Overcoming and working through injuries is something that, as a life-long athlete, I’ve had to deal with more than a few times. Between knee surgery as a pre-teen, shin splints and hairline hip fractures as a collegiate athlete, a broken back as an adult (that was a doozy) and torn muscles in both legs over the last two years, I’ve essentially been forced to figure out how I best work through an injury. I’m not gonna say I’ve got it completely figured out, by any means, but I’ve had to go through it enough that, by now, I know what works and what doesn’t work for me in terms of recovery.
Personally, my toughest challenge when it comes to treating an injury is finding middle ground between sitting around on my butt all day because “I’m injured and I can’t work out” or, working through pain when I shouldn’t be because I don’t wanna take a day off from training, even when rest is exactly what I need. In the last two years, I’ve lived both ends of that spectrum and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to effectively, correctly and productively work through an injury that flared up in the gym a few weeks back.
Personally, my toughest challenge when it comes to recovery is finding middle ground between sitting around all day and working through pain when I shouldn’t be.
In the spring of 2016, I injured my left calf: I was running quite a bit and it just tore. In like 5 places. From heel to knee. It was the kinda thing that left me totally sidelined – I underwent physical therapy twice weekly for months, and I was in a walking boot 24/7. At first, I was so desperate to keep up with my running routine that I’d take the boot off, pop twice (OK, thrice) the recommended dose of Advil, tape the livin’ crap out of my leg and try to run. That resulted in my right leg falling apart – it was doin’ the work of two legs and could only hang on for so long.
After both legs went belly-up, I got depressed about how badly it hurt and how much it cramped my running style, and I eventually stopped trying to work around the injury. I completely stopped working out, even though there’s plenty I could have been doing (swimming, stationary biking, upper body anything…) and, after a few weeks, I’d really gotten away from my regular gym sessions and any semblance of an active lifestyle. My legs became an excuse to have brunch on Saturday AND Sunday instead of spending one of those mornings on a long run or in a spin class. Not only did I gain about 10-15 pounds over the course of a few months but, by the next Spring, my workout schedule had gone from daily runs to (maybe) three or four spin classes a month.
By the Fall of 2017, for myriad reasons (discussed here and here), my weight had ballooned and I’d gotten so outta shape I could barely recognize myself, but I still used my legs as an excuse to sit around instead of work out. Granted, they were still fickle: some days, they didn’t hurt at all; some days, walking was really painful…but I still coulda done something, anything, to offset the fact that I couldn’t run, and I just…didn’t…for a pretty long time.
Fast forward to earlier this year, and my leg injuries were flaring up again. By this point, I’d gotten myself back in decent shape (after havin’ a little come to Jesus moment with the scale) but I was struggling to run every day because the pain in my legs was (and still is) pretty unpredictable. It felt like not running every day was failing, because running every day has always been my thing, and now that I was back in shape it felt like I should have been able to run as much as I wanted. In a super-cool experiment that I conducted where I completely ignored past results of identical behavior, I would (quite literally) tape my legs from hip to toe, pop some anti-inflammatories and head out just hoping that my legs didn’t choose that day to have a flare-up. It was absolutely ridiculous to push myself like that, and it completely disregarded everything my body was telling me, namely, that it needed rest, and maybe a little professional TLC.
It felt like not running every day was failing, because running every day has always been my thing, and now that I was back in shape it felt like I should have been able to run as much as I wanted. I would (quite literally) tape my legs from hip to toe, pop some anti-inflammatories and head out just hoping that my legs didn’t choose that day to have a flare-up. It was absolutely ridiculous to push myself like that.
Thankfully, this flare-up coincided with just about the time I really got into weightlifting and strength training, and I was able to continue working out even though I wasn’t running daily, which helped me feel productive and sane, even if it wasn’t my ideal situation. I also started using the stair machine and elliptical more often and, as a result of both getting stronger overall and also just not.freakin.running, I didn’t have much trouble with my legs until about two weeks ago, when I hopped off a piece of equipment, landed funny, and was immediately unable to walk.
It’s kinda funny: I was looking back on that day when I realized recently that my leg was feeling better (which was a surprise: usually, when it ‘goes,’ it’s ‘gone’ for about a week, if not more), and I had this moment where it occurred to me that I’d actually, somehow, without even realizing it, given my body exactly what it needed to recover quickly.
After I realized I couldn’t walk, I went straight to a trainer at the gym and asked him to massage my calf where it hurt. Hard. It killed me, but I know from months and months of PT that it was what I needed to do as quickly as possible to get that muscle loosened up. After that, I grabbed my phone and called a sports massage therapist and scheduled a massage for later that day. I headed home, stayed off my leg and rubbed my muscle with some magical ointment that’s meant to…I don’t know…work magic. I went to the massage that afternoon, requested (and received) a deep tissue session that had me almost in tears, and then I stayed off my legs for 48 hours. I still worked out, but I did zero cardio of any variety, and I only worked my upper body in the weight room. I started using a foam roller every night, and I only returned to running when I had zero pain. Two weeks later and I’m still almost entirely pain free.
Basically, this is my long-winded way of saying that injuries, while incredibly frustrating, do not have to derail your fitness routine or your goals. You may have to improvise or adapt, but you sure as hell don’t have to sit around and do nothing, and you definitely don’t have to push your body to do something it’s not ready to do for the sake of routine or to avoid feeling like you’ve somehow failed because you used a stationary bike instead of running five miles outside.
Outside of catastrophic injury or illness, there is almost always a way to work through an injury without under or over-doing it.
Outside of catastrophic injury or illness, there is almost always a way to work through an injury without under or over-doing it. You can work healthy body parts, you can utilize different equipment, you can get a massage or you can focus on things other than your physical health that are just as important to your recovery, like your mind or your diet. As a girl that’s spent a lot of time living at the extremes of how-not-to-treat-an-injury, my primary advice is to react to an injury kindly, and not with anger, even though that’s the dominant emotion when your leg (or arm or back or hip or whatever else) gives out in the middle of a race or workout session. If your body is hurting, that’s not an excuse to punish it further.
I’ve said it before, but I really believe it to be so true, so I’ll say it again: you get this one bod for your entire earthly journey (as far as I know), and it’s my goal to treat mine with a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Sometimes, that means pushing it beyond what I thought it was capable of in order to make it stronger and more resilient, and sometimes it means givin’ it a break, but most of the time it means backing away from the athletic tape and getting comfortable somewhere between the two.