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Coping With Injury, Part 1

If you’re already a student at our gym, you know that we’re sticklers for “technique first, then intensity.” And for good reason: if you don’t know what you’re doing (or your body’s strength, flexibility, coordination, or balance hasn’t yet caught up with what you do know), and you try to go all out, you are seriously asking for trouble.

But, as with any sport or physical activity, injuries can and do happen to people from time to time, in and out of the gym, and for any number of reasons.

So what do you do if the worst happens, and you do get injured? Or what if you already have an old, chronic injury or physical limitation that you got before you even started CrossFit?

I’ve got a number of important (and in some cases, unexpected) tips that I’ve come to, both from personal experience and from researching the subject like crazy while I was rehabbing my own injury a couple years ago.

I could probably write 10 blog posts on the subject!–but I’ll try to fit it into two parts. Here is the first half of my list; the rest will come in a later blog post:

Key Tips For Training After Injury

1) Get back to your training as soon as possible. Yeah, you saw that title–I am telling you to keep training after your injury. According to physical therapy and sport performance superstar Kelly Starrett, exercise increases blood flow, activates growth hormones, and thus promotes healing.

Also, with the strong community support that places like CrossFit Kindred provide, suddenly removing yourself from those regular interactions can really do a number on your happiness meter, at a time when you particularly need that kind of boost. So let yourself cry if you’re upset (I sure did), and take a few days off to let the initial inflammation from the injury go down, if it’s fresh–and then get yourself back to the gym!

The Kindred community, sweating together.

That said, you can’t just approach your training the same way you did before the injury. You’ll also need to….

2) Modify the heck out of the workout, as needed. This is where you get to find out just how “infinitely scalable” CrossFit really is. Training with an injury is more than possible, it’s encouraged–as long as you’re not doing anything, and I mean anything, to aggravate your already injured tissue. Re-injuring yourself is just never going to be worth it.

Beware: this is one of the hardest things for an eager CrossFitter to do–it takes a lot of self-control, patience, and a giant dose of humility to scale a workout that you used to be able to do with ease. But I absolutely promise that the more consistent and patient you are in the beginning, the greater gains you’ll see in the end.

Debbie doing back squats

3) Develop habits of awareness and experimentation. Another challenging, yet extremely rewarding practice you must take up if you’re going to train successfully with an existing injury, is becoming acutely aware of what’s going on with your body before, during, and after your training sessions. Learn to tell the difference between simple muscle soreness and pain due to an aggravated or inflamed injury–and learn to avoid the latter. Another wise quote from Kelly Starrett: “If it feels sketchy…it probably is sketchy.”

Also useful is the habit of experimentation. Every injury is different, and every person’s body responds to injury in its own ways. You’ll need to be willing to gently experiment with what movements, mobilization techniques, and recovery strategies strengthen you, and which ones you need to avoid. Again, patience and a whole lot of self-compassion are key.

Rike doing hang power cleans

4) Say no to painkillers. This is partly just an obvious, yet crucial follow-up to the previous tip: It’s impossible to be aware of your body when you can’t feel it! Trying to do a workout while on painkillers is never a good idea, and is downright dangerous. You could be causing further damage to your injury, or any other part of your body for that matter, without even realizing it.

As unpleasant as pain feels, it’s your best friend when it comes to protecting your injured parts from further damage. It’s there for a reason; respect it, and pay attention.

Another reason not to use painkillers, that you might not know: they actually impede healing! Read this classic blog post from San Francisco CrossFit if you want a more detailed explanation of this.

John Chu focusing on his clean technique

That’s it for now; in the next post I’ll delve even more into the practical and mental strategies of coping with an injury while continuing your CrossFit training.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you.

If you’ve ever had (or currently have) an injury that affected your ability to CrossFit: What did you do to cope with the injury? What mistakes did you make, if any, while on the road to recovery?

If you’re currently dealing with an injury: What’s one action step that you want to commit to bringing to your own CrossFit training? What did you learn from this article?

Share your experiences in the comments below!

5 Comments

  1. James

    If possible, avoid shutting down completely. The last couple of injuries I had, I ended up stopping workouts completely. That is a big mistake and will set you back significantly. You lose strength, agility and endurance by doing that and will end up having to basically start from scratch when returning. Of course, you have to be smart about how to get your workouts in while avoiding the injury. That is where good coaching is crucial. Bad advice from coaches can really mess you up. Luckily we have awesome coaches who are really tuned in to everyone’s state of health. 🙂

    Also, it is perfectly okay to scale under any circumstance– injured or not. Unfortunately, a lot of times in Crossfit, there is a pervasive attitude that scaling is something to be embarrassed about or has a negative connotation. It’s an aspect of Crossfit I feel does not get enough emphasis because we all see fire-breathers lift heavy and go fast so we automatically think we have to do the same thing. The pressure to be competitive is a double edged sword. It’s a personal thing when it comes down to it, to feel completely comfortable to scale. I’ve been injured enough over the last 5 years to finally learn how to ignore the peer pressure and ego calling to preserve my physical health. Find that magic balance between what you can do and what is still challenging to you.

    1. Cindy

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, James; both really great points that I 100% agree with. They are easier said than done–often times with an acute injury it’s hard to have the same enthusiasm when your body’s more limited–and yet they are so crucial to coming back strong after something like that happens!

      That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the mental game of CrossFit, even when you’re not injured. Whatever mental training you get helps you cope with the unexpected, when it happens (kind of like what I said in the previous blog post).

      Your input, as always, is well-written and much appreciated!

  2. James

    I am almost embarrassed to even admit this, but I always watch The Biggest Loser because that show regularly gets me inspired to mentally focus. The one major takeaway from the show is that the mental game is the key to everything. It’s so easy to quit but way harder to push yourself beyond your limits. The contestants who get far in the competition always figure this out early on and you can tell that they get it. Watching that show gets me fired up to hit the workouts hard, regardless of how I end up doing.

    One thing that really works for the mental game is to have a buddy or partner so you can push and encourage each other. Being injured is such a lonely thing and it is so easy to become isolated because people, for the most part, are so focused on their own situation that injured folks are kind of taken for granted. Having a workout buddy to push and encourage each other is really helpful, even if you’re not injured. It could be a spouse, a boyfriend/girlfriend, sibling co-worker, etc. but it should be someone you are close to who does not have to be prompted to push or encourage you.

    1. Cindy

      I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I LOVE watching that show too!! Especially now that Bob Harper does pure CrossFit with his team, and consistently gets awesome results. The Blue team killed it for most of last season!

      And yes, that’s very true; we’ve thought before of creating a buddy or “mentor” system at Kindred for that very reason–and maybe we will someday.

  3. Coping With Injury, Part 2

    […] last week’s post, I began a list of tips you can use if an injury, chronic or recent, is affecting your ability to […]

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