How to train after an injury

I originally wrote this on the Fit Missions blog in 2016 but I wanted to republish it on here as we all no doubt know someone who's suffering with an injury, and could use a reminder that all is not lost. 

The word ‘injury’ strikes fear into the heart of any athlete, but with fitness becoming more and more mainstream how do the rest of us mere mortals deal with the setbacks, both physical and emotional, that injury brings? In this blog post we're going to explore what you can do to get your training back on track as quickly as possible, without causing further damage.

I’ll give you a bit of background to my own experience with injury, so you know where I’m coming from. I’d been pretty lucky until just over a year ago when I was in a car crash, and suffered severe pain in my right shoulder, elbow, back and knee. It had a profound impact on my training as I couldn’t lift weights or do high volume or intensity bodyweight movements without pain. As a CrossFitter, personal trainer and a woman who values an active lifestyle, that is not a good thing: “what do I do if I can’t squat?”. It’s taken 15 months of frustration, adaptation and rehab to get me back on track. I'm not the only person to suffer from an injury and I want to share with you what I've learned, in the hopes that you can avoid making some of the mistakes I did! 

Lesson #6 is the most important thing I've learned over the last year - read it and you'll see why!

Right then - let's go!

Lesson #1 – This is THE time to yell ‘HELP!’

yell or push button help

If you’re anything like me, asking for help can be a pretty difficult thing to do. Historically it’s been seen as admitting a weakness but nowadays I prefer to see it as bringing the experts on board to make my life a lot easier. Depending on your injury you might want to contact a physiotherapist, a sports masseuse, a biomechanical specialist or go to your GP for an MRI scan or x-ray. Get recommendations from people you trust – family or friends, your personal trainer, a local athlete you know – and be persistent. It’s your body so push for the best possible care you can get, and keep going until you have a great team around you, supporting your recovery. If your body isn’t worth the effort, what is?

Lesson #2 – Attitude is everything

And I mean EVERYTHING. As with any disappointment you can take it in two ways: use it to help you grow and become a better individual, or let it devour you. Personally I prefer the former. An injury on any scale can seem devastating, but the last thing you can do is let it get you down. About 7 years ago the British Medical Journal published research proving that a good attitude has a real, measurable, positive impact on recovery rates in cancer patients: if it works with serious illness, surely it must affect injury recovery too?  In the aftermath of my injury I tried to continue training as hard as I had been before, which I can assure you is a terrible idea. I wasn’t letting my body come to terms with what had happened to it or showing it any kindness, which made me cross, tense, and unlikely to make any positive progress. Over the last few months I’ve realised that who cares if I can’t back squat as much as I used to? I can still walk, run, jump, laugh and have fun. There are too many terrible things going on in the world to worry about the little things, however huge it seems at the time. As long as we’re alive, we have to make the most of every minute – and with this renewed attitude, my recovery has come along leaps and largely pain-free bounds!

Lesson #3 – Listen to Your Body

One thing that makes me really happy is when a client comes in and tells me they have a niggle in their back/shoulder/knee. No, I’m not a sadist - I just really appreciate the honesty. By sharing how their body feels, it means I can alter their session appropriately so as not to cause any further damage and plan in some work to aid recovery. Listening to your gut instincts and how your body feels is crucial for injury-avoidance and rehab. Replace thinking “I used to be able to do this” with “this is what is best for me today”. Obviously we all want to improve and keep getting better, but when injury shifts your benchmark, you need to adjust your thoughts and actions accordingly.

Lesson #4 - Time Heals (Seriously)

When you’re hit with an injury, it’s always a massive shock to the system. You can think “what if I hadn’t…”, “if only I had…” until you’re driven slightly mad, and of course we often look to place the blame – often rightly so – elsewhere. The important thing to remember is that, no matter how bad things seem, they will get better. I honestly thought I’d never be back to normal because it seemed to be taking so long to see any signs of improvement, but over a year later and I am slowly getting there. Recovery takes an indeterminate amount of time, but as long as you’re being kind to your body, you will keep improving. Trust me, time really does make a difference.

Lesson #5 – Learn to Love What You’re Capable Of

My Dad is 70. (This is relevant, I promise.) He is amazing, not just because he inspired me to get into fitness (more on that later) but because he still lifts every day. Yes he’s had a heart valve replacement, a new hip, and has lost the sight in one eye. No he isn’t lifting as much as he was when he was my age. BUT IT DOESN’T MATTER. He trains to the best of his ability and every day I want to make the most of my own training because he certainly does with his. Learning to love what you’re capable of, regardless of how it compares to what you could do yesterday or might manage tomorrow, is a key part of dealing with injury and setbacks. Negativity does us no good. Love what you can already do: and keep your passion for improvement. Best of both worlds.

Lesson #6 - Set Yourself Goals

motivational quote love nothing is too much trouble

The pivotal moment in my recovery was accepting a place in the London Marathon 2016, running and blogging for Lucozade Sport. My knees and back were still a mess, I was in regular physio, and I had no idea whether or not I’d be able to get close to completing it. But I wanted to give it my best shot, and so I said a huge resounding (and slightly terrified) YES. It was a turning point because it gave a focus to my training other than simply worrying that I wasn’t as strong or fit as I’d been before the accident. Everything was painful to begin with, but I really started listening to my body. I knew how much I could push before the discomfort started turning into real pain. I forced myself to rest and saw that as being kind to my body rather than laziness. My biggest lesson in all of this is that having a goal – a real goal, one that you connect to wholeheartedly – makes more difference than everything else put together (that’s why I saved this one until last). Why do I say that? Because setting a goal forces you to do everything else in order to achieve it. Kindness, time, passion, help, attitude: they are all essential components of achieving any goal worth reaching for. So set your goal, and start working towards it. It doesn’t matter how small or large that goal might be – what’s important is that it matters to you.

Share your experiences of dealing with injuries and any resources you found useful in the comments below. My personal recommendation is to book in to see a chap called James Jowsey (there is a waiting list) over in Manchester - he has helped numerous CrossFit athletes at all levels recovery from injuries, surgery and fixed all kinds of mobility issues, so is well worth the time and money.