It is rare that an active person can avoid getting injured, even when being guided by the most well-planned, sophisticated program. A hamstring may get strained from the stress caused by a heavy deadlift. Or the pressure of a work project may cause a person’s muscles to be tighter, creating a perfect environment for a pull or strain during a training session. Perhaps dehydration and an awkward sleeping position contribute to improperly contracting fibers, leading to problematic movement patterns. Whatever the cause, injuries are likely to creep into our lives. It is how we deal with them that can determine their severity and staying power.
I have a long injury history and have experienced ample time off from my favorite activities as well as an abundance of physical therapy for various body parts (3 surgeries by the time I could vote). It is for this reason that I can speak with some authority on injury psychology. I had to develop a way to deal with setbacks, knowing that they were inevitable, and here are some lessons that I’ve learned.
1. Accept that injuries are inevitable
They occur most often when conditions are sub-optimal for extended periods: dehydration, sleep deprivation, stress, fatigue, inadequate nutrition, poorly-planned training programs. Occasionally, injuries happen for reasons that cannot be discerned, even with the help of qualified professionals trying to figure out the cause. A certain amount of searching is helpful, so as to avoid a repeat injury, but obsessing about the cause can drain all of your resources and drive you mad. Sometimes freak events just happen* and you have to let go of wanting to know why. Just accept what is.
2. Pity parties are allowed, but only briefly
Yes, there is a legitimate mourning period that can be expected, as injuries suck and are certain to throw a wrench into your training (and life) plans. Go ahead and allow yourself to wallow and sulk for a minute. Be pitiful and accept any sympathy thrown your way. I’ve known some to partake in retail therapy, copious amounts of dessert consumption, and ample face time with the couch. However, the quicker you accept your situation and work towards recovery (Read: put down the donuts) the faster you’ll be back to regular activities.
3. Stress and worry don’t help healing – they only slow it down
After coming off of surgery to try to fix my adolescent shins, I entered college and wound up taking an intro to psychology class. I wrote my final paper on the effects of mindset on injury healing time. The main point about the research was that a negative mindset retards healing time. The athletes monitored in the studies, who had the most positive outlook, recovered the quickest (1).
4. DO NOT avoid working out
Unless you were in a near fatal accident there really is not reason to stop moving. Sprained your ankle? Sad, but that’s no reason to hole up with some donut holes. There’s nothing wrong with the rest of your limbs so why should they get punished? Just take proper precautions so as to avoid any undue stress on the injured area. I hate to say it, because I almost never recommend them, but since you are paying for those fancy pieces of equipment in the gym, this is your chance to use them. On the injured leg you could consider doing hamstring curls or short-range knee extensions, so the entire leg doesn’t have to suffer for a sore ankle. Just please, avoid the temptation to do nothing—keep moving.
5. Patience is key
During your rehabilitation, whether on your own or with a therapist or trainer, patience is key. Regardless of how quickly your doctor thinks you’ll heal or how fast your mind would like to get over the injury, your body has its own time frame and it must be respected. How many times have you heard of someone (or experienced first-hand) going back to full activity too soon and re-injuring the problem area?
You have to let go of time frames and stay closely in tune with your body because it will heal at its own rate regardless of what your mind wants. Forcing a comeback may only make things worse. Just listen to tennis all-star Serena Williams a couple of years ago after having had surgery to fix a tendon in her foot. “Pushed by my desire to return to competition, I trained too hard too soon and re-tore the tendon in my foot. As a result, yesterday morning I had to have another procedure to repair it (2).” Be patient and allow your body to be your guide.
6. Search for the upside
Throughout the recovery process you may have to avoid certain movements or habitual motions to accommodate the injury. However, that allows you to develop new movement habits and possibilities. With my arm in a sling for 3 weeks after shoulder surgery I had to come up with some rather creative ways to put on a bra–you’d be amazed at what you’re capable of when forced to adapt. Rather than viewing an injury as a limitation, try to view it as an invitation to learn new skills or to work on your weaker areas. Click HERE to read a past blog on this called The Upside of Injury.
7. Appreciate what you have
As you progress through the healing process and gain more function, it is likely that you will develop an appreciation of your body when it’s working well. It is quite magical when all the elements in such a complex system work harmoniously together. A longer layoff or a more severe injury usually generates greater feelings of appreciation. Summing up her experiences over the last couple of years dealing with injuries, setbacks, and serious health complications, Serena Williams said, “These past 12 months have been extremely tough and character building. I have so much to be grateful for (3).”
The best way to honor your body is by taking care of it.
Keep on Movin’
*German tennis player Boris Becker experienced such a freak accident during an early round match at Wimbledon in 1996 against a low-ranked qualifier. Becker, a physical specimen, was receiving serve when the ball came slicing to his forehand. As soon as the ball struck his frame, he dropped the racket and clutched his right wrist in agony. He had to retire immediately and could barely shake hands with his opponent at the net. We later found out that he had shattered a bone in his wrist. Had the ball contacted any other part of his racket, come at a different speed or height, spun a little less, this injury probably would not have happened.
(1) Smith, A. M. (1996). Psychological impact of injuries in athletes. Sports Medicine, 22(6), 391-405.