At an elite level, I was going on training camps with girls that were running 80 miles up to 100 miles a week and yet I was running 40 miles a week. You almost start questioning your own training and your own programme and it’s very difficult mentally, too, when you see everybody going out for a little run together and you think, “Oh I might just go out tonight as well, instead of having to trek to the gym and get on the cross-trainer for an hour when everyone else is just going out for a little 20-minute jog.” But I’m very lucky to have my mum as my coach to say, “Keep focused on what you’re doing, don’t worry about it and just have confidence in your own training.” Sometimes cross-training is just as good, there is no reason why you can’t build up the cross-training and then eventually get back to what you love doing.
Also, accepting that there might have to be a compromise, you might not to be able to run as much as you would like and you might have to go to the gym or on a cross-trainer or even swim or aqua jog. It might not be what you love to do but, if it allows you to get back running again, then so be it. It’s definitely been a huge learning curve for myself, from 2011 to now, and I’ve actually started up my own online coaching website, with my boyfriend, who is an athlete himself.
Tell us more about that…
We’re going to call ourselves “Running Made Easy” just because we really want it to be approachable. It is not aimed at elite athletes, we want to get across that it is for recreational runners looking to break their personal bests. My boyfriend is very interested in coaching, especially after he’s finished his career, so it just seemed a sensible route to go down and, with it being online, we can access it from anywhere in the world, it doesn’t mean we have to been in the one place at the one time. Just the fact I’ve had such a good relationship with my mum as a coach, I’d love to have that with other people and give that to other people, to have access to someone who is there to help and give advice. You can’t stop someone having an injury but you can guide them through it.