5 lessons to learn from injuries

I have a new appreciation for pro athletes. I’m not talking about the way they perform on the field—we appreciate that every Monday night. I’m talking about something the camera doesn’t see.

How often do you hear about an athlete injuring themselves—something serious, like a torn hamstring or ACL—and then a couple of months later they’re back on the field tearing it up like nothing happened?

About four years ago I experienced my first serious injury—a torn meniscus in my left knee. I opted for the surgery and chased that with a couple of months of physical therapy. Physically, it took me well over a year to recover; mentally, I’d argue I’m not there yet. (I still get nervous on the run-up to kick a soccer ball).

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Luckily for me, playing a sport is not my career. I could afford to take time off from the gym, my favorite workout classes, and running for as long as I needed to.

Pro athletes aren’t so lucky (depending on how you look at it, of course). When you’re contracted to play a sport and millions of dollars hang in the balance, you have no choice. Not only do athletes have to come back and perform at a level equal to or higher than when they left; they have to come back mentally recovered, because you better believe they’re going up against that same linebacker that put them in the hospital in the first place.

That’s what I’m talking about. In many ways, recovery takes more discipline than the training itself. It’s not as fun, and it doesn’t look half as cool on Instagram.

It wasn’t until a recent injury—an inflamed calf muscle I incurred while training for last month’s Hood To Coast team relay race in Portland, Oregan—that I truly came to appreciate what it takes to recover fully as game day fast approaches.

These are the most valuable lessons I learned along the way.

If You See Something, Say Something

It seems obvious: If something is breaking, stop and fix it instead of breaking it some more, right? But when we’re passionate about something, stepping off the gas isn’t always so easy.

I may not be a professional athlete, but I love running—obstacle course races, 10Ks, half marathons, triathlons, marathons, you name it. I’ve found that my body is naturally geared for the sport, and few other things give me the same feeling of total, unbridled freedom that I experience a couple of miles into a long run.

One day while training for Hood To Coast, after a session of hill sprints, I had no choice but to acknowledge a worsening in my right calf. I’d chalked it up to muscle soreness earlier that week, but it clearly wasn’t going away.

At our next team run, I sheepishly mentioned the potential injury to one of our team’s coaches, Jess Woods, a Nike trainer and ultra-runner. I expected disappointment, but was met instead with props for giving voice to my issue.

“Dean did the right thing by consulting his coaches immediately to reduce the likelihood of the injury becoming ‘too serious.’” Woods says. “We modified the workouts until the injury was mended, versus continuing to ‘run through it’ and potentially ending his Hood To Coast journey.”

Given that the injury went from bad to worse in just under a week, I can only imagine how things would have turned out had I not addressed it when I did. I may not have been able to race at all. Instead of taking the gamble, we switched up my training and I picked up a pair of calf compression socks (shown above) to wear during and for 20 minutes after training, per Woods’ suggestion.

“It’s a difficult decision that most athletes will have to face: Continue to run or pause and heal,” Woods says. “Though at the time it may seem like a step backwards, the sooner an injury is treated the sooner you’ll be able to return to full activity and enjoyment.”

Sometimes a Step Back Is Better Than Two Steps Forward

Going fast is great. Going fast in the wrong direction is not.

I tend to be a bit of an overachiever. And I’m competitive. My day isn’t over until my inbox is at zero and the Post-Its that start their day on my desk are crumpled in the trash.

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So when I received my training plan for the race—a seven-week running regimen with workouts from the Nike Training Club app mixed in—I decided I was going to complete every single workout on there, no matter what. I was so set on this that I even had a photo of the plan on my phone that I proceeded to post on social media each day with a new check mark added next to the day’s workout.

When I finally came to terms with my calf injury, skipping that first workout was tough for me to swallow. Now I wasn’t just missing out on the activity that brings me so much joy; I was breaking my streak. My training would be incomplete. I did not do well with this fact.

It wasn’t until my calf started to feel better, just a couple of days before the race, that I realized how backwards my view of the training plan—and training in general—had been.

Stepping back from my daily runs, I acknowledged that, yes, had I continued to run through the pain I would have completed that workout. And the one after it. All of them, probably. But how would I have performed in the race itself?

Assuming I’d be able to race at all, how would it feel to run three legs totaling over 20 miles, operating on virtually no sleep, all while a severely inflamed calf muscle painfully radiated down my leg? To be honest, I don’t think I would have made it that far.

It’s important to remember that training is exactly that. Training. It’s there to get you ready for something, whether that’s a 199-mile relay race or becoming the kind of father that can play with his kids. The training is important, no doubt, but it should never be prioritized above the thing you started training for in the first place.

Real Recovery Isn’t Just Physical

One of my favorite insights gained while dealing with this injury—hell, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned—came out of nowhere one night during a team dinner.

Chatting with Joe Holder, a Nike run coach and personal trainer operating out of New York City’s trendy S10 fitness studio, I brought up the subject of recovery—specifically, how I always take time to recover physically from workouts but somehow never feel fully recharged.

That’s right about the time Holder, a strong proponent of a holistic lifestyle, began dropping game-changing knowledge on the subject of mental recovery, something I had never considered.

“A workout is an acute stressor. But that run should introduce a stress that you can rebound from to be better your next session,” Holder says. “But if you’re not getting enough sleep, eating poorly, or have a job that’s making you overwhelmed, you need to ask yourself how you can reduce outside stressors to increase your performance.”

“To your body, it is all the same,” says Holder (who avoids checking his phone first thing in the morning because it makes him “literally freak out”), referring to physical and mental stress. If your body processes physical stress and mental stress in the same way, then mental recovery is just as important as physical recovery.

When You’re Injured, Diet Is More Important Than Ever

You hear a lot about the importance of diet when it comes to building muscle or burning fat. What you don’t hear so much about is how critical diet becomes when you’re recovering from an injury.

“It’s important to focus on diet when you’re healing from a workout, but also an injury,” Holder says. “Because the body is repairing, you actually need more calories.”

Not just any calories will do, though. Everyone knows you need protein to build muscle, and by now most people understand that a calorie deficit is key to losing weight, but what about injury recovery? Well, there’s a nutritional prescription for that too.

“You want your calories to be of higher quality, with a higher nutrient density, so you can repair,” Holder says. Focusing on macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) may work when it comes to aesthetics, but when it comes to performance and injury repair, the nutrient density of what you’re consuming is extremely key.”

As a vegetarian, this was mission-critical intel. For one, I now knew I needed to work even harder to consume extra calories—a common challenge for modern herbivores. And not only that, I needed to pay extra-close attention to the nutritional profile of the foods I was eating to ensure I was covering all of my bases to the best of my ability in order to bounce back by race day.

There Really Is Power In Numbers

The way the Hood To Coast relay race is structured, you run on a team of 12 and each team member is assigned three legs ranging from two to eight miles and totaling anywhere from 12 miles to upwards of 20.

The legs are organized so that someone is always running, day or night, until the 199-mile distance has been covered

I was assigned the toughest legs of the race—something I wore as a badge of honor. It felt validating, given how much training I do, running and otherwise, and to be honest I wasn’t daunted by the task. I love challenges, and as someone who recently ran 20 miles on a whim one Saturday morning, the idea of running roughly that distance over three legs didn’t seem like something I needed a training plan for.

But when my injury struck, things suddenly got serious. For the first time in my athletic life, it wasn’t just about me. If I dropped out of the race, my team would suffer. Either some runners would have to run extra legs (which probably isn’t even allowed), or, most likely, the team would have to scramble to find a last-minute replacement to run over 20 miles and essentially live in a van with a bunch of strangers for nearly 30 hours. It takes a special kind of person to say yes to that.

Knowing that I needed to recover for my team, and not just myself, was an incredible motivator. Every time I didn’t feel like foam rolling, whenever I wasn’t hungry but knew I needed the extra calories and nutrients, I thought of my team. I felt an incredible sense of purpose.

I haven’t played a team sport since high school. And I’ve certainly never thought of running, or fitness, as a team sport. As a result, I never experienced what a powerful motivator a team can be. I’ve since begun looking for a local run club to join, and I’ve started inviting friends along to the gym to lift together.

At the time, I thought my injury was a disaster. As it turns out, in the grand scheme of things, it was one of the best things that could have happened to me.

Oh, and our team finished the relay two hours ahead of schedule. I beat my projected finishes on all three legs and ended up running my fastest 10K to date during an epic headlamp-lit night run. To think I could have missed it all!

By: Dean Stattmann

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