If there’s one thing that Crossfitters like to bond over, it is our injuries along the road to awesomeness. Dealing with and overcoming injury can be extremely difficult for us. Why? Our sport is all-encompassing. Anyone who has ever stepped into a box – and has come back again the next day – instantly realizes it is a lifestyle.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ~ Helen Keller
2010 was the year of Crossfit for my husband and I. Our world was rocked with new friendships, a new lifestyle and new bodies. It bought us even closer. I went balls to the wall. Trail running, Crossfitting, paleo and some pretty epic stuff: Triathlon? Sure! Sign me up! Duathlon? Why the hell not! Muddy mountain trail run? Duh.
Life couldn’t get better.
Two years before Crossfit I was in an MVA and injured my back. My progress was careful, heavily regulated and very modified. Like many people, I experienced dramatic improvements in strength. I went from struggling with a 45 lb deadlift to PRing at 185 by the end of the year. My pain disappeared during WoDs and seemed to come and go in cycles instead of being constant. I had spent 2 years being ground down by pain and prescriptions, now I was thriving and had thrown those prescriptions out. However, after 120 WoDs in February 2011 I walked out of my first WoD. I laid on the ground in tears.
It seems stupid to me now but I had taken on the “Suck it up” mentality. I didn’t want to be that chick that was always whining about hurting. I’d grimace and tell concerned coaches that I could push through. That night in February, as I laid on a Canadian ice pack (snow in a ziplock bag), I got the talk from a coach: Back off of the WoDs and start dealing with things. I was told that I was using WoDs as a distraction from the pain, and that my determination was doing more harm than help.
They say that the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. Very true. I cried on the curb outside.
First up was taking stock of injuries. After months of mobility WoDs, strength gains and regular treatment I was hurting everywhere. I had shin splints, regular migraines, plantar fascia, bicipital tendonitis, impinged shoulders, nasty hip pain and sciatica radiating down my life leg. My back spasms were better, but ongoing despite the new body I inhabited. X-Rays gave us the answer we didn’t want: Osteoarthritis and degenerative disk disease throughout my spine thanks to the MVA. I was overwhelmed and in all honesty, pissed off. I really believed if I kept working hard and ignored these, they’d go away. Now I was staring them in the face.
I didn’t even have the luxury of a recovery timeline. I knew I was saddled with a permanent condition in my spine and it wasn’t a question of recovering, but stabilizing and controlling. Luckily, this sport has a hell of a community. My coaches at Crossfit AI rallied around me and volunteered their time. Nutrition plans and biosignature analysis from one coach, corrective exercise and personal training from another with a Kinesiology background – not to mention moral support and regular check-ins from my firebreather friends (the type of friends who invite you and your foam roller over for a mobility evening and meet you at the door with wine). My Chiropractor and Sports Therapist / Osteopath began working away on my body as I started corrective exercise.
I was never someone who could RX WoDs. I always felt horribly guilty as my coaches sat deep in thought with the whiteboard, custom programming my WoDs (even though they enjoyed it). I was never one of the “Firebreathers” who I had become close friends with. I was amazed. I was being treated like an Olympic athlete. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had a better support crew!
10 months later, I am still getting my head around everything. For a while I’d go to the box to absorb the amazing energy and see the people I missed terribly. But then I found myself getting jealous and then a bit resentful. I’d scowl in the back watching everyone do Grace, as I worked on my rotator cuff rehab with 5lb weights. I eventually let go of my need to go to the box, and began to learn the importance of recovery, downtime and balance. I still resist the urge to throw in double unders to add in some “suck factor” or jump into action the second I start feeling better (which set me back several times this summer). Like many, I was guilty of showing up the second I was relatively pain free to hit a WoD.
I have up days and I have down days. I have some amazing corrective exercise and nutritional programming from my coaches, but it comes down getting into that gym and working at it each day – mostly alone. For a Crossfitter, “solitary” “low intensity” “gentle” and “no working out on bad days” is difficult to digest. The physical part has been easy for me. Taking downtime and staying upbeat mentally has been much tougher. Your injuries want your brain to come on down and hang out with them. They are the worst company ever.
I have made a ton of progress. My pain levels are manageable and I go through fewer crippling “bad cycles”. My stable and strengthened joints have let me do some pretty cool things, like put weight overhead for the first time in a year. Winter rolled around and I was feeling ready to make a careful return to AI. That is, until a nasty fall that lit up my SI joint and low back. 2 months later and I am still gingerly getting in and out of my car and coming up with creative ways to get my socks on. I haven’t even thought about a timeline for this recovery, but I know I am more than able to handle this challenge.
What is the point of this long-winded story? I might not be a firebreather, or even a member of the RX club, but Crossfit gave me the heart and mind of an athlete. I have a deep seated belief that I will return one day stronger than ever. I know my body will eventually catch up to my heart. However, I am also human. I have done a lot of things right, but even more things wrong.
I want to share 25 insights with you that I learnt along the way:
- Be realistic. Find the middle ground between giving an injury attention and not letting it dominate your life. If you ignore it (the ego in us wants to do this), things are going to get nasty. A few weeks of rehab will turn into 6 months or more. Or a surgery. On the other end of the spectrum: If you live it, you are going to let it affect your quality of life and possibly set back your recovery. Your brain fires more than 60,000 thoughts a day. If they are dominated by negative thoughts, how will that affect the cells in your body? Psycho-social effects are powerful.
- Don’t be a hero. We live in a hero culture. We glamorize those who push through WoDs despite pain and fatigue. Celebrate the games athletes who pushed through their injuries. But do me a favour – don’t tell the coach you are fine when you are not. They may have their Certs in Crossfit, but they are not certified in extra-sensory perception. You need to know that if you are going to play the “hero” game you are rolling the dice – is getting through that WoD worth months of rehabilitation?
- Don’t avoid the pain cave. Exercise works better than painkillers. Trust me. It also gives you that delicious rush of feel-good endorphins. When you are injured, this can be dangerous. You may come to rely on WoDs as pain (and mental) relief, only to return to the pain cave a few hours later. I relied so heavily this in late 2010 that I over trained and fatigued my adrenals. Not fun. Can you imagine giving up coffee? Losing your shit over really simple things? No? Then don’t trash your adrenals. You will have to experience some pain. It’s not going to kill you – unless you go to extremes trying to avoid it.
- Eat powerful and anti-inflammatory foods. Do not underestimate the power of fish oil, hydration, sleep, heat and ice. There are tons of advanced treatments out there. I am no stranger to decompression, Graston, Laser and ART. But you’ve gotta go low-tech. Ice, mobilize, correct and strengthen, stretch, and put some solid nutrition in that belly before a solid night’s sleep.
- Know pain. Hell is good. Inner 6th circle of hell is not good. Know the difference. If you feel like a vertebrae is going to shoot across the room and knock someone out, please stop. I was so shitty at this that my coaches had to resort to crouching in my face and asking me: “Carina: Good pain or bad pain?!” As soon as I’d grunt bad pain under my breath they’d take me out of the WoD. I’d be mad at them for 10 minutes, then relieved. I am not afraid to tell that you I couldn’t trust myself to tell the difference. I asked for help and got it. If it causes more pain, you need to stop doing it. The pages you wrote yesterday produced the story you have today. It didn’t work out.
- Knowledge is power. Understand the anatomy and physiology of your injury. This will help to remove the feeling of helplessness and deep frustration that happens early in an injury, or when things are not progressing as you expected.
- The body is a system. Don’t get obsessive about a specific problem area and ignore everything else. Treat the entire surrounding area. As I rebuilt my rotator cuff / scapular strength my thoracic spine pain (aka the epicentre of crappiness) improved considerably. Of course, it makes sense. They are connected. Western medicine likes specificity. You need a diagnosis and specific problem area to fix. Learn to also ask about the “theme” the connected parts that interact with your injury zone and how they might be affected.
- Recovery is not a linear progression. There are bumps in the road. You might slip on ice or take a spill and knock yourself back a few months. You might have to put a pause in your rehab program to take a few days to manage pain and rest. The body is an unpredictable, complex system. We don’t even fully understand it yet. Hey, that sounds familiar. It’s kind of like … Life.
- Get perspective. Talk to other people who had a similar injury. You need to see that you will come out on the other side ok. Forums or even people in your box can be a lifeline, especially when you are feeling isolated during rehab.
If you are still Crossfitting, get over yourself. You will have to scale, or you will have to “MoDWoD” Really, nobody cares that you have your own WoD on a whiteboard. They are focused on getting through their last 20 box jumps. When you get caught up thinking about others, think about waking up inside your own body tomorrow morning. Was it worth it?
- Chill. Come down a notch, captain intensity. WoDs produce a high intensity mind set and high intensity life. Learn to appreciate a beautiful sunset during a walk (I am sure you’ve missed out on many beautiful sunsets due to the searing pain in your quads as you overhead lunge across the parking lot).
- Visualize. Where do you want to be? See yourself there. Everyone has different goals. For me, it changes every day. One day it might be doing a mini WoD, another day it might be getting into my car without being afraid of jabbing pain. Whatever the image, I have to set in my mind first thing in the morning. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, my friends. Keep it full of powerful, positive imagery.
- Get thee to mobility WoD. Learn how to stay mobile and keep things loose. And get ready to dedicate more time to it. A few minute here and there will increase substantially. You just have to get over it. You will need to devote some serious time on this going forward. Don’t worry about whether you’ll be motivated enough to do this. If you hurt enough, motivation won’t be a question. You’ll do it. If you don’t do it, you’re not hurting enough.
- Cancel the reservations for your pity party. It’s ok to have a shitty few days here and there but get out, fast. And don’t drag people into it. Just ask them to slap some sense into you. Crossfitters love motivational shit. Throw out a request on your Facebook status and watch the feel-good quotes roll in!
- Put it into perspective. Mostly, I want to punch people in the face when they begin with “it could be worse” but it is quite effective. I am currently working through my program at the University gym, where every day at 1pm there is a community program. Clients relearn functional movement after a stroke, or do mobility exercises to manage chronic and degenerative conditions. And I’m pissed off because I can’t squat with a bar? I get over it quickly when I walk by the guy relearning how to use his legs on Tuesdays.
- Don’t let injury derail your diet. Your training load may have to be reduced significantly. Do not seek comfort in food. Double trouble. You may also experience some body composition changes. This is particularly important for the ladies: Do not let this get to you. Never let what is happening on the outside affect your motivation to fix the inside. There are many days where I resent what I see in the mirror, because I get caught up in the past (how fit I was last year) or the future (I need to get back in shape). It’s not about then, and it’s not about tomorrow. It’s about getting into the gym today and doing my exercises.
- Keep a journal. Log your progress: Setbacks and improvements, environments and circumstances. Moods and nutrition. You need to understand the factors that play a role in improvement and regression, and so do your treatment providers.
- Recording one improvement each day is incredibly helpful. With my injuries I’ve never been able to put a bar overhead. First time I did this a few months ago was AWESOME. I put little stars and smiley faces around this in my journal. That page is dog-eared now because I go back and read it. Other days are less awe-inspiring, like my entry of December 20th: “I did not drown my self-pity in chocolate today.” Yet it was a positive notch on the calendar during a crap week.
- Focus on what you can do. When I was sidelined from upper body exercises, I focused on building some damn strong legs. Now that I’m sidelined from everything except walking for a few weeks, I am focusing on meditation and relaxation techniques. I had no idea I walked around with my jaw and glutes clenched until I began this process!
- Do NOT ask how long it will take. This is one of the first questions that people ask on the Crossfit injuries thread. The body doesn’t work on a schedule. A short recovery estimate sets you up for disappointment when it does not happen. A long recovery estimate is just… well, it is depressing. Focus on what you have to get done today.
- Set very small and specific goals. Smash them. And celebrate them. Scratch PR tweets and adopt rehab progress tweets. Don’t be ashamed, your friends probably find your status update about overcoming a setback far more interesting and inspiring than your latest PR.
- Don’t be a hermit. It is doubtful that your box friends will allow you to become one, but it is still worth noting. Crossfit, hiking is enjoyable without the need to clean and jerk tree trunks overhead and race each other to the bottom. Hard to believe but there was a life before Crossfit! Trust me, it is still enjoyable if you cannot perform epic feats of fitness.
- Develop an interest in an activity that has nothing to do with working out. If your whole world is the box, it is going to be a very difficult experience stepping back for a bit. You need to maintain balance in life so that when one area is taken away temporarily, the world is not over. This is a crucial factor in keeping a positive mindset.
- It is ok to be pissed off and to have a shitty attitude some days (not too many). Why? Because dwelling in that pain cave for 24 hours makes you realize how much it sucks for yourself and others. You will have an epiphany and renewed motivation to get your shit together. It is also ok to be jealous. When my husband tells me he is off to smash a WoD or comes home from a WoD and talks about amazing life is. I want to respond with expletives. Sometimes I drop him at the box and go do an angry grocery shop. And then I go do my corrective work. Because I am motivated.
- Take ownership. The injury may be your own fault. Or it may not. But managing it is completely in your hands. Your first step to control is having understanding and a roadmap forward. The combination of confused and hopeless is disastrous. And if you are diagnosed with something that does not have a recovery attached to it, learn how to manage that condition and find some success stories.
Choose to see the positive, on bad days, think about this:
- It is much better that you are dealing with this now, than when you are 75. Oh, and did I mention you are going to have pretty.awesome pain tolerance when you return to WoDs?
- Your body is revealing weaknesses in its structure and makeup. Now that you know where they are and what they are, you can fix them.
- Hellen Keller knew what was up. Research shows that people who go through major challenges become, stronger more resilient, and more appreciative of life than those who do not experience challenges. Is Karen really going to be that bad knowing that at one point you dreamed of being able to air squat? No.
- The body is an incredibly complex system that we do not fully understand, but you are your best expert. Learn how to listen to your body and understand how you feel and you will regain that control. Listen to your gut. If it is telling you something, tell your treatment provider. There are hundreds of factors that come into play with every injury and those little side conversations may be the breakthrough you need.
- Take a holistic approach with your injuries. A big injury is a fantastic opportunity to improve your whole self. If you dial in more areas of your life, things will come together much, much faster for you.
BIO: Carina Huggins
Carina Huggins graduated from the University of Calgary with her Masters Degree in Military and Strategic Studies in 2010. Originally from the UK, Carina is currently an academic development specialist at the University and advises students on academic and personal success. She is also the owner and designer of Ethereal Creation jewelry and is a freelance writer.
Carina was overweight all of her life and struggled to keep up with others in the athletic activities that she enjoyed so much. In 2007 she lost 50lb through clean(er) eating and working out (with the power of hindsight, she would like to note that “working out” is a loose term). After a car accident in 2008 she discontinued strength training and experienced two difficult years of severe and chronic pain.
Tired of being ground down by pain and inactivity, Carina arrived at Crossfit AI wide-eyed in May 2010 and began her love affair with the WoD. She continued on her path to health, reducing her body fat from 26% to 16% and improving her strength dramatically. She is most proud of participating in her first Triathlon, Duathlon and 10K+ Mountain Trail race in 2011 using only Crossfit as her training method. She also enjoys getting out to the mountains every chance she can and being the un-bendiest at her local yoga studio.
She is currently taking downtime to rehabilitate her injuries, but is looking forward to returning to the box after backpacking around Southeast Asia with her husband Trevor in the spring.