July 24, 2013

How To Reach Your Exercise Goals While Injured

Now that I’ve gotten the greenlight to work out, I’m so excited to get back to Flywheel and some of my other favorite classes. However, it’s also really important to make sure that I don’t go too hard. I’m definitely still hurt (in fact, after a trial run with the mechanical traction machine yesterday, I feel worse than before), and the last thing I want is to exacerbate my problems.

Many of my friends/readers seem to think that I am uber-competitive and will stop at nothing to run, spin, or otherwise work out. They also seem to be under the misconception that I go all-out whenever I do so. Not true! Although I love seeing high numbers on the Torqboard at Flywheel, I actually sometimes have a lot of trouble pushing myself. My approach to Flywheel is kind of like my approach to marathons: do about a third or half of the class just based on feel, and then if I’m seeing fast speed (for running) or high numbers (for Flywheel), keep pushing hard to hit a new PR/high score. But if I’m just having an average class/marathon when I get to that checkpoint? Ugh, then it becomes tough to push – why go hard if it’s not going to give me a stellar end result? – and I usually get lazy.

As silly as it sounds, being injured has honestly become another way for me to be lazy. Sometimes I feel a twinge in my neck/back (even when I’m not doing anything), and I just don’t know what that means. Did I have my head in the wrong position while I was working at my computer? Was I going too hard at the gym? I’m erring on the side of caution and backing off whenever I feel anything even the slightest bit off, but I think a lot of the time that means I’m not going hard enough. Furthermore, I’m often using my injury as an excuse to skip my workout. Alarm goes off at 5:15am so I can get to the gym? Mmm, I’m injured, I’ll sleep! But now that I’m realizing this injury is prob going to be around for a while (my physical therapist said anywhere from 1.5-3 months), I need to figure out how to move past that and stay motivated.

I was thinking about all this last night, when I headed to Flywheel after another fun physical therapy appointment. (Note to self: traction is the devil. Avoid it at all costs going forward.)  And what I ended up with was a variety of mental tricks that helped me to push hard enough that with two songs to go, I already had a score of 220 (usually I’m around 200-205 at that point). Seeing that a huge record was in sight, I continued pushing hard, and ended up with a new high score of 278 (beating my previous high of 272 that I haven’t gotten close to since)! Clearly it is very possible to be successful and hit new workout heights even while you’re injured, but you have to do it right.

2013-07-24 How To Achieve Your Exercise Goals While Injured
Image source: Daniel Dudek-Corrigan

1. Think through your workout carefully. What are all the possible things involved in this workout that could exacerbate your injury? Identifying these ahead of time can help you determine when you’re being a baby vs when you might actually hurt yourself – and then you can act accordingly. This sounds really obvious, but if it’s your back that’s injured and your quads that are now burning, you do not get to wuss out. I am quite guilty of allowing myself to take it easy when something like that happens, but that’s why it’s so important to think through it in advance – so you can be your own coach and make yourself keep going with whatever your preferred motivational tactics are. (Charlotte just did a great post on motivational mind games this morning, if you need some help.)

2. Instead of giving up, modify or substitute. If you’re exercising on your own, don’t shorten your workout; just substitute as needed to work the same muscle groups or get the same training benefit (e.g., build muscle, burn calories, build endurance). If you’re in a group class, I know it can feel really stupid to modify or to call out your injury to the whole class; I’ve found a good way to mitigate that is by arriving early and talking to the instructor. Politely let him/her know what your limitations are, and ask for suggestions on modifications. There may be sections of the class that you have to substitute a completely different exercise (e..g, jumping jacks on the side while everyone else is doing pushups), which I know can be especially embarrassing, but when it feels like the entire room is staring at you out of sync, you’ll know you have at least one person who knows why you’re doing what you’re doing. By planning ahead, you won’t give up just because you can’t do a certain section, and instead will have other challenges to work through during that time.

3. Change your goals to fit your injury. Maybe your old goal while weight lifting was to increase your strength – but now you can’t lift half the weight you once did. Why not change your focus to increasing flexibility until you’re healed? While it’s good to push yourself, an injury is a good time to reevaluate your goals and make sure they’re still attainable and desirable. And don’t be afraid to ditch goals that no longer work for you! At the beginning of 2013, I made a rule for myself that whenever I did the “arm segment” in Flywheel, I would always use both weights (2 lbs and 4 lbs). Setting that all-or-nothing goal forced me to push through when I was feeling lazy, and it worked great until now. But when I was told to avoid lifting, for my first few classes back, I skipped the arm segments completely – no arms if I couldn’t use the full 6 pounds! I now realized that was a stupid mindset, and it was keeping me from doing what I could do; instead, it was making me feel discouraged about what I couldn’t do. This morning, instead of skipping arms, I grabbed the 2 pound weight instead. Old goal, begone!

4. Focus on your long-term goals and adjust your short-term plan to reach them. Getting injured sucks, and it can be incredibly frustrating to have to change up your whole routine as a result. If you’re in the middle of race training, it may be tempting to push through – but keep in mind that you have your whole life to run races. Think about your long-term goals and figure out how you can change your workouts in the short-term to still help you meet them. If your goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon but you suffer a stress fracture and can’t run, you can work on your core strength or practice endurance through biking or swimming. I’m very frustrated by my neck injury because I wanted to start training in earnest for the Wineglass Marathon in October. Instead, I’m putting together a new training plan that substitutes low-impact elliptical for most of the running until it’s safer for me to pound the pavement a bit more. And remember – sometimes achieving your goal in the long-term means giving up on it in the short-term. After the next month of physical therapy, I’m going to reassess whether Wineglass is a good marathon for me to PR, or if I have to push that PR goal back a few months to a different race. I know that when I’m able to put all the work in, I’ll be able to PR, but it remains to be seen whether that will be sooner or  later. And that’s okay!

5. Finally, don’t push too much! No matter how good you feel and how careful you are to avoid working your injured parts, exercise increases blood flow. Depending on your injury, this may or may not be a good thing. For anything requiring surgery/stitches, avoid; for other injuries, ask your doctor very specific questions about what you can do. My doctor told me no weight lifting, but that left a lot of questions in my mind. What about pushups, airsquats, or other bodyweight exercises? What about light weights/high reps, like in a barre class? I had to go for a lot of visits and ask a lot of very specific questions before I could identify exactly what I could do, and even now, it’s not completely cut and dry. When in doubt, you know your body – listen to what it’s telling you as far as pain. (And if you’re doped up on so many painkillers that you can’t tell when it hurts, that’s probably not a good time for you to be exercising.)

Anything else you’d like to add?


3 thoughts on “How To Reach Your Exercise Goals While Injured”

  1. This is great advice Laura, Being injured is hard and it stinks, especially if you’re someone who is so used to working out. Sometimes it’s hard to check your ego. That for me was the hardest part of being injured – that once I started working out again expecting that I could still perform at the same level. I hope you’re feeling ok!

    1. Thanks, Christine! It’s hard to get back but I’m thrilled that it’s not as painful as it was that first night.

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