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The Road to Recovery - How to Deal With Injuries
This May I tore my ACL in an obstacle course race. I had a comfortable lead going into the final 100 meters of the race. I approached one of the last obstacles, swung through, hit the bell, and jumped down. When I landed, my knee buckled and I fell to the ground. I felt and heard a pop in my left knee. Every time I tried to stand my leg refused to bear any weight. I stumbled a few times before being carried off the course. The injury was totally unexpected. I was the favorite to win the race, but in an instant the win and the rest of my racing season disappeared. Later that day an MRI report confirmed my worst fear- I fully tore my ACL and would undergo surgery two weeks later.
Injuries are almost a given when it comes to sports. Running, cycling, skiing, OCR: if you do one of these for long enough chances are you’ll experience an injury. Whether due to trauma or overuse, the path to recovery is similar involving rest, cross training, physical therapy exercises, and a slow progression back to normal activity.
These are my tips for physically and mentally getting through an injury.
Seek Professional Medical Help
The first thing to do after injury is seek out professional medical help. Consider getting a second and even a third opinion. A physical therapist or a PMnR (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation) doctor is a great place to start for many overuse injuries. For my ACL injury, I met with 3 orthopedic surgeons and saw my physical therapist prior to surgery.
When you see a medical professional I recommend asking these questions:
- What types of cross training am I allowed to do?
- Are there any additional stretches or exercises I can do to help this injury?
- Is there anything I should avoid doing in my daily life?
- Are there any dietary considerations or supplements you recommend taking for this injury?
- What factors contributed to this injury? Lifestyle, nutrition, training volume or intensity, movement patterns, etc.
Go with specific questions written down ahead of time, take notes during your appointment, and consider taking videos to help you remember the exercises your physical therapist gives you.
Rest, but also Keep Moving
When you approach cross training, keep in mind your number one goal is to heal. Even if you have an event on the horizon, if you prioritize maintaining fitness over healing you may not reach that starting line.
Here are my tips to plan your cross training:
- Be consistent. Pick out a form of cross training you enjoy and can do consistently.
- Movement specificity matters. Incorporate cross training movements that are closer to your sport. For instance, a runner may choose to elliptical and aqua jog over bike since the former movements are closer to running.
- Polarize your training. Chances are you have some variability in your normal training schedule. Try incorporating intervals, easy days, and longer efforts into your cross training too.
- If in doubt, rest. Healing takes energy. Hitting cross training too hard can hinder your progress.
Athletes don’t want to lose fitness but remember your main goal right now is to heal so you can get back to doing what you love. Keep in mind, detraining and gaining a few pounds is often necessary for the healing process to occur. With that in mind, fuel well. This isn’t a time to start dieting or restricting food. Know that slight weight gain is normal and a good sign that your body has the nutrients it needs to heal.
Take Ownership of your Rehab Process
Keep a daily log including what you did for cross training and how your injury felt that day. Write down any life activities that affected you, like excessive walking or standing. You’ll be able to track progress, see trends, and more accurately report back to your doctors.
Get curious about your body. Our daily life can contribute to our movement patterns and injuries. Ask yourself “what makes my injury feel worse?” and “what makes my injury feel better?” Be cognizant of how you hold your body and ways in which you may be compensating.
Physical therapy exercises can be boring and seem fruitless at times, but they are vital to your return to sport. My number one rule is to approach rehab like it’s your most important workout. Have all your exercises written down and schedule time to complete them.
Dealing with the Mental Side of Injury
Not to be overlooked, let’s consider how to mentally deal with injury.
Sport can factor into our identity, social life, and our feeling of purpose. It’s no wonder many athletes struggle with depression, lack of motivation, negative self image, and feelings of isolation following injury.
Here are my tips for dealing with the mental side of injury:
- Stay connected to friends and your community.
- Focus on what you can do - cross train and physical therapy exercises. Try not to dwell on activities you’re missing out on.
- Look for signs of progress. Keeping an injury log helps with this.
- Set an athletic goal that doesn’t hinder your healing. Maybe it’s time to develop a new skill like swimming or work on upper body strength.
- Get outside to feel the benefits of sunshine and nature.
- Find purpose outside of sport. Invest in other aspects of your life: career, family, or another hobby.
Be proactive. Start by asking yourself “what do I love about my sport?” For me, the answer is social connection, competition, pushing myself physically, being outside, and having a goal. Now, consider how to fulfill these in different ways. For me, this means prioritizing time with friends, finding a way to cross train outside and setting goals to increase my pull-up power and finger strength.
In the event that you encounter an injury, I hope this article helps you navigate the set back and return to your sport.
By Nicole Mericle
4 time Obstacle Course Racing World Champion
Founder of OCR Dream Team and Elevate OCR