If you work with athletes long enough, it is inevitable that some will at some point experience injury. It is the nature of high-level competitive athletics that athletes push their bodies to the limit of their recovery capacity, and often times we (speaking as an athlete) are too stubborn to heed the warnings. I’ve had my own struggles with injury and chronic pain and have learned many valuable lessons as I went through the process of getting out of pain, dealing with back and hip pain almost every rugby season and my first year or so into CrossFit. In the end, it wasn’t just changes in training, improving my movement patterns, or altering the way I thought about my pain that led to the its resolution, it was a combination of all of these factors that truly solved my problem.
- Don’t try to
come back from an injury too quickly.For many individuals, this can be a major challenge. They may feel a constant need to be training and improving, and desire to return back to full training too soon. Pain can often be a good guide for when it is safe to return to training. Initially, pain is part of the healing process, it indicates that inflammation is occurring, and serves as a feedback mechanism that tells our brain that what we are doing may be making the injury worse. Typically, once the pain has subsided from a soft-tissue injury it is a good indicator that you’re safe to begin a progressive rehabilitation program. It is often very important to take the time to gradually build back into training after an injury. Another issue that can occur if you try to train on an injury too soon is that you are reinforcing pain pathways, the nerve connections that run between our limbs/spine and brain, and are making it easier to sense pain in that area. For example, if you’ve injured your lower back and every day for a week you feel a pinch every time you bend over – your body is getting better at sending a pain signal down that pathway. If you try to train through this pain, your brain may become over-sensitive to these pain signals and may interpret a minor stretch as something dangerous.
- Try to maintain a positive outlook.In my experience both as a coach and athlete this is one of the keys to making progress to getting out of pain. Start by accepting that you you’re in pain, that there is no magic pill, and get to work fixing your problem daily. It can help to keep your focus on what you can do and not lament about what you can’t do. For example, if you have a left shoulder injury, do your rehab work and then you can still train your right arm, trunk/core, and lower-body, although you may have to get a bit creative. There is even some research that suggests that training your right arm while your left arm is injured can actually lead to greater retention of strength and endurance in your injured left arm than ceasing training all together. Keep in mind that if you’re dealing with a chronic injury, or long-term pain situation, that only training one limb for extended periods of time (4+ weeks) can potentially lead to movement compensation patterns that favor the trained limb over the untrained.
- Be patient with your body. There will be ups and downs in the recovery process. Our bodies work in alternating cycles of inflammation and repair so expect to make some progress and then see it undone. Do the rehab and movement work you need to do every single day to rehabilitate your injury or get yourself out of pain. When you wake up the next day and feel like you’re right back where you were, know that this is what it takes to get out of pain, and get right back to work on your recovery program.
- Don’t “look” for pain in places where you used to experience it.This is actually something that I’ve been dealing with myself now that my back and hip are no longer causing me daily issues. I experienced the pain for long enough that it became something that I dealt with on a daily basis and now I sometimes feel as if I’m waiting for the pain to start back up again. Every time I squat, I’m still searching for that pinch in my back or the pick in my hip. Part of the process of recovering from an injury or chronic pain is to develop confidence in your movements again.
Recovering from an injury or training your way out of pain can be a frustratingly slow and mundane process. However, knowing some basics about pain and recovery can make dealing with the process much easier to handle emotionally. I’m certainly not saying that following these steps is a guarantee that you’ll be able to recover or beat your pain, rather, this is simply what I have found through my experience working through my own pain. In the end, you could resign to stop training altogether and accept that the risk of re-injury is too great or that you’ll never be able to squat again. Or you could take the steps to move more, build your confidence, seek out help where you need it, and get yourself back to where you want to be. To me that is certainly better than never being able to train again.