As an athlete, being injured is heartbreaking. Lifting, training, running, or competing is your lifeblood, or at the very least, it keeps you sane and happy. It is a form of meditation. Moving your body is therapeutic, fun, and helps your heart stay healthy. Your sleep is better, and you can eat more food because you need it to sustain your activity level. You can do more activities because you are fit. The reasons you train should matter, and because they matter, when it’s taken away from you it stings.
Injury comes in many forms. I work in a physical therapy office, and I’ve met the young, the old and the famous. Some have chronic pain, some are recovering from surgery, some have never addressed their pain, some have had cancer, and some have spinal cord injuries and are paralyzed from the waist down. No matter what it is, they can make up their mind to get better in some capacity. Unfortunately, fear surrounds pain in the form of mental blocks.
I want to talk about some of the critical mental blocks that come with injury:
Change in Activity
If you are very restricted, focus on what you can do. Even if you can’t do much, you can still do something. I’ve experienced injury both with and without a support team. I cannot tell you how important it is to find people who support you. Talk to people about what you’re going through, and let them help you. Find a doctor who you connect with and trust. They will tell you the truth and they will tell you what you need to hear. Talk to your friends and continue to hang out with them even though you’re probably depressed and want to sink into your couch. They might not completely understand, but they still care about you. Can’t lift or go to the gym? Walk someone’s dog. Can’t walk? Do seated exercises or get in a pool for some swimming. Just do something, because it’s far better than nothing.
Changes in your Body
This can feel the worst. When you work hard in the gym or on the field and eat a healthy diet, it most likely shows and you probably look good naked. Your body becomes a pristine machine and you feel good about yourself. It takes a lot of discipline to develop beautiful muscles and you’ve probably become attached. So, when your muscles start to atrophy and you look a little more fluffy than you’re used to, stop right there. This is a critical moment and I hope it doesn’t happen in the ice cream isle. Usually it will go one of two ways: you stop caring about your diet and gain twenty pounds denting a cushion in your couch, or you can accept it and know that if you keep your diet on track you will be able to get it all back when you’re better. It may not be easy to accept, but you could work a little on your personality so that at least people don’t like you for just your body.
Change in Diet
Well, sorry to say you need to eat for less activity. If you track your macros or calories, sit down and plan out the changes you need to make so that you can be successful. Let go of some of your carbs if your activity level drops, but keep your protein about the same. This can vary per individual, but your body needs to heal and needs proper macronutrients to do so. Don’t eat less. Whatever you do, do not go crazy on the sweets or start the booze diet. Sugar fuels inflammation and depression, and those things go against the healing process. You don’t need a kale smoothie every day, but be mindful and remember how good you feel when you eat well.
Outlet for Energy
Find something to do that makes you feel good during the time you would normally go to the gym. This is kind of a game changer. Use that hour for yourself to do something that releases endorphins. If you can’t sweat or get your heart rate up, it’s going to be ok. If you can, go ride your bike outside or go for a walk. A little vitamin D will boost your mood. Use the time at home to work on business goals, or something that enhances your life. Really, though, pushing through pain and continuing to go to the gym when you are hurting will prolong your injury or make it worse. Stop doing that. This is the time to accept that you have to slow down and you can’t exert energy physically in the same way or you will pay for it later. Find something new for now.
Managing the Pain
We will address the pain cycle separately later, but this is probably the number one thing to get a grip on. You could stock up on pain meds and lay on the couch while they take over your personality and spirit. Not a great idea. Rock-stars eventually get old. Try to take the bare minimum necessary to function fairly normal. If you must take a high dose of ibuprofen multiple times a day for months, take it with food so you don’t get an ulcer. Utilize physical therapy, massage, dry-needling, acupuncture, and ice or heat. If you can stay busy, the pain doesn’t present as much. Sleep is where healing occurs. Go to bed earlier and rest as much as possible. Even though it feels like you will never get out of pain, you will. Have that be your first goal, and when you meet it, celebrate.
Fear: Will I Recover and Be Able to Train Again?
Fear will hold you back big time. You might not even realize it. It is important to work with a doctor and coach to find safe movement. Yes, you will get better, but only if you make yourself top priority. Taking time off and allowing your body to heal and rest may seem like the hardest thing in the world. At first, it will be. Maybe it’s because you fight yourself. You don’t want to accept that you need to just stop completely and rest. Maybe it’s because you haven’t fully assessed or determined the problem. Research your injury. Play a role in your recovery decisions. I can’t tell you enough about your friend Patience.
Recovery times can be short, or take as long as six months to a year. With all of the variables, it’s a little different for everyone. There are some excellent and highly-effective mental skills tools you can learn and utilize to get a major one-up on this injury. Research shows that visualization, self-talk, and setting goals are a few tools you can use to help you accept, process and recover faster from an injury. These tools have shown to significantly speed up the healing process, and decrease the chance of re-injury in the future. Combine these tools with working on the mental blocks I discussed above and you are going to be better in no time. Why wouldn’t you want to give yourself an advantage?