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Back From Injury Again, Emily Infeld Talks Mental Health and Physical Recovery

The 2016 Olympian’s career has been riddled with setbacks, but she has always found a way to rise to the occasion.

The competition for the women’s 10,000 meters at the upcoming U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials keeps getting deeper as more pandemic-safe racing opportunities pop up—and the results from the TEN meet on Saturday have only added to a potentially crowded and exciting field.

The race over the weekend in Southern California was designed to pace the women to the Olympic standard of 31:25, which is a qualification the top three finishers at the Trials (scheduled to begin on June 19, in Eugene, Oregon) need in order to make Team USA, heading to the Tokyo Games in July.

Bowerman Track Club teammates Elise Cranny and Karissa Schweizer finished first and second on Saturday, respectively, in 30:47.42 and 30:47.99, making them the third and fourth fastest U.S. women ever at the distance.

About 35 women have already qualified for the 10,000 meters at the Trials, leaving fans speculating about what accounts for the leaps in performances for so many athletes. Certainly the advanced technology in the spikes many are racing in helps, as well as extended blocks of uninterrupted training while the pandemic shut down most competition in 2020.

For Emily Infeld, who won the bronze at the 2015 world championships in the 10,000 meters, it was her first stab at the distance since the 2017 world championships. Since then she’s contended with hip surgery, post-surgery recovery, and subsequent injuries that have kept her in and out of training. Nonetheless, she came away with an 11-second personal best, finishing in 31:08.57 and nabbing that Olympic standard.

Infeld, 30, who is a 2016 Olympian in the 10,000 meters, also trains with the Bowerman Track Club, based in Portland, Oregon. After her race she spoke with Women’s Running by phone about how she’s learned to cope with the ups and downs of her pro running career, the advice she gives to her younger training partners, and the strategies she’s used to improve her mental health.

Women’s Running: How did the race on Saturday feel? Did you think you’d set a personal best right out of the gate?

Emily Infeld: I was excited to race for sure. I’ve run seven 10Ks and all of them have been really slow the first 5K—like 16 minutes or over, and then a faster second 5K. So this one, just knowing that we had Vanessa [Frasier] and Courtney [Frerichs] pacing and we were going to be pacing right around the [Olympic] standard, I knew that I could run 74 or 75 [seconds per 400 meters]. I haven’t done much work faster than that, but I’ve done a lot at that pace, so I felt confident and comfortable.

Then I wanted to just try to go with the pace shift whenever that happened, which I did with a mile to go. I tried. We ran a 72-second lap and my body was like, “No, this is too fast.” So I just went right back to 74s and 75s.

I feel like I was due for a PR. I was in better shape in 2017 than I am now, but the races that happened then just weren’t set up like this one. I’m so excited overall. I really wanted to get that Olympic standard and I was thinking I was in 31:15 to 31:20 shape, so it was a little better than I thought.

WR: You had hip surgery in 2019, then a hip stress fracture in 2020. What has the timeline been for your training, given all the ups and downs?

EI: After my surgery in 2019, I didn’t run for 13 weeks and then I slowly built up. I missed the track season, but then I was able to have a really solid fall. In the winter I was able to run a 5K PR and a good 3K. I had gotten back into really good training and then, unfortunately, I got a stress fracture in my hip at the end of May, right before everyone was going to Park City [for altitude training] to get ready for some (hopeful) summer racing. They did get to race and everyone crushed. So it was a bummer for me because I was in really good shape in the spring of 2020.

Because of COVID, I didn’t want to travel to see any physical therapists or get treatment and it kind of bit me. It culminated in me getting another stress fracture and I basically had to take the summer off. Then I got a month of running in and the first week of workouts this fall, my hamstring started really bothering me. So, I took another month away from workouts, a couple of weeks off of running and then started back up with the team in November, doing parts of everyone’s workouts. I felt super far off, but since November I’ve just been inching forward.

I did my first full workout in December, then we went to altitude in Flagstaff. [Coach] Jerry [Schumacher] had us going from super long, strength stuff to more intense track stuff—more 10K pace as opposed to tempo pace. I feel lucky that I could see [sport chiropractor] John Ball in Phoenix and we have a physical therapist on staff now, so I could see her. All that has been good for me. I was making improvements each week.

My speed is still really struggling, but with any long layoff, it just takes a while. I’m super happy. I had four months of pretty solid training and I’m feeling good overall. I’m just hoping for another four months to make more jumps before the Trials.

WR: You’ve had a lot of experience coming back from the hiccups and injuries, ever since you started running professionally in 2012. What do you do differently now that you maybe should have done in the past or didn’t know to do in the past?

EI: It’s constant learning. Like, I raced a 3K two weeks ago and we did a workout right after it. I came off of that not feeling great. It was just faster than I had run in a while and it really flared up my hip, so I just cut my workout on Tuesday and took two days off. It’s not worth it. Previously I would get so sucked into hitting my weekly mileage. But this time I took time off, got some treatment, and was smarter about it. I don’t have to play catch-up because I missed a workout. I’d rather take two days off as opposed to having to take a week or two weeks off or not be able to race.

I ask myself, “What is my goal?” I wanted to line up to race. If I had done a workout while my hip hurt then I would have jeopardized my ability to race.

I’m also using Inside Tracker [blood testing] to really make sure there’s nothing glaringly awful I’m missing in my nutrition. I want to be sure there’s nothing that could be contributing to the fatigue that leads to injury and that kind of cycle. It’s better than going off anecdotal clues in my training log, where I say “I’m really tired” and then all of a sudden I’m injured. I can better monitor my blood levels and see something before it gets bad.

WR: I know some of your younger teammates have also dealt with injury problems in the past year. Do you offer them any support or advice you wish you would’ve had at their age?

EI: I try to. That’s what I love about our team. We’re really close and supportive of one another. Elise had a calf thing going on in December, at the beginning of altitude camp. And you know if somebody tells her to do calf raises, she’s doing calf raises 20 times a day to get stronger. She bounced back immediately. But I think it’s good to have somebody on the outside reminding you to be smart, rest, and remind them they’ve had really good training.

There’s no runner who hasn’t dealt with injuries. We’re all trying to learn how to better avoid them, or have less severe injuries, and fewer layoffs. But when you’re training as hard as we are, you’re bound to have something come up. I tell them to keep chipping away and they’re going to take big steps forward. And also, don’t get discouraged. Those are the things I want somebody to tell me when I’m injured. That’s what I need to hear. We want to see everyone on the start line. The worst thing is when you see someone working so, so hard and they have to take a big hiatus from racing.

WR: You’ve been open about anxiety and mental health challenges you’ve encountered. How have you been taking care of your mental health, not only as you deal with the injuries, but in general, too?

EI: I love therapy. I have a sports psychologist. I have a psychiatrist in Portland. Max [Infeld’s fiance] and I do couples’ therapy. I’m a big proponent of that. I can constantly improve upon myself. Positive self talk is something that I normally struggle with. Like a lot of women, I don’t want to seem conceited or cocky or whatnot, so I downplay things. But no, I’m talented. I work hard. I work really hard. I’m capable. And I think saying those things to yourself instead of putting yourself down is helpful.

When you’re injured, it’s easy to tell yourself you’re so far off and you’re never going to get there; that you’ll never be back. You start to say those things to yourself and it’s a negative cycle. It sucks you in. You believe it. So this weekend I would have loved to run with Karissa and Elise, but that’s not where I am right now. I got a PR and I got the Olympic standard. They did amazing things, but so did I, we’re just at different places in training.

It’s good to celebrate all of these things and be encouraged by it. It sounds so cheesy but it’s helpful to celebrate the little wins. All I can do is focus on me right now and try to be a better version of myself each day.

WR: For as many injuries as you’ve been through, you always seem to rise to the big occasions, like making the 2016 Olympic team off of, essentially, cross-training. How do you do it?

EI: I’m really competitive. Everyone in this sport is, but I have a wonderful support network and I love racing. Even this weekend, I knew on paper that I’m so far behind Karissa and Elise, but when they made that move I wanted to cover it. I went with it. I wasn’t ready for that, but it’s instinctive to try. I’d rather go for it and not have regrets. It didn’t turn out this time and maybe I could have run a couple of seconds faster if I had not made that move with a mile to go, but I tested myself and next time I’ll be able to hang on longer.

I also have to give Jerry credit. He’s really great with making sure we’re peaking at the right time and getting us ready when we need to be ready. And it’s funny talking to Jerry. In 2016 he was adamant that I was making the Olympic team. He said he was buying my plane ticket to Rio because he knew I was gonna be there. Then after the Olympic Trials he was like, “I didn’t think you were going to make it.” I’m glad he didn’t tell me that before, because having his confidence in me gave me confidence in myself. I like hearing those things. Having someone who believes in you and just says that can really turn my thinking around, which can materialize into performing well.

You can train really, really hard but if you’re not mentally there, you don’t have a chance. That sounds harsh, but you need both. You can’t fake it if you’re not fit, but you need that confidence in yourself.

WR: The women’s 10,000 meters has around 35 qualifiers already. It’s a talented field. What are your thoughts on how it’s shaping up?

EI: It’s loaded. We have three handfuls of people that are within striking distance of one another. It’s amazing to see how much we’ve improved in the U.S. The 5K is super stacked as well. I feel like people are looking at athletes like Shelby and Karissa who are breaking these barriers and it’s getting everyone to raise their game.