Getting injured is already tough because of the physical pain and impairment from daily activities, but it’s even more tough mentally when it derails your training plans and recreation. So, recovery from an injury can be a pretty emotionally devastating process when you take all that together.
One of the keys to successful recovery, then, is changing your mindset. There has to be a shift from, “I’ve been working on this, and I’m about to accomplish something with it,” to, “I cannot make progress on that thing right now–progress now is measured by healing–and when that’s done, my regular progress can resume.”
I just went through one of these and I’m still recovering from it, so here let me tell you the story.
It was the end of the first week of “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” here in Washington State. Schools were closed, most businesses were closed, concerts and events were cancelled, and we were told not to go visit anyone or do anything outside the home. So, the wife and kids and I were stuck in the house on a Saturday night. We decided to have a dance party, each taking turns to select a song on YouTube. I’m bouncing around in the living room, feeling spry and athletic and keeping up with the kids. Then, I go into the bathroom and don’t turn the lights on (it’s cool, I’ve memorized the layout of the room). Bam! I trip over a laundry basket and then trip again over the toddler training-potty and land awkwardly on my left foot. Ouch. That sucked. Oh well, back to the dance party and bounce around some more.
The next day my foot is aching and I don’t even want to walk on it. Wife’s gotta work on Monday. Both boys are in the house with me all week. The foot just keeps feeling worse and I don’t have a chance to see the doctor until Friday morning when someone is able to help me with the kids. Doctor sends me for X-rays, but they don’t see any breaks. Still, he tells me there could be some fractures in there that didn’t show up in imaging because the foot has tons of bones in it and it’s hard to get good pictures. He says rest it.
Rest it!? What is that nonsense? I have been training my 5k run and my 2k row for the past 4 months building to a peak that is only a week away! I’m supposed to be setting PRs on this stuff in a few days and you’re telling me to rest it!
My mindset was absolutely not ready to hear that my training would be derailed, especially with all the COVID lockdown stuff and worldwide existential panic at the time. External forces have already derailed my social life and my finances, even my childcare, and now you’re gonna tell me I can’t even run! I was pissed.
I had a hard time forcing myself to rest for the first couple weeks. I got on the rowing machine a few times, thinking that would be “low impact” cardio that wouldn’t require much ankle or foot movement. Wrong. It hurt. I also tried the Airdyne with the same thoughts in mind. Also hurt. Then there’s the issue of Non Exercise Activity. I am an ectomorph: fast metabolism, fast moving, thin. That’s just how I’m wired. I move around a lot and talk a lot and am always busy. When I used to wear a Fitbit, I’d have 10,000 steps by 11am and 20,000 by the end of the day. So, how I am going to just sit around and stay off my foot all day?
Well, I tried, and when the foot didn’t get any better, I tried harder. I’m good at doing stuff, but not doing stuff is really hard for me. Eventually, I resigned myself to training upper-body only. I settled into a routine of vertical push/pull Monday (handstand push-ups and weighted pull-ups), horizontal push/pull Wednesday (bench press and bent row), gymnastics skills Friday (strict muscle-ups & back levers), with L-sits on Tuesdays & Thursdays. Then during the day I would work sitting down, limping around minimally when I needed take care of the kids or run errands in town.
About a month after the injury, I felt like my foot was “all better” and I decided to do some yard work: raking, digging, weed-whacking, leaf-blowing, and mowing lawns. About halfway through the lawn, my foot cramped up bad and the last half was excruciating. Oops, I really did it now.
Spoke with the doc the next day and he says I need to buy a boot to immobilize my foot. This would not only keep all the bones and ligaments in my foot and ankle from moving around too much while they were trying to heal, but also remind myself and everyone else that I was supposed to be OFF the foot for a while.
I wore the boot for 3 weeks. No more grocery store trips. No more yard work. Dragging this heavy boot with me every time I walked across the house to get something, so needless to say, I was able to sit still for longer periods. Training continued to be upper-body only, and you know what? I was actually starting to enjoy this.
Now I’d finally made the mindset shift from, “this sucks, I don’t want to do this,” to, “this is the right thing to do.”
Not only did my foot need to be immobile while it healed, and to not bear weight, but I also needed more sleep and less caloric expenditure overall so that my body could devote more resources to healing. I needed to calm down about those missed PR opportunities and just relax a bit. Stress and worry are very taxing on the systems of the body.
Then I had a few days when I felt like the foot was much better, but it was wearing the boot and the lopsided gait it gave me that were causing me pain. Like, it would feel fine in the morning, but terrible after a few hours in the boot. So, I decided to ditch the boot.
I spent a week walking barefoot. Now I could really notice how I was walking with too much pressure on the heel or the outside of the foot, or leaning all my weight into my right to protect my left. These compensations were now leading to new pains unlike the original injury. Basically, I felt like the injury had healed but my new movement patterns were causing new discomfort and pain. The barefoot week was all deep-focus on removing those compensatory patterns, evening out my gait, and “breaking-in” my newly-healed foot the way you’d break in a new pair of shoes.
This weekend I went for a hike, my first hike in at least 2 months, and I felt great. Now, this week I’m slowly introducing more ground-based exercise activity and closely monitoring the way my foot reacts. My plan with cardio is to start with the Airdyne and maybe a road bike, then if all that goes well I’ll introduce the rowing machine, and then jogging on the road will come after that. I’ll be running again by the end of June, if not sooner.
I’ve had a lot of injuries in my lifetime, many of them from training in the gym, but some just from stupid stuff or unanticipated external events (like car accidents). It is always hard to switch that mindset from being focused on objectives to being focused on rest & healing. The key is to recognize that the most powerful healing force is NOT in a pill or a cream or a surgery, but in your body’s natural vitality. Resting doesn’t mean you can’t do anything, it just means you need to do things differently so that you stop causing insult to the already-damaged tissue and allow your body to prioritize repair and regrowth. The new objective, or goal, or “PR” to chase is returning from -5 to 0. Get back to your baseline so that you can resume training and chase your goals again.
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