You Can Come out of Injury a Better Athlete

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Injury can feel like an athlete’s worst nightmare and the death sentence to a hopeful season. After months of preparation, a persistent pain or diagnosis can threaten to throw all of your hard work seemingly down the drain. There’s no denying it, injury is frustrating. However, after reading a lot, coaching runners through season-interrupting injuries, and working through an injury myself these past few months, I’m here to shed this truth: you CAN come out of injury a better athlete. 

Notice I didn’t say “just as good of an athlete.” No, you can come out better.

How? 

Your injury may keep you from practicing your specific sport. For instance, if you’re a soccer player with an Achilles strain, you may not be able to kick or run. If you’re a swimmer with severe bicep tendinitis, you may be limited to only lower body work. You’re thinking, “how can I get better at swimming if I can’t swim?” 

It’s a good thing that fitness is fitness, and success in sport comes more from general fitness and athleticism than we give credit to. We are conditioned to believe in early specialization and to think that to be great at soccer, an athlete needs to spend hours with a ball and a net, but in truth, to be a great soccer player, an athlete needs to be efficient at accelerating, decelerating, and moving laterally. He/she also needs to able to work at a moderate intensity for a long time with frequent bursts of high-intensity work followed by recovery (i.e. have a strong aerobic engine and anaerobic capacity).

ALL of these capacities can be trained off the field, which means that even if you’re sidelined from kicking for awhile, you can still improve.

Here are 5 principles you can embrace to come out of injury a better athlete: 

  1. Movement is your Medicine. 
    Movement decreases inflammation and increases blood flow, helping injured joints, bones and tendons heal more quickly. As a bonus, movement can also relieve some of your discomfort in the moment, because reduced inflammation will take pressure off the injured area. Don’t resort to sitting on the couch. Avoid movements that cause pain, but get moving every day in some way.

  2. Approach your Rehab as Aggressively as your Training. 
    If your doctor or physical therapist has given you exercises to do as rehab, approach this as systematically and persistently as you do your normal training sessions. Right now, healing is your primary goal.

  3. Unilateral Work is your Friend. 
    Recent, exciting research suggests that training only your uninjured limb can help you not just maintain but BUILD strength in your injured limb. After 2 weeks without training, a limb loses up to 33% of its strength. However, recent studies show that continuing to train the opposite, uninjured side of the body can produce strength gains of 7-11% in the injured limb even if it’s not directly being exercised. Although this is a small gain in comparison to the limb being trained (25-52%), gaining 10% strength is a whole lot better than losing 33% of your strength in your injured limb. EMG data suggests that these strength gains happen because the unused side still experiences muscle activation in unilateral exercises. This means, for instance, if your left bicep is injured, you should continue to do TRX 1-Arm Rows using your right side only. Although you may still notice atrophy, you can be confident that you’re still making neurological gains in your injured limb.  Skeptical? Read about these studies here.

  4. The Fitness you Need can be Built Outside the Box.
    Every training stimulus can be replicated through alternative means. Let’s use this example: You’re an 800 meter runner with a stress reaction in your foot. You can’t run, but you can get in the gym. You might start to miss those 200-300 meter track repeats that burn your legs – the sessions meant for training you to clear and use lactate more efficiently. This capacity is highly important to success in the 800 meter race, so instead of letting that specific area of fitness dwindle, you can replace it with an alternative workout, something like 4 sets of 4×30 second rope slam intervals at or near max effort, with 50 seconds between intervals and 5 minutes between sets.

  5. Train your Mentality 
    As an athlete, you know that to be successful, being mentally sharp and tough is just as important as being physically fit. Just because you have physical constraints doesn’t mean you can’t practice being tough. Whether it’s in the gym, in your rehab, or in daily life, practice rising to the task, practice doing things you don’t want to do with joy, practice giving your all to something. “Do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved or untrained to stand the test” (William James, American philosopher). 

Just because a diagnosis has you on the sidelines doesn’t mean you have to sit there. Get up, get moving, get outside the box, and practice doing hard things just for the sake of doing them – that way, when you are back on the field, on the track or the court or in the pool, you will be stronger in many regards than you were before the injury. Focus not on the things you can’t do at the moment, but embrace all that your body can STILL do, and you’ll come back a better athlete. 

You’ve got this.

— Coach Emily

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