“Pop.” I felt the pain immediately in my low back. I stood up from the stability ball. It was just a stupid core exercise, a simple bodyweight back extension. Then came the realization I could not set my left foot on the ground without a sharp, shooting zing of pain through my hip. [Insert expletives here.]
I did what many of us do after injury: tried to walk it off, then sleep it off, then ignore it.
But, I had never known a pain like this one. A sneeze or a laugh would set me on fire. No massage could make it disappear. Many of my favorite exercises became unbearable. It was a game-changer.
Whether you love or loathe exercise, an injury can induce a tailspin in your health trajectory. The physical and mental hurdles of living with pain can make even the most basic daily tasks a chore.
The thoughts in this article are not intended to substitute for a physician’s recommendations. But, hopefully, the seven concepts outlined below help you consider how a strategic approach to exercise after injury may propel you to some surprisingly positive life lessons and personal gains.
1. When You Know, You Know
The more years that pass, the more each of us learns about the fine-tuned and tender machine we are living within. Listen to the feedback it gives you. If your machine is not humming its normal tune or an activity that was once easy for you becomes suddenly agonizing: take heed.
Your first step is to give your body true rest. For some of us, this may be a few days off. Others of us may need a full week. And I mean true rest: eight hours of sleep a night minimum.
2. But Am I Really Injured?
Still living in denial? Let’s get into the facts. It’s safe to say that the delayed onset muscle soreness often experienced 24-48 hours after intense exercise should not last more than five days. If you’re experiencing pain (with or without movement) a week after you first noticed the issue, it’s time to see a professional.
Another signal it’s time to see a professional is if you’re experiencing pain during exercise. While exercising, your body releases endorphins, which blunt the perception of pain. So, with this in mind, if even the release of endorphins is not blocking the pain, and your knee is still hurting while you’re running, the writing is on the wall.
3. Doctor’s Orders (and Why You Should Follow Through)
Most mild injuries will land you in a physical therapist’s office a couple times a week. Having trained many people following physical therapy, my best advice is to complete your entire prescription. Yes, that means doing your physical therapy homework, too.
If your injury is more serious (for example, a knee, hip, or back injury that may require surgery), the same rules apply post-operation. Stick with the plan prescribed by your healthcare providers. Seek out professionals who work with an active population and can help you plan integrating back into your fitness routine.
If you’re considering bailing on the doctor’s orders, here’s a thought: mobility declines with age. Choosing to miss physical therapy now can impact your ability to move for years to come. I learned this from some witty senior clients who confessed to me they skipped out of therapy when they were younger because it was boring — only to realize limited mobility was affecting their squat forty years later.
Just go. Get there. Do it for the future you.
4. Turn to Nutrition
When you’re not moving as well, or as much, reality dictates you will burn fewer calories per day. If there were ever a time to focus on the consumption of whole, unprocessed foods — after injury would be the time.
In addition, with less exercise, and thereby less of the mood-regulating and appetite-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin being released, you may be at higher risk for depression. Whether depression means eating less or more for you, this chemical adjustment is something to prepare for. Plan nutritious meals. Prepare them in advance. Nourish your healing body.
The silver lining: for those of us who exercise a lot, this could be a rare chance in life to assess our energy needs (i.e. amount of food actually needed) without the influence of heavy exercise. Think of this as an opportunity to observe and/or reset your nutritional baseline. If you’d like to take a step further, consider consulting a dietician for macronutrient recommendations.
5. Find a Way to Move
If you cannot do your absolute favorite exercise while you’re injured, rest-assured there are 100 different other activities for you to learn and master during this difficult time. Think low-impact: hill walking, swimming, yoga, or Pilates. Try new activities five times before deciding if you hate or love them.
When I was injured, and once I was cleared for activity by a physical therapist, I started swimming every morning, an activity I had not done for ten years. I started with 500 meters and gave my body a day off afterward to see if I experienced any additional pain. Once I passed that test, I slowly built up the distance I was swimming week by week. Eventually I was swimming an hour every morning. It was glorious.
Sitting still on your couch, eating ice cream to make yourself feel better, may be something you just need once a week or so. But, ultimately, the more your body is frozen in one spot, the more movement you will lose and the harder it will be to forge a comeback.
Move what you can. If your injury is on one side of your body, research has shown that working the opposing side can still benefit the injured side. Just stick with the aforementioned rules that if you experience pain during any exercise you attempt or pain following that lasts more than five days, that activity is a no-go.
6. See a Trainer
Ironically, that day I felt that “pop” resulting in unbearable back pain, I was in the middle of teaching a personal training session in which I was demonstrating the exercise. Yes, that was awkward and also made for weeks of struggling to effectively do my job.
For conservative risk-takers, returning to your normal workout routine after injury can be straight-up frightening. I remember standing on the fitness floor debating what I could do, should do, or shouldn’t do to the point of feeling almost paralyzed in decision.
Let a professional make those initial decisions for you. Choose a certified personal trainer with post-rehabilitative experience. A good training session should include mobility work such as myofascial release and a dynamic warm-up prior to exercise. Find someone who listens to your concerns and gradually builds your intensity back with respect to your history.
7. Adopt Lessons Learned
Ask yourself what you learned. Injuries are often accompanied by major life lessons. Here are a few lessons injuries have taught me:
- In the long run, it’s better to run 5 miles and stretch for 10 mins, than to run 6 miles and eventually not be able to run at all due to injury.
- Intense workouts should be matched in time with intense mobility sessions. For example, if I do 75 minutes of intense metabolic conditioning per week, I need to match that with 75 minutes of yoga.
- I’m more likely to be injured when I am overly competitive. It’s better to focus on my own body versus worrying about modeling or matching someone else in the gym.
- A strong ability to recover — be it through sleep, meditation, or solid nutrition — will bolster any exercise program.
- The faster I address a potential injury, the quicker I will return to working out.
Exercise (and Life) After Injury
Bottom line, you’re not alone. Whether your injury was a result of a freak accident or maximal exertion, there is always a bright light at the end of the tunnel. That light is found in personal growth and the life lessons to be gained from this experience. Stay strong-minded and strength will follow.