The Upside of Injury

I am not a medical professional. If you’re hurt, get your ass to a doctor immediately. This article is about the mental aspects of injury and in no way constitutes medical advice.

Well, I did it again. This time, it’s torn cartilage in the upper middle part of my chest. When I breathe too deeply, it hurts. When I feel a cough coming, I brace myself against something nearby and get ready for the pain.

Over the last few years I’ve racked up quite a list of small injuries that have sidelined my workout schedule and hampered my progress. I tore my Plantaris tendon hiking up Bukhansan in Seoul. Before learning how to bench press with proper form, I strained my shoulder and spent eight weeks recovering. When my 5th graders challenged me to a sprinting contest, I picked up a pretty bad Lisfranc injury in my right foot. And last week, I combined this and this and this and found myself nursing this.

Injuries will stop you if you let them. Injuries will put your on your ass and keep you there unless you get back up and fight. Obviously, an injury damages your flesh, but it will diminish your mental state covertly as well. After a week or two, you’ll still be begging to get back in the gym. Six or eight weeks out? You’ve gotten used to the sedentary life – the extra five or eight hours a week you’d spend at the gym has been filled with the lazy habits you had before you figured out your shit. Maybe your diet relaxed, maybe your morning stretching routine has gone out the window.

So what happened in those intervening weeks? The body was willing, but the mind was weak. Here are my tips for maintaining your mentality while your body catches up.

Understanding Injury

Here’s the thing about injuries – they don’t happen to people who do nothing. Your tubby friends who haven’t seen the inside of a gym since high school don’t sprain ankles at the McDonald’s drive-thru. They don’t strain tendons on the couch watching Netflix. And they sure as fuck don’t end up with bruises and scrapes opening the door for the pizza delivery dude.

It’s important to remind yourself that you earned your injuries. These things are badges of honor that are shared and compared around campfires and in locker rooms and under crags with people of a similar mindset. That scar, that limited range of motion, that look of concern you’ll give when you see someone making your old mistakes – these things tell a story about you and give you the chance to tell that story.

Learning

Speaking of stories, ever try telling a sedentary friend about your shin splints the day after a long run? “Better stop running,” they’d say. Crabs in a bucket. Don’t tell these people anything. You want to talk to people who stay as active as you do. These people keep you motivated and encourage your recovery. And, if you’re willing to listen, might be able to give you advice on how to heal and how to prevent further problems.

When I was making the transition to barefoot running in Vibrams, I went too hard, too fast and my calves were taking a beating. I went from running 15-20 miles per week down to four while I nursed the soreness. The only people I talked to about this were other runners. Sure, I got some negative opinions on barefoot running, but I also got advice on foam rolling my calves to relieve the pressure and recover faster. I got tips on a training regimen that involved wearing regular running shoes two or three times a week and running barefoot once or twice a week on my shorter runs to help make the transition smoother.

The body is a complex machine with a huge number of moving parts working separately and together. When we find ourselves injured, we need to take this as an opportunity to learn more about the ways we move and the ideal way to get ourselves in peak condition.

Cross-Training

Getting injured might be the most expensive thing you’ll ever do. And it might also be the most rewarding. When I tore the tendons on the top of my foot, I had a six-month layoff from running. After four months, I got frustrated with my inactivity. The solution? I joined a gym for the first time in my life and started powerlifting. It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. I’d always balked at the recommendations from friends to do deadlifts and squats. I worried about the bro-culture that I’d find myself getting involved in – the protein shakes and the “tanks” and the creatine.

When I strained my labrum benching, I started up yoga on chest days and I still do a routine once a week. My flexibility and stability has improved tremendously in the time since then. With an injured rib, there’s not a whole lot I can do in the gym, so I’m back outside running three days a week and I’ve come back around full circle until I’m back under the iron. An injury is an opportunity to broaden your fitness horizons. You’ll find new things you like, and those new things will make you better at the things you already love doing.


So, when you’ve picked up an injury, don’t despair. Give yourself a week or two to heal up, learn a bit about yourself, slap a Barbie bitch sticker on your boo-boo, and get back out there. Injuries are just as much mental as they are physical – and you’ve got the mindset to deal with it.

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