ANYONE WHO’S PLAYED sport or worked out for any length of time has most likely found themselves at the mercy of some sort of injury. They pop up, meddle with your progress and empty your pockets as you fork out for various healthcare professionals and scans.
They’re a pain (literally and metaphorically) and can mess with both your body and your mind.
This year I found myself at quite the existential crossroads, when I was faced with the worst injury of my CrossFit career. A back injury, which lead to an elbow injury, both of which have kept me off the competition floor for coming up on twelve months now.
I started CrossFit in 2012, competing in various local, national and international events for the following 11 years. I dealt with an assortment of injuries of varying severity but, thanks to the world-class coaches, physios and chiros I’ve worked with, I’ve always managed to get through the competition season in one piece. Until this year, when a recurring back injury, which stems from two herniated discs and some nerve damage, flared up and left me barely able to bend over and put on my shoes, let alone lift a barbell.
There’s a concept in Japanese philosophy called ‘Ikigai,’ which proposes we can live a life of joy and fulfilment when we pursue a career (or passion) that combines:
- What you love
- What you are good at
- What you can be paid for
- What the world needs
I feel immeasurably lucky to have found the sport of CrossFit at a point in my life where I could have otherwise gone down a very different path. I loved it. I was good at it and I saw an opportunity to get paid to do it. I’m not sure the world NEEDS people doing burpees quickly. But for some reason people find it entertaining enough they feel it adds value to their lives.
My sport was my Ikigai. Competing gave me a sense of purpose, a goal, which was of value to me and provided a source of consistency and stability when the rest of my life could otherwise be chaotic. There are few places I feel as present and alive as when I take the competition floor.
Beyond that, fitness has always been a pillar in managing my mental health. An outlet. Something I could channel my emotions into on a bad day to help me destress. It was also something I could consistently progress at, providing a sense of accomplishment with each little goal achieved. When that was taken away from me for the first time in eleven years, needless to say I struggled physically, mentally and emotionally.
As I navigated the last twelve months being side-lined by these injuries, I learnt a few valuable lessons about how best to keep progressing towards meaningful goals—such as appearing as Spartan on Gladiators—and stay sane (or as sane as possible) along the way.
Here are four of those:
1 Prioritise Your Recovery
This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve certainly fallen victim to trying to prioritise what I could do in the gym and just training as normally as possible around an injury, rather than making addressing the issue at hand top priority.
When I initially injured my back in January, I tried to work around it with the main goal being to compete in the CrossFit Games Open in late February.
I flew to Bali for a one-month training camp, during which I worked around my back injury rather than working on it.
I wish I’d just stayed in Australia, got the scans and tests I needed done and began the process of rehabilitation immediately under the guidance of a medical professional and specialist who could monitor my progress along the way.
Additionally, making sure you do EVERYTHING you can outside the gym to ensure you’re improving should be a top priority. Sleep, stress management, nutrition, alcohol consumption, recovery protocols like massage, sauna, red-light therapy etc, all stack up and aid in your recovery when you do them regularly.
2 Maintain Your Regular Routine
As I’ve grown and matured as an athlete (and human being) I’ve come to learn that I function best when I am in a routine.
My training helps me stay in routine and provides a focal point around which many other habits stem.
A key component in recovery is our Central Nervous System (CNS) function. Routine offers predictability and stability, providing a sense of structure and security, which allows the CNS to function optimally by anticipating and preparing for upcoming activities or tasks. As a result, the body’s stress response diminishes, allowing our parasympathetic nervous system to operate properly, which assists our body in achieving optimum recovery.
If you are someone who usually trains for an hour every day before work, go to the gym every day for an hour before work. If you can’t fill that hour with training, do extra mobility or incorporate some of the recovery protocols outlined above, such as sauna, stretching, massage or a physiotherapy session.
OR use the following principle to create a training program you can do.
3 Focus On What You Can Do
For the duration of my injury, my mantra was ‘There’s Always Something You Can Do’.
When injured, it’s easy to focus on everything you can’t do in the gym, which keeps you in a negative mindset. This then makes it infinitely harder to stay motivated with your training and routine (which we know is crucial) as we are less likely to see ourselves as capable of reaching our goals and thus our drive and willingness to take action drops dramatically. We make excuses, miss sessions, fall into bad habits and ultimately delay our recovery longer.
While rehab should be the primary focus, I am someone who thrives when I am working towards a clear, performance goal in the gym and I am also just a sucker for a challenging workout.
When I first injured my back, my coach and I looked at what I could do in terms of movements and set some goals based on those. As I continue to rehab my elbow injury, I’ve managed to maintain a sense of purpose and feel like I am capable in the gym as I see gradual improvements towards those goals. You can always do something, but it’s up to you to do it!
4 Lean On Your Values
The hardest part of my injury journey has been feeling like I lost a core part of my identity. For 11 years I have been a ‘competitor’. It’s been a central plank of who I am and provided me a sense of purpose, fulfilment and joy that I didn’t think I could get in other areas of my life.
At the peak of my frustration, after officially withdrawing from the season, I spent some time doing guided self-reflection and revisiting my values. I returned to the concept of Ikagai and used that framework to find other meaningful pursuits I could invest more time into, aligned with my values, I enjoyed, I was good at, I could get paid for and helped others in some way.
I also used my values to help me find meaningful pursuits I could do simply for their enjoyment, ensuring I was filling my cup and giving myself the opportunity to enjoy the extra time I had as a result of these changes in my life and replenish the mental and emotional energy I lost dealing with the negative impact the injuries were having on me. As we grow older, we seem to spend less time doing things we love that fulfil us and instead pursue those that offer short-term gratification. An injury or setback can be a beautiful opportunity to discover some of the activities that nourish us, physically and mentally.
One Last Thought
The most important thing to remember when dealing with an injury, or any major setback in your training is that everyone’s journey is different. As the age-old adage goes ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ and no matter how similar someone else’s injury or training looks to yours, we are all going to progress at varying rates and cope with the emotional toll of those injuries differently. Focus on what you need rather than what someone else tells you that you need.
And ALWAYS get professional help in the treatment and management of your injuries… as soon as they happen!