Recovering From Injury like an Athlete

Part of being an athlete for life is knowing how to properly recover and return from an injury. In the past, my athletic endeavors were mainly limited to triathlon and any combination of swimming, biking, and running. When I became injured in any of these sports, it never crossed my mind to take a few days or a week or two off to recover. I took pride in the fact that I could literally run through anything; and would crawl to that finish line if I had to. In my mind, if I took time off for an injury, it meant that I was “being a baby,” or that I was weak. There was too much on my training plan that I “could not” miss. I was so worried about the distances that I had to cover, that any time off or reduction in the “long, slow, training cycle” would completely destroy my hopes of competing in a race. There were many races I stubbornly ran, despite injury and the risk of creating chronic problems; because I was not disciplined enough to take care of my body.

Fast forward to now, two years later and a heck of a lot stronger, where my swimming, biking, and running is complemented by CrossFit training/programming, and my previous practice of gritting my teeth through injury or “WODing it out” simply does not work. It has been a long road of learning and discovery for me, but as Greg Glassman tells all of us, CrossFit is a potent medicine, and the WODS are designed to create maximum stimulus.

Anyone who has ever suffered an injury while CrossFitting knows the devastation and frustration of sitting on the sidelines while recovering. I recently came back to training from an injury (back), and it made me take a hard look at how I used to view getting hurt in training a couple years ago, and realize the damage it had caused. Through speaking extensively to the talented coaches and athletes at CrossFit Mission Gorge, I realized that coping with an injury—and having the mentality and discipline to recover properly—is an integral part of being an athlete.

I have compiled a list of some things that have worked for me, as I took care of my injury. Yes, I had to suck up a lot of my pride, and I am the first to admit that I am not a good patient. I whined, complained, and tried to train right through my back injury before I finally gave into what my body desired for its recovery. And you know what? When I stopped trying to control and force my body to do what I wanted it to, and instead listened to it, I began to heal and feel better.

First of all, please recognize that I am not a Doctor or medical professional. I am a fitness coach and athlete, and these are some things that have worked for me. I recognize that there are varying degrees of injury, from mild to severe. If you feel like you need to see a medical professional immediately, then do it.

With injury, there are varying degrees of onset. Some recognize a specific moment (hear a “pop” or a “crack”) as to when it happened, and others feel it hours later. Sometimes, an athlete cannot pinpoint the exact moment the injury occurred at all, only to feel a pain that is “not right” a day or two after a workout. Either way, if your body is hurting during a workout (or any movement, in general), stop what you are doing immediately and then take that time to investigate further what you are feeling.

So you have found yourself injured…now what? First off, I would recommend resting for at least 72 hours after an injury. Yes that is a long time, but it is crucial for recovery, and a good window of time to indicate whether further medical advice is needed. During this time of rest, you should be implementing all of Coach Ian’s “Recovery Strategies.”

In short, make sure you are getting enough sleep, icing your injury throughout the day for 20 minutes at a time, stretching (around your injury and with/without lacrosse ball or foam roller), using compression to promote blood flow/healing to the injured area, and do not forget the fish oil! Other ideas that you may want to try are: massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, heat therapy and anything else that you think may help (tiger balm, anyone?) The main idea to remember is that this is a rest period, and you are to do just that.

helpThat being said, resting does not mean completely immobilizing yourself. About 99% of the population would gladly take the advice to “rest” to the furthest extreme. But you are an athlete, and resting for you does not mean grabbing a bag of chips and camping out on the couch for 3 days (I can pretty much guarantee you that you will feel worse if you do this). Let us go with the idea that during this time period, you are going to do what you can, with what you have. Stretch! Mobilize! Focus on the movements you can do without pain and do them, with the caveat that if you feel any pain at all, you should stop.

This part of recovery has everything to do with your mentality. Instead of thinking about the past (“I’ve put in all this training and was starting to feel SO strong!”) or the future (“I’ve got a competition in xx days!” “How will I ever lift up a barbell again?”) think about right now. Use this time to work on things you can control. Maybe you cannot lift a barbell, but you can swim without pain. Maybe you cannot do kipping pull-ups, but you can do strict ones. Maybe you are unable to do most movements, but you can try out that Whole 30 Nutrition plan that you have been contemplating. Maybe you need to just take a break from the gym entirely and submerge yourself in another project while you heal. Use this extra time to fulfill yourself in other ways. Plant a garden. Go on a bike ride with your kids, at their pace, as they explore the world around them. Take your dog (or yourself) for a walk somewhere beautiful. Whatever it is, work with what you have, enjoy the moment you are in now, and remember that this is temporary.

After at least 72 hours have passed, evaluate how you feel. If the pain persists or increases, and is not alleviating in any way, perhaps it is time to see a medical professional. If the pain has reduced somewhat, completely, or is a more localized pain than general, proceed with caution. This is not the time to jump right back in where you left off. Let your body guide the way, and if it sends you the message of pain, listen to it and back off. Some injuries can take weeks and months before an athlete can feel 100% again. Tell your coach about your injury, and ask them about appropriate substitutions for the day’s WOD. This does two things: it allows your coach to closely keep track of you and pay attention to your specific restrictions (and help you make modifications), and it helps them to provide you feedback. As a coach, I also want to remind an athlete to take it easy, strip the weight back, or scale the movement, to affirm/remind them that they are recovering and it is all OK.

crossFit-trainingAs CrossFitters, we tend to want to get back in the game and rebound quickly after injury, but it is important to ease back into the workouts, for risk of aggravation, or re-injury. CrossFit is a competitive sport, where athletes are sweating shoulder to shoulder together, and comparing speed/weight to others on a daily basis. After injury, it is difficult to jump into this same environment using far less weight than you are used to, or even scaling a movement. I am just like any other athlete, and have to constantly remind myself when coming back from an injury to restrain myself—even going so far as telling my coaches that I am going to stick to a certain weight before a WOD, so I do not change my mind and try to increase it at the last second. I have been in the position where I thought I rested enough, only to jump back in too quickly and re-injure myself, ultimately resulting in taking more time off. The best advice I can give you as you work your way back is to remind yourself that you are not competing. Whatever gets written on the white-board gets erased in a couple of days anyway, and—trust me on this—no one remembers your “score” but you.

Dialing back on intensity and competitiveness means not focusing on time or weight. I would suggest not timing your workouts, or even paying attention to the clock. This allows you to focus on the perfect form and integrity of your movements. Being “untimed” can also allow you to take breaks, if you need, during the workout to check in with your body and how it is moving/feeling. If you cannot help but find yourself competing during your first WODs after returning, try to find time to workout by yourself during an open gym time or between classes (after checking with your coach, first!)

The last and final step in returning from injury may be the most important: learn from it! You have spent enough time worrying about your injury; now make sure you do everything you can so it does not happen again. Why did it happen? Did you sacrifice form for speed during a WOD? Did you not warm up specifically for the workout and movements prescribed? Did you discover a weakness (in body or form in a movement)? Find out what happened, and then do everything you can to ensure it does not reoccur. From my recent experience, I learned that poor form and positioning in the midline contributed to my back injury, and that I need to spend more time increasing my core strength through specific exercises, in order to protect my back and create more awareness during the movements. Thanks to Coach Dawn and her Core Development for Crossfitters Program, I am on the right track again with strengthening and prepping my core/pillar for the movements I am about to perform in the day’s workout.

As frustrating and difficult as it is, dealing with an injury is an integral part of being an athlete. One can either have a bad attitude and do everything “wrong” in an effort to manage the problem, or an athlete can take their injury in stride, accept that it happens to the best of us, and go through the necessary steps to recover and bounce back with a fresh perspective and mindset.