During my yoga teacher training, my teachers often said that an injury is the best teacher. It forces you to take a hard look at your practice, see what your crutches are, where you need to improve, and, most importantly, how to adapt.
Every time I’m faced with an injury myself, those words ring through my head. These days, I’ve been benched from quite a few movements because of an irritation in my knee (patellar tendonitis) and my elbow. I’ve moved up a category for a competition this June and have been feeling the pressure to work as hard as possible between now and then. My body, on the other hand, wasn’t on board.
Working through an injury is frustrating at best. You might feel pain, frustration, or concern, especially if you’re training towards a specific event. It may be a source of confusion (“How did I do this?”) or fear (“How will I fix this?”) if you’ve never dealt with it before.
But the body always wants to heal itself. So with enough time, effort, and education, you’ll get to where you’re going. In the meantime, how can you make the best of your recovery?
Get in touch with your body.
Sometimes an injury is a clear cut event and, other times, it’s the result of chronic movement patterns that aren’t working for your body. In either case, facing an injury is a chance for you to slow down and get in touch with your body’s needs.
As athletes, new and experienced alike, pain can become an all too familiar sensation. Especially with muscle soreness, you learn to adapt to working through the pain. It can be a useful skill and habit, but not when your body is trying to tell you something with the pain.
An injury often shows us the ways in which we’re not listening to our bodies. Overtraining, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, non-existent recovery practices: all of these can make us more susceptible to injuries. When an injury forces you to slow down, try shifting the focus from what you’re missing towards what you can provide for your body right now. Whether that’s being more mindful of hunger cues to ensure you’re eating enough nutritious food to heal or, when you can, hitting snooze on your alarm for a little more sleep, use the time to prioritize your physical self.
Work on your weaknesses.
An injury often means that certain movements and exercises are off-limits for a period of time. That means, you have to focus on something else! I love squatting, but when I hurt my knee (and other knee and ankle), I had to stop for a while. But I didn’t want to completely stop my training because I felt great otherwise – and I was stilling working towards a competition.
So what did I do? I focused on different movements.
If squats are off-limits, how are you feeling about your pull-ups or handstands? If you tweaked your shoulder, how can you improve your deadlifts or core strength? In order to be a well-rounded athlete, you have to work on all aspects of your strength and fitness. An injury doesn’t have to be a dead stop – unless, of course, your body is telling you you need the rest. Instead, it’s an opportunity to shift your perspective and find those neglected areas to work on.
Explore different modalities.
Sometimes a certain type of workout isn’t working for your body. But there are a wide variety of ways to be active and move. If one sport/workout isn’t working for you at the moment, try another.
If Crossfit is a no go, try a body building-type workout.
If running is too high impact, try resistance training or a fast yoga flow.
If team sports are out for the moment, what about a spin class?
Use the opportunity to experiment with different types of classes and modalities while you work on getting back to your normal routine.
Look for adaptations.
We often rely on the same variations of movements over and over. We squat the same way, deadlift the same way, run the same way, and so on. Variation makes you stronger. By performing different variations of a movement, you strengthen the surrounding muscles that you might not hit otherwise.
Overall, it’s a win-win.
Injuries may force us into looking for adaptations. If you can’t perform back squats, there are: front squats, squats to a box, hex bar deadlifts, glute raises, lunges, and more. One of the most useful tools to have in your pocket is “orientation.” Take a movement and flip it around. Squats are out, but can you do bridges or row? Both are a bit like squats, just flipped.
Ask for support.
Whether it’s a physical therapist, coach, or friend, reach out. If something doesn’t feel right, honor that. There is so much messaging in the fitness world promoting the idea that pain is normal. It isn’t.
If something hurts, ask what that means. While muscle soreness is a common side-effect of working out, muscle aches, joint pain, or sharp pains are not. It’s important not to “suck it up” and instead respect what your body is telling you. No coach or athlete knows your body better than you. Ask for variations when something feels wrong. Ask for help when it doesn’t feel better. Your body is worth it.
In the long run, taking the time to care for your body will give you more longevity than working out through any injury.