This article originally appeared in Chicago Tribune:
Nine years ago, my plans to run the Chicago Marathon were halted when I found myself injured during training. It took a string of injuries – first my foot, then my hamstring, then both of my knees – for me to finally realize I was out. I spent the next two years rehabbing my body from scratch, seeing different physical therapists, trying various forms of alternative medicine and ultimately quitting my job to attend personal training school and try to figure out my broken body. I was eventually able get out of pain and resume many physical activities, but I never was able to return to running marathons.
As a fitness professional, I may come across as someone who doesn’t have to worry about sports injuries. After all, my job is to help people move better. Many people I work with come to me injured, whether with running injuries, pregnancy or postpartum-related issues, or simply aches and pains from everyday life. With this line of work, you’d expect me to have injury prevention down. And I mostly do – except when it comes to myself.
A little over a year ago, after seeing a physical therapist for knee pain that was non-responsive to corrective exercise, I discovered that I have mild scoliosis, an underlying factor in my knee pain and predisposition to injury. When it comes to correcting imbalances, traditional strength training and stretching are not enough. I’m still learning how to manage my scoliosis, and often learning things the hard way.
Last week, I hurt my back (at my SI joint) the day before leaving for vacation to Europe. We had planned an active trip, with lots of walking, hiking and park playtime. I had two choices: Get depressed and load up on painkillers, or adjust my expectations and make the most of the situation. I’m glad I chose the latter. I’m in Poland now, exploring new cities, eating plenty of ice cream and enjoying quality time with my family. Despite missing morning runs and the chance to show off at some cool new playgrounds, I’m having a lot of fun.
Over the years, injury has shaped my character more than any other factor. It’s taught me to not get too attached to my body or to physical goals. It’s saved me from being a person whose sole identity lies in mileage and personal bests. It’s helped me slow down and enjoy the trail instead of always rushing to get to the end of it.
Being sidelined by injury can be incredibly frustrating, especially if being an athlete is a big part of your identity or if you normally have a very active lifestyle. Here are the things that have helped me cope the most:
• Start your day productively. If you know there are certain exercises or stretches that you can do to help speed your recovery, make them a priority. Do them as soon as you wake up and start your day on a positive note.
• Remember that progress is not linear. If you hit a bump in your recovery, this is totally normal. Don’t stress out and go overboard with exercises or other modalities trying to get back on track. Stay the course and be patient. If after a few days, you continue to feel like you’re regressing, seek help from a professional.
• Spend time in nature – even if all you can do is walk in the woods. If you’re missing your usual endorphin fix, take off your shoes, feel the ground under your feet and let yourself get a little uncomfortable. If the terrain is rough or the weather is slightly too hot, cold or wet, you might find that this discomfort is actually fulfilling.
• Drop the “all or nothing” attitude and the phrase “I used to.” Instead of thinking about what you can’t do, focus on the things you can do. When you’re doing these things, try to live in the moment and enjoy how they feel.
• Find other outlets besides your sport or physical activity to help you relieve stress and find happiness. Make plans with friends, do something enjoyable with your family, or try something creatively stimulating, such as painting or cooking.
• Don’t deprive yourself of treats. If you’re used to burning a certain number of calories a day, it’s easy to freak out and think you need to go on a diet now that you’re sidelined. Don’t. Continue to eat when you’re hungry and treat yourself occasionally. Your appetite will naturally adjust with your activity level.
• Remember that you’re not alone. It might seem that everyone around you is running with their dog or showing off their hard-earned muscles, but the reality is that many people are dealing with some kind of pain or physical limitation. (Raises hand.)