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Falling off the horse (and getting back on)

November 11, 2011

Greetings, internet!

It’s been far too long since I posted– online time is even more accelerated since dog years, so at this point it probably feels like at least a decade. I’ve been dealing with the resurgence of an old injury, which has affected my training. Difficulty training led to difficulty even writing about training. However, I realized that injuries, setbacks, and obstacles are part of any athlete’s experience, whether it’s as mild as a pulled muscle or something more serious. What’s important is how you address the issue and determine how to adjust your routine.

In my case, I separated my shoulder a few years ago while learning to do a forward roll. Check out the first 10 seconds in this video to see what I mean:

Instead of rolling over my scapula, I hit my acromioclavicular (or AC) joint, damaging the ligament that connects the acromion to the clavicle. This meant I couldn’t even lift my arm very far away from my body. I certainly couldn’t fight, lift weights, practice yoga, or even carry a large bag on that arm.

A separated shoulder is one of the most common sports injuries. The AC joint is one of the most mobile in the body, which means it’s also the least stable. Actually, both my parents have separated that same joint. My father, who was known for his daily 30 mile bike rides, went over the handlebars when he swerved to avoid a dog that had run onto the road. My mother slipped on a patch of ice on a hiking trail. (I should tell my sister to cushion her shoulders with bubble wrap.)

I was lucky to have the benefit of their experience and advice. “Go to physical therapy!” they said. “Immediately.” With the help of some small weights, plenty of resistance bands, and some dedicated therapists, I slowly built up strength in my back muscles (to anchor the scapula) and worked on stabilizing and strengthening the muscles around the joint. With a joint injury, you can’t improve the bones in the affected area– it’s all about the soft tissue.

After a few months, I went back to train. I had to relearn how to roll, which was both exhilarating and scary. This is where mental strength plays a key role in fitness and rehabilitation. I already had the discipline and determination to rebuild my shoulder– now I needed to face down the reason I had logged so many hours at PT. Of course, if your injury changes the scope of how you can perform, all the mental strength in the world won’t alter the fact that you simply should avoid a technique or a certain motion. In this case, I spoke with my orthopedist and therapist, and they agreed I could *carefully* relearn how to roll.

And, for several years, things were fine. I protected my shoulder and gradually stopped the additional exercises.

Trust me, I know now this was a big mistake.

When I started feeling pain in my shoulders, this time on both sides, I went right back to PT. The AC joint was fine, but my pectoral muscles were very tight, while my back muscles had weakened, drawing my shoulders forward. The strain I felt was the tight muscles pulling against the joints. This time, my routine became all about balance– relaxing the tight muscles, strengthening the weak muscles, and bringing everything into alignment again. I had to take a step back from my fast-paced routine to work at a slower, more deliberate pace. It was really hard to skip class and imagine my partners learning new techniques while I idled on the sidelines.

Ultimately, that kind of thinking was more destructive than an actual injury. I realized that for months I had been prepared to work more slowly, avoid some techniques, and bracing for the pain to return at the end of training. By focusing on fixing the problem at the most basic level, I would be able to return to training in better condition, with fewer aches and limits on my abilities.

So, what can you learn from my mistake?

1. Be honest with yourself. The first time around, I didn’t want to admit that it was a long-term injury.

2. Be upset. It’s okay to feel bad that you’re injured. Allow yourself to wallow for a little while, and then:

3. Be gentle on yourself. If your injury is more severe, it may be harder to shake off a funk. It’s okay to take some time to feel frustrated, and there’s no one right amount of time. Talk to your doctor, a training partner, or an instructor; odds are, they’ve been there, or know someone who has. It’s not a personal failure to have an injury, just an extra challenge to deal with. When you’re ready:

4. Burn it off. Do something that will help you purge those feelings. You’ve acknowledged them, and now it’s time to readjust your thinking to help you move away from that mentality. If activity helps you, build up a sweat or scream it out. If that’s not your style, take a few minutes to meditate. Or bake a loaf of bread. Scrub the bathtub if that helps. Wash it all away.

5. Be patient. Healing is a process. You’ll see progress, but probably not as much or as fast as you’d like. Don’t skip ahead just because you miss sparring, or chaturanga, or you’re sick of walking and need to run. Healing is your job right now, so focus on that.

6. Be persistent. Don’t shirk your rehab exercises! Sooner or later, you’ll end up right back where you left off, or worse.

Ultimately, it’s all about changing how you think about training. Progress in fixing your injury is still progress, even if you’re lifting half the weight you were before, walking one mile instead of ten, or doing push-ups from your knees (or not at all). If you’re goal-oriented and need some motivation, work on specific exercises to rehab your injury. Or try a new challenge!

Edited to add: I was talking with my friend C, who is doing a lot of interesting exercises at the gym. She mentioned the inverted row, so I looked it up and realized that after some more rehab work, I should try to fit it into my routine. I need to be careful with exercises with a pushing component (anything with press in the exercise name), but rows involve *pulling* and bring the back muscles into play. Check out this post from Nerd Fitness! My favorite line: “Let’s go SAT on this s.o.b. – “benchpress” is to “pushing” as “inverted row” is to “pulling.”  Balance FTW!”

In the meantime, with an upper-body injury, I’ve turned to concentrating on my lower-body fitness. Weighted squats and step-ups were out for a while, so I played around with one-legged squats, lunges using a balance board, and a number of exercises to improve my agility and coordination. Don’t take yourself out of the race just because you’re no longer running at the same speed. My father has become a dedicated kayaker. My mother still hikes, just with ice cleats in winter. Change the course, change the destination… just keep going.


From → Fitness, Health

  1. Thanks for the advice! I will email you to get a physical therapist recommendation. I need to stabilize my shoulders too. I’ve never been injured that badly, but I have gone through a couple of two-week stretches of horrendous pain from hurting them.

    • I’d be happy to recommend a PT! The shoulder is a pretty complex joint, and it’s really helpful to have expert advice.

  2. What I love about the points that you made is that they can easily be applied to other avenues in one’s life. It’s especially helpful to remember all of those things when preparing for a difficult test, applying for a new job, or changing something significant. Along with the points that you mentioned, I think another great one is to challenge your automatic thoughts.

    When I was told that I had bursitis, the doctor said that I wasn’t allowed to run, bike, or essentially do anything that would aggravate my hip. A flood of negative and self-defeating thoughts rushed into my head and in order to come to terms with my injury, I had to face the negative thoughts and ask myself “so what if you can’t run for a week/month/year? What are you going to do about it?” Did I get upset and angry? Yeah, but I also told myself to swat the negative thoughts away and to focus on the things that I could do. I was going to be the best patient my physical therapist had ever seen! I was going to lift weights with the massive football players at the gym. For me, it was about recognizing what my limitations were and instead of focusing on those, focus my energy on taking advantage of the activities I was capable of doing.

    • Wow, thank you for giving my post so much deeper meaning! I agree that redirecting thoughts is an enormous help. I made a similar vow to impress my PT, and she actually did say that it was great to have a patient who would do every exercise she could think of and ask for more challenges. 🙂

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