Let Your Injuries Make You Better
Over the past 10 years I have had an abundance of injuries from strains, sprains, tendonitis, sacroiliac joint disease to multiple herniated discs and a genetic disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. Along the way, I've learned how to recover psychologically and physically from injuries while continuing to push forward and improve. Since then, helping people continue to improve while recovering from their own injuries has become a passion of mine. Here's what I've learned.
The most important element of training through any injury is mindset. You can either wallow in self pity and allow yourself to regress while you slowly recover to your new, lower baseline or see the injury as an opportunity and challenge to correct weaknesses and recover as quickly as possible. Your mindset will dictate how successful your recovery is.
Training body parts you suck at is never enjoyable, but use this as an opportunity to improve. You can always improve on something whether its movement patterns, breathing, conditioning or exercise technique. If you don't know what you're terrible at just ask yourself what you hate training the most. Better yet ask a friend or training partner what your weaknesses are to get some constructive criticism.
If you use common sense and stay within the range of motion and loads your medical practitioners outline, you'll be doing your body a favor. Now most doctors do not have the time or specialized knowledge to give you everything you need to know about rehabbing your injury, nor is it their job, recovering from an injury is your responsibility. It may be beneficial to have more than one professional look over your injury in the first place because from my experiences I have had doctors give me a bottle of painkillers and advise that I simply never train again. Whenever you injure a muscle, movement is your best friend. Movement stimulates increased blood flow around the injury site, thus feeding nutrients and getting rid of waste by-products.
The 4 Stages of Recovery
There are 4 main stages of recovery. The bleeding phase, inflammation phase, proliferation phase and remodeling phase. The bleeding phase is relatively short lived following injury or trauma, lasting only a matter of hours. The inflammatory phase is an essential component of tissue repair and peaks after a few days before gradually resolving over the next couple of weeks if you do not continue to aggravate the injury. The proliferation phase essentially involves the generation of the repair tissue which involves the production of scar (collagen) material. It comes on quite rapidly after just a couple days but peaks after 2-3 weeks’ post injury and not resolving until several months. The final phase is the remodeling phase, which can last up to a year or more.
The remodeling phase is where people often think the injury has healed then go back to the weight they lifted prior to the injury and set themselves right back into one of the earlier phases and starting the process all over again. I have made this mistake numerous times, do not let yourself enter the never-ending cycle of chronic injuries. Therefore, you can have an injury that never goes away or lasts years, you continue to set yourself back by pushing too hard too soon.
I would dare to say that every muscle or joint related injury can be trained around, it's simply a matter of diagnosing and assessing what movements do not cause pain and focusing your training on volume and density rather than intensity. Unilateral training (one side of body) has even been shown in studies to slow down muscle loss in the injured area just by continuing to train the good side. This method is called cross-education. Below I am going to outline some ways to continue hitting the gym with some common areas of injury.
Back/Hips - This can be a difficult one but there is still plenty that you can work on. I have always taken this opportunity to focus on shoulders, arms, breathing technique and eventually followed by deadlift and squat movement patterns. The chest can still be trained if you avoid exercises utilizing leg drive, even the lats can be trained with a light chest supported dumbbell row. Some single leg variations can even be implemented such as leg extensions and curls if the intensity remains low enough not to affect the hips or spine.
Shoulder/Elbow and Wrist - These injuries leave you with a lot that you can still train, there are many lower body and core exercises that can be done. Aerobic conditioning and breathing would also be two large areas to focus on. If one side is injury free this leaves you with one arm to hold a dumbbell while doing lunges, squats, deadlifts, and step ups. Even the upper body can still be trained on one side with unilateral lifts. Machines also offer a wide selection of choice for the upper and lower body. Hip thrusts can also be a great way to train the posterior chain.
Knee/Ankle and Foot - Lower body injuries are always difficult but these leave you with the entire upper body and core to still train. Once again unilateral lifts are always an option when done carefully such as single leg Romanian deadlifts, rear foot elevated squats, and single leg sit ups or hanging leg raises.
Although I advocate getting back into the gym and training as soon as possible and I have showed you that there is always a way, you must still use common sense and give your body appropriate rest time. It is recommended to take a short recovery period until the initial pain has settled down and you can safely train, usually somewhere near the end of the inflammation phase. Injuries need to be assessed on a case by case basis but training can usually be started in unaffected areas of the body during the proliferation phase, following the careful introduction of weight onto the injured site during the remodeling phase. Use your head in these situations, if something causes pain don't do it, this is not a situation where "no pain no gain" applies.
Now when it comes to nutrition and sleep this is going to be become more important than ever. Nutrition is an area that usually goes down the drain for people when they get an injury. They assume they can't train so they just give up on their eating habits all together which is only going to make the situation worse. Be aware that even if you continue with proper nutrition you will need to adjust your calories accordingly because you may not be able to train with the same intensity while recovering and this will be reflected in less calories burned during training.
What it comes down to is taking one step backwards to take two steps forwards, make wise choices. Take care of your body and it will take care of you.