Injury Recovery is a Long Process
For me, it was a 20-month process that included recovering from a torn patella tendon in my right knee then a herniated disc in my lumbar spine. All starting at the age of 24. Both put me in chronic pain on a daily basis; sometimes so severe that it physically doubled me over in tears with some choice four letter words.
Two years ago I was a hardcore trail runner and avid CrossFit member. I was running 4 to 6 days a week (5 to 15+ miles a day) and doing CrossFit 5 to 6 days a week (sometimes twice in one day). What I was doing wasn’t impressive – despite what people around me were saying. I was severely overtraining and I was being an idiot.
On the outside, I looked great. I was physically more fit than I’d been in my life. My lifts were getting heavier and my runs easier. I was placing top two in every race and competition I entered in. But on the inside I was physically tearing my body down in ways it couldn’t recover from.
After 7 months rehabbing a torn patella tendon, then 13 months recovering from a herniated disc, here I am 20 months later and I’m finally able to start training again. But here’s the caveat: I’m not the same person I was a year and a half ago. I can’t pick up where I left off and it’s not like “riding a bike.” Injury recover is a long and slow process. And although I’m not in pain, I’m not fully recovered either.
I’m far away from being able to start running again or to lift a barbell. So what about this makes me in recovery? Simply, I’m being smarter about getting back on the wagon and I have intelligent coaches helping me figure out workouts for my body in its current state. As much as you remember mentally, your body may need a refresher physically. It makes you more focused on muscle engagement and proper form instead of how much or how fast you can lift.
Patience and Progress
But it’s not easy. I’m a highly competitive person. I thrive on competing and use working out as a way to relieve stress and have time to myself. Losing that was difficult for me and it was even harder to find a positive replacement. It’s easy to get into a self-pity mindset. When you don’t feel good, you don’t eat well, you don’t take care of yourself as much as you should, and-on-and-on-and-on…. You spend a lot of your time thinking you’ll never get better.
The first, and best, step I took for myself was to build a makeshift stand up desk at work using crates we had in the office. There’s tons of research behind how beneficial standing verse sitting during the day is for your overall health. (I won’t blabber on about this. Watch this if you want to hear more about it: Deskbound | Feat. Kelly Starrett | MobilityWOD.) And for someone dealing with a back injury, taking that compression off my spine was a must.
I also spent a lot of time finding the right people to work with. Putting in the leg work is imperative to find experts who understand you and what you want during your recovery process. Through the course of my journey I saw eight doctors, two physical therapists, five massage therapists, an acupuncturist, a chiropractor, and a nutritionist.
If someone told me at the start of all this that it would take me a year and a half just to be at a point where I could start doing light exercise, I would have been hard pressed to find a happy day between then and now. I lack patience on a normal day, so to be hit with a 20-month timeline to start back at square one is rough.
But, I learned a lot. I now have a mental progression that I didn’t have a few years ago. I know right now I’m capable of doing a lot more than I’m allowing myself to do. It’s a big ego blow, but worth it. I still ask for help getting heavy items in my car, I still have my husband carry the hamper downstairs and the clean laundry upstairs, and I significantly hold back and modify workouts so I don’t go back down that road.
Main Takeaways (OR If You Didn’t Read Anything Above):
I’m not the only person who’s suffered through something like this. At some point or another we’re all likely to be plagued with some sort of injury. My recovery time was probably a lot longer than some peoples and a lot shorter than others. But it took me years and years to learn what my body was capable of doing in a safe way.
So what’s the take away?
• Focus on quality over quantity. 5 great reps are much better than 15 shitty ones. A 3 mile run with no knee pain is better than a 10 mile one that makes it so you can’t walk the next day. Check your ego.
• Throw yourself into your recovery. When I lost working out a huge chunk of time opened up on my weekly calendar. Use that time to focus on your recovery. Do your PT every day, see doctors, meet with people who can help you mentally and physically.
• Concentrate on what you CAN do. Find the exercises that don’t hurt and do them. Whether that’s cutting back on weight during squats or just going for a walk, there should almost always be something you can do to move your body. Anything is better for you than sitting on the couch binge watching Netflix and eating Cool Ranch Doritos.
• Don’t pick up where you left off. You shouldn’t immediately dive back into your routine after being laid up for a long time. When I was 22 I had to take 2 months off of running and my first day back I ran 8 miles on concrete. Ending up causing a fracture in my left distal fibula. Be smart, don’t be a dummy like 22-year-old me.
• Understand your physical limits are different from your mental ones. I can pick up a 65# barbell right now and do 50 squats, but I won’t. Mentally, I can push myself a lot further than my body can physically handle. Learning about yourself is the only way to distinguish between the two.