With fitness and in life, shit happens. There’s nothing like a prolonged illness or injury to simultaneously make you grateful for the gift of being able to be active and also frustrated that you are unable to participate. The challenges affect not only our physical well being, but probably more profoundly our emotional health. The road back is different for everyone, but there are some common challenges as well as remedies for finding your groove again.
My good friend, Emily, had a life-altering illness this year and has been navigating the waters of redefining her own fitness. Emily has long been one of my heroes. She is not only talented at running, cycling, and swimming; she is also driven and disciplined. For most of her life, her body cooperated. Emily seemed unstoppable.
Until last fall: she began to experience excruciating headaches, and even after seeing doctors and trying new migraine medications, she couldn’t find relief. I saw her fitness routine begin to slip away. As Emily recalled it, exercise was the last thing on her mind. She instead had to learn to manage chronic, debilitating pain.
We couldn’t imagine that she had an actually scary prognosis. We all joked about her WebMD-diagnosed brain tumor. Until, it turned out, she actually had a brain hemorrhage. Em learned that she had intracranial hypotension, brought on by a spontaneous spinal CSF leak. In other words, girl had a leaky spine, and it was making her life a mess.
Emily’s scar and staples made her the biggest badass ever.
At first, she was relieved to have an answer. Then she was fearful of the surgery that might not work, leaving her with potentially life-long pain. Thankfully, her spinal surgery was a success. But over the months, Em had gone from an active, busy mom to someone just trying to get through the days. As Emily began to get back to her job and family responsibilities, she had to learn a new version of “normal”.
The New Normal
The hardest part of finding the road back to fitness might be changing our mindset about what our bodies “should” be doing. Initially, we busy ourselves with rehab, but then what? Once we’re tagged and released from physical therapy or other medical interventions, it can be really difficult to get going again. While regaining our former selves can be motivating, it can also paralyze us–if we can’t do what we did before, then what the hell do we do? This is where all-or-nothing thinking can be particularly devastating.
For months after my own hip surgery 5 years ago, I resisted doing much of anything. I was angry that I could no longer run like I had before. Instead of moving my body in countless ways that I could without pain, I opted to do nothing at all. I suppose I needed to pout for awhile, but if I could have put aside my history and instead developed new goals based on the strengths I now possessed, I could have felt better all over, sooner.
Respecting Our Limits
Emily could run before. Now her doctors advise against it. My own docs cautioned me against running, but now and again I can’t resist. Every single time, I jack up my hip and have to baby it back to functioning again. Especially once we begin feeling better, it can be really tempting to test the waters.
Sometimes it’s perfectly healthy to test them. With some injuries, we might be able to regain our former function and need to just slowly ease back into our favorite activities. Even if you are given the green light to begin training again, you’ll likely want to begin by scaling back the following:
Volume: How much total activity you get. If you’re in the weight room, you’ll do less total work. If you’re a cyclist, you’ll do fewer miles at first.
Intensity: I think we all understand that it’s unwise to ride like the wind, yes? Balls to the wall has a place, but it’s not during post-rehab.
Frequency: You may have been running 5 times a week, but you may need to start by trying to run 2-3 times a week with other cross training thrown in until your body adjusts again.
Load: If you’re lifting, you’ll likely need to start out with lighter weights. If you’re an endurance athlete, you will probably be cautioned against hammering your way up the most killer hills in town until you’ve established your base fitness again.
Sometimes injuries force us to completely redefine realistic function and future pursuits. In both cases, if we follow the protocols given to us by our health team we’ll be more likely to have more positive outcomes.
Side note: do your damn rehab exercises. You know, the ones they print out and tell you to do at home in front of the T.V. Yes, they’re boring. No, they don’t feel hard core or sexy. But they might help and won’t hurt.
Becoming Our Own Advocates
It helped me to learn as much as I could about my injury so that I could avoid the things that were likely to make my hip angry. With help from a physical therapist, I also learned to identify what kind of pain or discomfort was something to be concerned about as well as what oddball sensations were just a part of my new normal.
Communicating with doctors and rehab pros can also be useful to determine what got us injured in the first place. Is there a lesson to be learned that we can carry with us for the future to prevent recurring injuries? This isn’t always relevant, but if it is, it’s important to understand.
After accepting that we have to possibly start over or take a few steps back, we have to actually take them, and then celebrate them. When Emily finally walked around the block a few times after surgery, it was a major victory for her. Over time, 2 times around the block developed into many more laps.
[tweetthis]Motion brings emotion, meaning the act of doing something gives you the feeling that you can do more.[/tweetthis]
Motion brings emotion, meaning the act of doing something gives you the feeling that you can do more. If you’ve been stuck in a rut after an injury or illness, a little bit of motion may be the spark you need to get going again.
photo credit: Jonas Maaløe Jespersen
Relearning Old Habits or Developing New Ones
Emily remarked that she had to let go of her old routines and habits that had guided her before. When injury strikes, these get blown to pieces. We not only have to pick them back up, we may have to alter them to suit our current situation. It’s not a failure to have a scaled back work out plan. It’s a victory to take a small step toward better fitness that also respects what our bodies can currently tolerate.
Weight gain is another common by-product of injury, simply because we may continue eating as we were while exercising regularly or just maintaining a more active lifestyle. If you’re relegated to the sofa for weeks or months, a change in body composition is relatively normal. Depression and lack of sleep often come along with pain caused by injury: they also can contribute to weight gain.
Taking the time to learn your body’s caloric needs with its current level of activity will help with weight loss if that’s a concern.
Finding a New Fit
If I had never hurt my hip, I probably wouldn’t have discovered my love of the weight room. Once I focused on what I could actually do without pain, I spent a lot of time training my upper body strength. Watching baby biceps emerge felt motivating. Finding a new routine gave me the same satisfaction as my previous training plans and led the way to a passion for weightlifting. Emily discovered that she could swim again, and after months of little activity, she reveled in how good her body felt doing it.
Yes, injuries are terrible for our fitness. They can bring terrible pain, depression, and an overall funk. But out of it all, they also teach us. Sometimes, injuries teach us how to train better in the future. Sometimes they give us a new appreciation for our health. They can be an opportunity to turn over a rock and discover something new and amazing about ourselves.
Emily described her experience recently:
It didn’t bother me to see people talking about exercises, but missing big events was really tough. It was really about what I was missing out on and less so about what others were able to do. However, I must say that I do have a new appreciation for a life without pain and the ability to move my body, even in limited ways, that I didn’t have before. Chronic pain is no fucking joke and I have empathy for people who live that way that I never could have gotten any other way. It wears you down. It makes you want to crawl into a cave and never come out. It makes you feel less than human. You spend your days letting everyone around you down, saying no all the time, the treatment failed, I can’t, etc. I don’t have to live that way anymore and it’s amazing, and I’m incredibly grateful. I feel like I’ll carry that with me forever.
I’m grateful for Emily too, who has taught me more than a few life lessons. Thanks for sharing your story, Em. We love you, leaky spine and all.