The Importance of a Proactive Mentality in Injury Recovery and Rehabilitation
An Anvil Training Article by Daniel HuntIf you exercise regularly, then at some point you’ve probably experienced some kind of injury or illness that has got in the way of your normal training routine. A runner may have a sprained ankle, a weight lifter may have pulled a muscle, or it may just be the flu.These injuries and illnesses that you have inevitably experienced throughout your life can feel like a setback, and it’s normal to feel that - I know I feel that way, no matter what I’m training for. The common response we come across to these setbacks, however, is usually:
“I can’t do anything because I’m injured/sick.”
This is extremely unfortunate, because it could be:
“What can I do?”
A couple of months before writing this article, I blew a disc in my back doing a deadlift. It was so painful that I couldn’t stand. In fact, all I could do was lay on my back on the same platform, next to the fully loaded bar, in whatever position I could manage to minimise the pain. Eventually, paramedics came, gave me some strong pain relief (inhaled methoxyflurane) just to get me back on my feet. They assisted walking me out of the gym and straight into the ambulance for a trip to the hospital, where I spent the next 6 hours lying in a bed with some even stronger pain relief (opiate based) just to keep me going.
(To the nurse that didn’t lock the bed rail in properly before you had me try and sit up using the rails to push off, causing the rail to give out and send immense pain through my back: I still remember the look of guilt in your eyes - but it’s okay, I laugh about it now.)
My Thought ProcessAs I lay there on that gym platform, unable to roll to one side or even raise my hips, my number one concern was:
“How long will I be out?”
Considering I’d just heard and felt a popping noise from my spine, it might seem like that should have been the least of my problems. For someone who spends excited nights awake in bed before a big work-out, however, that was what was going through my head. I was very concerned about having to undergo surgery - meaning a long recovery time and possibly months of bare minimum movement. I thought that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be that bad. Best case scenario, I could work hard enough to cut down to 3-6 months of rehab. Fortunately, I couldn’t dwell on it too much before the paramedics arrived and drugged me up.
(My thought process over the next little while isn’t worth pulling anything from. I did however learn that I talk a lot of shit under the influence of heavy pain relief.)
Once the haze of the pain medication wore off, I began to think about what the injury meant for my immediate, and possibly longer term, future. Like anyone, I was guilty of thinking of what I couldn’t do; how it would set me back, and the frustrations associated with that. After a deep breath and a mental kick in the ass, I started to think about what I would be capable of. At this point I was still under the impression that I would be receiving scans on my back to assess the severity of the injury, so what I could do was limited to upper body work. (Bicep curls. Bicep curls. Bicep curls.) Regardless, it was a step in the right direction towards a more proactive mentality. Throughout the night I had a couple visits from doctors asking what happened and then the nurse helping me sit, stand and eventually walk. They assessed that I didn’t need immediate scans, and instead gave me a prescription for painkillers and a letter for my General Practitioner (GP). With the smell of 6 hour old sweat on my clothes and opiates coursing through my body, I painfully walked out of the hospital. Without any help, because I knew I could.
My actionsI took two things from that trip to the hospital:
- The first doctor I spoke to recommended that I never do deadlifts again.
- During the walks the nurse had me do, which were no more than 20 meters at a time, I noticed that my back hurt less once I had it moving.
For the first point, my first mental reaction was “Fuck this dude”. Admittedly, this is not a great thought to have about a doctor giving his professional medical advice. Nonetheless, it was exactly how I felt about it. So what did I do about that? Firstly, I set some goals. I said that I wanted to be deadlifting again within three months. I didn’t care if it was 200kg, 60kg, or even a plastic bar with marshmallows on the ends. As long as I could safely do the movement without pain, I would deadlift again. I wasn’t the first person to be injured, and there’s plenty of examples out there of people recovering and coming back from their setbacks. Coming from a military background, I know that other people have suffered far worse trauma than I had and are capable of training harder, and lifting more, than I ever have. Secondly, I thought about what things I could do to give me the best chance of a complete recovery. That meant a trip to the GP with my letter from the hospital and a referral to a physiotherapist. I strongly recommend seeing a specialist - they’re worth the money and are called a specialist for a reason.
Here’s where the second point comes in. While I was fully accepting of the fact that I wouldn’t be back in the gym for the foreseeable future, I wasn’t satisfied with just sitting on my ass. So I walked, because I could.
It was the first thing I did when I woke up at 5am the next morning, unable to sleep, with my lower back feeling like it was on fire. I struggled into a sitting position, took a few deep breaths and stood, and then I walked up and down the hallway in my apartment. I did this several times a day for the first few days, and then I went outside and walked a few hundred meters along my street. I slowly increased the distance until, eventually, I could walk a 6km route around where I live. Any injury will teach you the true value of progressive overload in action.
I won’t lie, it hurt. A lot of the time I just wanted to find a comfortable position at home and hide from the pain. Just putting my shoes on to do the walk was a ten minute ordeal by itself. But I wanted to stay active, and at least do something each day. And I wanted to deadlift again.
My PointDon’t take this the wrong way. I’m certainly not saying that everyone who is injured or sick needs to walk 6km and they will get better. There are absolutely times where the best thing to do is lie down and get some rest. My specific actions recovering from that specific injury were just for me and were what I knew I was capable of. However, regardless of your illness or injury, staying active (within reason) will always be beneficial to your recovery. So listen to your chosen medical professional, and be smart about recovery and rehabilitation when you need it.
(Yes, I see the hypocrisy of me saying that after my reaction to Hospital Doctor #1)
The most important part of my whole recovery process was the question I asked myself, lying in hospital unable to move without pain:
“What can I do?”
Push your own personal boundaries a little, and find out exactly what is preventing you from conducting your normal training routine. Then, work around it. So you can’t put weight on your ankle? Try the leg extension machine, or the hamstring curl. Be proactive! Look for alternative exercises or activities that you can do. If you can’t figure it out, there is absolutely no shame in asking a fitness or medical professional. Do your research, test your limits, and keep asking that question over and over. Doing so will help keep your body working, and it will keep you in a healthier state compared to doing nothing at all. It’s also great for mental maintenance. Doing some form of physical activity will help you retain the habit of staying fit, and pays off tenfold down the road when you’re fully capable again. It’s easy to get sucked into the comfort of sitting at home, but being injured or less capable for the rest of your life is far harder than a tough recovery.
Learning from Injury
Like any setback, obstacle or challenge in life, there is always an opportunity to learn. When it comes to injuries and illnesses, the most obvious lesson is:
“What can I do to prevent that from happening again.”
For me, I ruthlessly picked apart the memory of the lift that caused my injury:
“What did I do wrong? Why did I do that? How can I prevent it in future?”
Now that I’m back in the gym deadlifting again, I apply the lessons I learned to ensure my technique is as close to perfect, as safe, and as consistent as possible. The lessons I learned won’t be the same lessons anyone else learns, as my injury was unique to my mistakes. The one thing anyone can take away from an injury or illness, however, is how you react to it. So I implore you - be your own harshest critic for the benefit of your future training.
As I’ve said over and over again, there will eventually be something that interrupts your training. A lot of the time the injury or illness will be partially, or fully, out of your control. So be proactive! Identify the things which are in your control, and do everything you can to ensure that those things don’t cause more issues in the future. Stay accountable to your mistakes, and be aware of the factors contributing to potential setback. For example:
“I’m exhausted from work.”
“I feel extra tight in my lower back from sitting all day.”
“I’m emotionally distracted and the small stuff is really getting to me today.”
Be smart about your training, and don’t let your ego push you too far.
Like we say at Anvil - “Train Smart. Train Hard.”
Anvil Training and Development is a group of Australian veterans who care about the physical and mental health of veterans and emergency service workers. We’re passionate about ongoing education and working with others to implement positive change.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
VES Mental Health Resources: https://anviltd.com/pages/ves-australian-mental-health-resources