Exercising After Injury
Returning to sports or training after an injury or life changing event can be a frustrating process. High-skill movement technique becomes rusty. Your lungs burn and legs turn to jello on 400m runs that used to feel like recovery. 60% of your 1 rep max back squat now feels like a mountain of weight.
We’re inundated on social media by professional athletes who are back in the gym snatching 100kg within 3 months of having shoulder surgery. Or NFL players taking hits sometimes as little as 8 weeks after a collarbone fracture. The Instagram fitness personality who has six-pack abs within 12 weeks of having a baby. Naturally, we tend to think our own recovery will mirror theirs with a little dedication.
The trouble is we don’t even realize how unrealistic expectations can be. And I’m right there with you. Two years ago, I dislocated my left shoulder – did surgery, rehab etc. I figured I’d have to miss one Nationals cycle and be right back to it. A few weeks after the “all-clear” to start training, I found out I was pregnant. I thought, no problem! I’ll keep up my shoulder exercises and have the perfect “fit” pregnancy. I did the smart thing and followed Birthfit to prevent lasting problems with diastasis recti and other pelvic floor disorders. But, as they say, the best laid plans…
Early labor symptoms sidelined my activity level to vacuuming the house and a 400m walk daily. I told myself to be patient. This is a season of life that you can’t speed up. Fast forward 3 months, and we have a beautiful, happy one month old baby. I’m 2 weeks away from another “all-clear” for exercise. And subluxed the other shoulder tossing a diaper bag in the back seat of the car.
All right, all right. I know. Long story long. I’m finally easing back into almost all regular activity – with the exception of heavy overhead/gymnastics work – 6 months after having my baby. I had realistic expectations after my first injury in April of 2016: 6 months to return to normal athletic activity. Same with my pregnancy. I’ve worked with pregnant athletes numerous times. I knew the resources I needed to use. I found a local pelvic floor physical therapist to work with at 6 weeks post partum to set myself up for long-term success. I’m a fairly patient, practical person. But this latest injury has been a total mind-f***. Especially when 3 months of rigorous physical therapy has made minimal progress on the latest shoulder injury, and there are no good surgical options both from a medical and social standpoint. My prognosis is basically, “wait and see.”
Your Recovery Is Not Entirely In Your Control
There are so many things in life we can’t control. And your recovery after an injury or surgery is one of those things. Sure, we can set ourselves up for success by religiously performing “pre-hab” routines in our warm-ups to help avoid injury. You can be dedicated to your PT protocol after an injury. But the journey is your own. When we compare ourselves to elite athletes post-injury or surgery, we often forget what resources they have at their disposal. They have the ability dedicate their entire day to ensuring they get enough rest, eat nutrient-dense food, and have access to the best therapists. The average person still has to worry about their other commitments and insurance caps on outpatient PT. Sure, we can do all these same things too, but it’s difficult to adhere to the sleep/rehab/food/life commitments balance with 100% effort in all areas.
When you are able to get back in the gym, don’t punish yourself or feel frustrated for feeling like you’re so far behind. It only takes 48 hours of non-training to start losing cardiovascular endurance. After 2 weeks of rest, you can see 7-10% fall off your one rep maxes. Now, multiply that by potentially 6-12 weeks (or more) of modified activity or rest, and you can see that being back to your old 100% in 6 months can be tough. Studies have shown that patients who undergo an ACL reconstruction feel more confident in return to sports a year out from surgery, but continue to see functional deficits in strength and power output up to two years post-op.
What to Do After a Sport Injury
Don’t train through pain.
Pain is your body telling you it’s had enough. Unless working out puts food on your table, be smart and back off your activity. If you’ve taken a week or two off painful exercises and your pain levels haven’t begun to improve, it may be time to have it checked out.
Do see a doctor or physical therapist if your pain doesn’t improve with rest.
It is also important to make an appointment if the pain after your injury is severe (can’t sleep at night, bear weight, etc) as soon as possible.
When in doubt, make the appointment.
Don’t diagnose yourself.
Unless you have a significant educational background in orthopedics, your progress will go nowhere fast if you’re assigning yourself exercises from the internet. While there are excellent channels on YouTube with demonstrations for valid therapy exercises, the human body is very bad at telling you where your pain is originating from. You need an experienced physician or physical therapist to evaluate your injury and determine what is causing your pain.
Do go to physical therapy.
Even if you can only financially swing a few visits, they can provide you with an individualized exercise program and hands-on therapy modalities can be invaluable at releasing muscular tension/pain and improving range of motion.
Don’t compare yourself to others on social media.
There is no doubt they’ve put a TON of work while recovering from their injury to get back to peak physical conditioning the second their doctor clears them. My forever girl crush, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, had some honest posts about the literal sweat and tears it took to get back to the competition floor after a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery this season. If an athlete makes it “look easy” on social media, they’re only posting the best parts of their rehab process.
Do compared yourself to the you from last week.
Since recovery isn’t a linear process, maybe even last week is stretching it. Where were you at last month? Could you not raise your arm overhead or walk on your bum knee. Maybe now you’ve progressed to single arm dumbbell presses with 5lbs or are able to do air squats! While this may seem far from your previous snatch best or 5RM back squat, you are making progress. Stay the course, and you will rebuild better than you were before.
Do be patient.
You cannot force biology. Anything orthopedic (meaning bone, tendon, or ligament related) takes a minimum of 6 weeks to heal. And 6 weeks does not mean you’re back to normal. This means it has finally settled down enough to progress your activity. If surgery was necessary, these timelines can differ dramatically. Instead of wishing the time away, think of an injury as an opportunity to improve. It forces you to take a step back and focus on movement mechanics again. And you will get back to doing the things you love. Remember, you’re not actually starting from scratch after an injury.
I didn’t tell my story at the beginning to elicit sympathy or excuse my fluffy photos on Instagram. I shared to let you know – I understand. It’s one thing tell you to be patient, but I understand just how frustrating being patient is for an athlete. I miss competing on a daily basis. I cannot wait for the day I’m finally able to do a single muscle-up again. But hang in there. You are only in control of your attitude and commitment to the recovery process. The only way you can fail is if you quit. I can’t wait to see your post-injury PRs. We’ve got this!