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Rest Day

A full house of Squatters

Injury, Insight.

By Noah Abbott

It was the best of spines, it was the worst of spines...

I first hurt my back in college, back when I knew even less than I do today, which is quite an accomplishment. To wit, I hurt it doing Smith Machine squats, in which the barbell is anchored to rails, and the bar follows that set trajectory. The bar followed the agreed upon path, my intervertebral discs didn’t, and my first back injury was in the books. I hurt it a few more times in college, and my recovery was always the same: drink some beers, chill out for a few weeks, and ease back into it. That was generally my recovery plan for everything in college- bad grades, breakups- a six pack and relaxation usually set things right. Then, while in the academy for my old job, I hurt my back doing a box jump (!!!) during a long and grueling conditioning workout. Previously I had always been able to hobble home, with varying degrees of retained dignity, but this time I was immediately immobilized. I knew something was likely very messed up, and it was. Significant herniation of a disc resulted in impingement of my sciatic nerve, radiating pain down my leg, causing my foot to go numb or go to sleep, and generally feeling like a tooth with a cavity- rotten and disintegrating from the inside out. It took me nearly a year to recover, but also began my journey into Crossfit. It had been five years of no major setbacks or injuries, when two weeks ago, while squatting, I hurt it again. While not quite to the magnitude of “the really bad time,” it felt pretty severe. Almost immediately, and for a few days after, I was totally locked up and “crooked”- significantly, almost comically misaligned. I was in a good deal of pain, couldn’t move around much, and began to prepare for the worst.

Today, 2 weeks later, I was back under a bar, squatting. It’s been an interesting two weeks. While this story will touch a bit upon how I got better, it will focus more on what I learned. An injury will always be a bit of a mindfuck, but, having been around the block a few times, this time was a much more introspective, balanced, and positive experience. In sharing a bit of what I learned, I hope I can make someone else’s experience a bit more measured and constructive.

Pro Tips From the Oft-Injured
First, keep moving. During my last injury, I often felt like I was in a glass cage, urged by doctors and other “experts” to not do anything lest I make the injury worse. This time, just a few days out, urged along by some well meaning peer pressure, I was doing 3 rounds of a slow, controlled Cindy. The next day I did 4 rounds, a little faster. Then 5. Each day I realized the best I felt was right after I had moved around, so I resolved to move every day. Second, have a plan. One of the hardest things about injury for a Crossfitter isn’t the pain, but the feeling that your training has been derailed, that the hard work you’ve put in has been wasted, and that by the time you come back everyone you measure yourself against will be that much stronger and faster. Further, you feel unhooked from the careful programming and progress towards a goal that you’ve become used to. Finding a good rehabilitation protocol, assistance exercises that don’t bother the injured area, or movement subs is critical. This time around I used Diesel Strength and Conditioning’s Back Rehab Protocol, and it was great. I was able to feel progress towards a goal, a sense of agency, and a measure of control over my injury that you can’t attain if you just rest or just show up for rehab and blindly go through the paces.

Last, use your “extended rest day” as a time to learn something. Read about exercise, movement, nutrition, or really just anything. I found Crossfit while I was rehabbing my last injury, spending hours upon hours reading the Crossfit Journal and the links from mainsite while my buddies were in the gym. I resolved to myself that when my back had healed I would seek out the closest Crossfit gym and join. When I did, while I had never attempted most of the movements I had read about them, watched videos, and gained a working knowledge and vocabulary past my level of personal hands on experience. Over these last weeks I’ve been looking more into Olympic weightlifting, bracing technique, and natural and gymnastic movement a la Ido Portal. Use your forced break as a period for greater learning and insight, then use that increased knowledge to jump start and fuel your development in the gym when you return.

Three Great Things an Injury Forces You To Do:

#1 Re-engage With Movement
When we first start Crossfitting, lifting, or simply moving in an engaged and informed manner, every movement feels like a loosely held together amalgamation of a hundred or so different moving pieces. Little things, like setting your back, finding your balance, or maintaining tension require intense concentration and commitment. Slowly, over time, we grow comfortable, and before long that comfortability can turn into complacence. We take for granted that we will be in good positions, balanced, and tight, simply because we’ve done it before. Post injury there is a sense of hypersensitivity, as each small change in positioning can aggravate or ameliorate your injury. Generally, the keys to good movement and injury prevention that apply when we are healthy apply in a similar fashion when we are injured. While it certainly sucks that it took an injury to get there, this can be a useful reset and opportunity to “see with fresh eyes.”

#2 Gain perspective
Being forced to take some time to rest, recover, and rebuild helps you realize just how lucky you are, and allows you to reorder what is truly important to you as an athlete and human being. You learn not to take any of the fun stuff we do at the gym for granted. There are plenty of people out there who will never be able to do these things, or who had that ability taken from them. Without getting too saccharine, keep them in mind as you return from your injury, and thank your lucky stars for every burpee you have the privilege of doing. Further, consider what it is that you do this “stuff” for. It’s easy to lose perspective while chasing a PR in a lift or trying to shave time of your Fran. Injury often follows on the heels of such a mindset. Remember that you are training to have a healthier and more fulfilling life, and adjust your training accordingly.

#3 Get Hungry
Use your forced rest period like a fast. Think about everything you want to accomplish, how much you enjoy training, how you miss the camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment, and the fun of training, and come back ready to do great things. Treat your recovery like training, attack it with tenacity, and become a stronger and more well rounded version of yourself. Stoke that feeling of “I can’t wait til I’m back” and use it like fuel when you’re cleared to return.

Get Back In
Wrapping up, don’t let an injury become an excuse to sit on the shelf, mope, and think about how long the road is ahead of you. Start planning your road back, stay active mentally, and let that momentum carry you.

One of the main differences in the recovery from my most recent injury versus the older ones is that today I know a whole lot more about fitness, physiology, and rehab protocols. In college, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know (unknown unknowns!) We don’t expect all of you to spend your time reading anatomy textbooks, so if you are unclear about what you should be doing ask. The coaching staff is happy to help you better understand your injury, identify movements and activities that alleviate/exacerbate it, and help you plan your way back. Of course, we coaches are neither doctors nor do we have x-ray vision, so if your injury is significant, make sure you consult a (real) doctor and get an x-ray, MRI, etc.

In short, get your ass back in the gym. We miss you.

What have your experiences about a return from injury been?
CrossFitters Shouldn’t Do Isabel (And Other Blasphemies) Breaking Muscle
The First WOD in Outer Space!! Astronaut Mike Hopkins is using the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device aboard the International Space Station to perform "Angie"

Reader Comments (29)

Noah! Thanks man. Great article. Your thoughts on gaining perspective are dead on. A "bad day" for me at the gym is still a pretty good day - I am damn lucky that I can afford to come to CFSBK as much as I do and play with the toys.

Injuries suck man. I used to run for exercise almost exclusively and when I got hurt my highly fragile, pharmaceutically calibrated emotional state would cave in. Ultimately, like Noah, injuries led me to Crossfit because I was looking for a program that would help me correct/avoid muscle imbalances and become stronger and more resilient. (So far so good). What I enjoy about CF is that there are a lot of ways to work around injuries during rehab - scaling, movement substitution etc, so that you don't feel like you have to sit on the bench for 4 - 6 weeks.

When I started at CFSBK I almost immediately developed a case of shoulder impingement (from trying too hard to send a V3 at Brooklyn Boulders). My overhead mobility was super limited and I could not get into a proper LBBSQ position. It took a long while to overcome but it did help me appreciate the importance of the LAX ball and commit to improving my posture and internal rotation issues.

Right now I am dealing with a plantar fasciitis problem that just won't settle down. I have had to back off certain movements, running/jump rope, but I am trying to use this time to focus on strength training (cycle with Jeremy etc.). Hopefully I'll be able to get back to running once global warning kicks in again.

Anyway . . . sorry for the long post. Got up a little too early and am about 2 1/2 coffees in so far.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Good stuff. It took a long time for me to learn that you have to get back and start moving. I know that now. Regrettably for me, the reality is, for some injuries, I don't know if you ever come back 100%. I kind of think in a lot of cases that you don't. Concussions. You get your melon knocked around, you do recover, but they come easier and easier. Ankles. Do you ever come back from multiple rolled ankles? I don't think so. Getting hurt sucks. At my age, I try to be really, really careful to stay within my range of motion and capabilities. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJR

Noah -
Excellent piece. I put myself firmly in the "jacked up in various ways" camp and your advice is totally sound.

I also have recurring ouchies and sometimes the idea of scaling or subbing provocative movements is tremendous bummer - enough to make one not want to hit the gym. The last time I re-injured my lower back I came back via private training with Chris Fox. (I highly recommend this approach for those who can swing it.)

I'm now basically back to where I was pre-injury and I think an additional trick that works for me is to err on the side of caution even when you think you're out of the woods. Chasing PRs is great but consistency is king. More than anything I just want to be healthy enough to show up.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNino

6am with Nick and McDowell. I'm still feeling yesterday's workout, but wanted to get in tomorrow's workout since I can't make it in tomorrow. Even with a day's rest, I'm not sure this would have gone any better. It ended up being just Peter and I, facing off, with Fox spectating and McDowell encouraging us. Made it through the first movement and halfway through the second, scaling it down to 63#. Thankful that there was a 10min cap on this.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLinda

Noah, what a great piece. Totally how i have been feeling the past few months with some nagging injuries. #2 mission critical

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDH3rddayback

7 AM with NickDowell. 79 reps on tomorrow's WOD, subbing FSQ for OHS because I didn't want to aggravate my wrist. I did anyway (burpees!) but it would have been much worse had I also done the OHS.

Tomorrow's is a doozy. Just sayin'.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStella

I love cats and everything but I just can't commit fully to this look. I know there is a strong lady that stands among us that could wear this one well....


Make your first meet memorable!

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercrystal

6am. 90 reps on Saturday's workout which was all of the first two movements. If I had another 15 seconds I think I could have gotten 1 rep of the third movement. As it was, I finished the second movement with 15 seconds left I just couldn't convince my body to commit. Between yesterday and today, my traps are destroyed. Planning on having a love session with my foam roller and lax ball tonight.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

AAAHHHAHAHAAAA! @Crystal I saw that on Tosh.0 the other day and almost lost it. If I *ever* do a weightlifting meet, that's what I want to wear. I think Coach Jeremy would do it justice, fo sho.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLindstar

That singlet just reaffirmed my faith in mankind and its infinite capacity for genius. It's like staring into the sun, too brilliant to look at head on, you need to view it with a pinhole camera. I'm so mad that I did not invent this!

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Jay, You need to scroll through the rest of the site. I'm considering the white tiger, no the grim reaper, no the biomechanical skeleton. ;)

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercrystal

Great write-up Noah. Injury is so discouraging, and it doesn't help me when I gain weight while injured, then I'm trying to play catch-up even more. I've been doing cross fit now for about 18 months and have had 2 semi-serious injuries which have forced me to take months off. So I'm basically in the same place I was about a year ago. Frustrating to make progress, then go backwards again. However, I have learned a lot during that time, and hopefully I can use that going forward. One thing I've learned is that 15 minutes a day is not enough mobilizing for me. When you're in the over-45 crowd, I need to do a ridiculous amount of mobilizing and flexibility work.

For whatever reason, I've discovered that the overhead work so prevalent in crossfit is really tough on my neck (OHS, Jerks, Presses, Snatches, wall balls) My traps and my neck muscles get really tight and inflamed. I tend to ignore the tightness and just assume it will work itself out with a rest day or a massage. But in September it led to an impingement on my nerve, radiating throughout my arm to my fingers, and I had the worst pain for two months, unable to sleep, or do any kind of exercise. So now I am fighting the inflammation without letting it get to bad: lots of heating pads, mobilizing, massage, and also taking it easy on the workouts. I love CFSBK, but it seems right now at my advanced age I just can't keep up with the programming anymore. I may have to do fewer workouts, or scale it further down - even if I "can" do an RX weight, it may be that the cumulative effect of the wods is too much for me, at least until I can make more progress on mobility.

The hardest battle is combatting my own impatience and my eagerness to push myself. My mantra recently is "It's a marathon, not a sprint." Taking 2 months off from injury sets me back so much, it's much better to do lighter weights for a while. Hopefully if I can stay healthy, do the work I need to, I will slowly get back to where I was, and maybe even better.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Great write-up, Noah. Did Kate introduce you to the comma? In any case, I'm digging it. Haha

Make-up post from yesterday because I forgot to submit:
WOD at 73# with 1/3 volume strict chin-ups. Got through the round of 12 and one C&J into the 15's. Had to take a break midway through to get a bandaid, so that took up some time. I think I over-scaled the chin-ups. My goal is to be able to do 1/3 volume strict chin-/pull-ups for most Crossfit WODs, but I can't do strict C2B. I probably should have done 1/2 volume strict chins instead.

Blocked out my late afternoon so I can leave early to make OG (aka highlight of my week).

Ellie, please buy that singlet. Please.

Crystal, I'm sure that the high school girls will want to grow up to be just like us if we all roll into a meet wearing matching cat singlets.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKMo

Great post, Noah. I second JR's comment about life post-injury--in many cases you can never really go "back". I tweaked my shoulder badly on an OHS in January 2012 and am still afraid of dynamic overhead movements. (I had a major SLAP tear from 9 shoulder dislocations in as many years repaired in 2004, that was the shoulder I jacked up on the OHS.)

So I guess the thing I would add to this very thoughtful essay is to use the time post-injury to really learn about your body and what it's limitations are. I'm sure much of my fear about overhead movement is psychological; I also know that at 41 I need to respect the fact that 6am classes require me to show up early and get myself prehabbed appropriately. Striking the balance of staying within my range of motion and continuously improving my capacity becomes a sticky wicket sometimes.

Made up this week's squat work in my basement this morning. Got 11 on the repout at 180#. Could have probably gutted through 2-3 more but it's hard to keep going alone in your basement.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

Beautiful and helpful write-up, Noah. Such wisdom, and presented so eloquently.

My ankle injury last summer (the result of going running when I was totally exhausted) was one of the best things that could have happened to my training, or at least, I became dedicated to making that the case. As I’m sure they are for most of us, my injuries have never been just physical, but end up having deep emotional implications, too. David passed along a training plan he'd designed for someone else with an ankle injury and helped me with it at OG, and with my extra time, I started exploring the Paleo diet more seriously via the book It Starts with Food. I did my first Whole60, which was an incredible experience, and solidified the habit of cooking more. I got stronger in my upper body, and through physical therapy, started learning how to strengthen both of my ankles. Everyone at the gym was so wonderful and compassionate, which made a huge difference, especially since I was still getting to know almost everyone at that point.

David is also writing some stuff about injuries, and he pointed out that it leads to a deep form of empathy for fellow athletes, and I love Noah’s point about how injuries lead you to more mindful gratitude for your health. I saw a man on two crutches yesterday (trudging through all the slush and snow) as I was near sprinting to the gym, and quietly said thank you to the heavens for my healthy body and said a prayer for the man’s healing. I’m obviously not even close to being a competitive athlete, but I do this stuff because it profoundly affects my quality of life, and like McDowell said in our UTH interview, it has so many crossovers to how we handle our “real” lives. Sustaining an injury helped me learn to respect my body’s limitations, and yeah—to be so thankful for my health. There have been a couple times since last summer that I’ve stayed home to sleep, knowing that that’s a better option than not having total control of my movements due to exhaustion (as if I have total control even while wide awake, ha). And I definitely have learned to listen to my body more closely, and pay attention to the distinctions between pain and discomfort, which Noah wrote about previously.

Such good things to think about! This gym is a magical place.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate R

Great write-up Noah! As someone who was injured and had surgery 2 months ago and has been on the shelf since, this article is spot on. Sustaining an injury is difficult, both physically and psychologically. However, you can use that time in a positive way. Whether its reading up on mobility, or just getting up early to simulate going to 6am class in order to stretch and work on flexibility or going for a walk, keeping active in someway really helps, especially the mind.

Talking with your coaches and creating a plan is also a great way to try and get back into things.

Can't wait for my first CF workout this weekend and go for a modified, left arm only work out!

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMM

Let's just say in my current injured state I am still going back and forth between a miserable human being and trying to blow positive sparkles up my ass.

regardless of my shitastic feelings, self loathing, tears and frustration, I cannot say enough about the support squad that has answered constant emails, handed me tissues, and offered all kinds of guidance and support. If anything, this injury has taught me how incredible our coahing staff is . Words cannot express my gratitude.

I may be on the slow road back, but at least I'm on a road...

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGracie

When the open starts, we'll know the Saturday workouts from Wednesday night on. So you might as well tell us tomorrow's WOD to get us comfortable. Eh?

Nice write up Noah. Less corny jokes than usual though, sadly. I herniated a disc badly years ago and I appreciate the reminder that it wouldn't take much to be back in that hell again.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBen W

Awesome post, Noah. It resonates with me not only because I had a few back injuries while training with you guys, but also because I'm coming off an appendectomy a few weeks ago. I've been champing at the bit to start pushing some weight again, but I was told to avoid activity for a month. Since this isn't my first time at the injury rodeo, I've been doing pretty much exactly what you described - super slow, focused-on-form pushups and squats a few days out of surgery and building up from there. This weekend - back to the garage gym!

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBetz

Working from home today, so I got to make a rare visit to the 12pm class with Jess and McDowell

Had a good time doing Saturday's workout with Zach and Chris P. I got 83 rounds Rx (or 84? I can't remember...). For some reasons I was going to scale the second movement by 5 lbs, but fortunately McDowell talked me out of it. If I were to do this again I might put a little more juice into the first movement, because there was plenty of standing around time on the second one.

Btw Ben has a point there, but I do love writing crypto-workout-posts on rest days.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex C

Dan Betz!

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

Jay- have you tried acupuncture for your plantar fasciitis? It worked for me.

Great article and responses.

12pm- CRASH-Bs training.

5 orange banded pull-ups
10 RDLs 32kg
15 squats 16kg

'Hell' 15 x 500M with 1 minute rest.

2.01.0 32SPM

Lost it a bit on pieces 10-12, which messed with my average. I would have liked to have been 1 second faster overall.

I never want to do this workout again.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

Really excellent piece for everyone and especially for the older athlete?! like me. Do mindfucks also get bigger with age? …
This is really a super important topic for everyone because we all will have to deal with injury issues at some time in our training career. One needs a program for the mind and its expectations as well as the body.
I am just so grateful to be able to come into the gym at my age. I end up finding stuff out about my body (old injuries) that I forgot about. At age 12, I pulled/tore a ligament in my right groin and was placed in a wheelchair for 8wks and told to rest and do nothing. Really bad advice. I'm dealing with that now.
Where were you when I needed you???

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Brooklyn Boulders
Climbed for about an hour. Was feeling beat up and sore so I did more climbs at lower grades to work on efficiency on the wall. I've really enjoyed bouldering these last few months and I'm finding my movement becoming more intuitive which is exciting. I worked up to about 3 V2s today which were on the easier side of a V2. Each one I did 3-4 times trying to make it easier each ascent.

Dumbbell Overhead Squats
Worked up to 25'sx5
Just for fun, there is nowhere to hide with this movement. NOWHERE

Bench Press
Was hoping to get 170x5 picking up an old LP but it wasn't in the cards today

Bent Over Rows
115+ Chains x8x5

This is a good article and I have a lot to say, but I'm too tired to say it right now :P

"Angie" in outer space is pretty epic.

February 7, 2014 | Registered CommenterDavid Osorio

Came in to OG to make up Wednesday's Wendler squats.

165x5, 185x5, 215x21

Many thanks to Jake for watching and calling reps.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSamir Chopra

After debating with myself about whether or not I was going to go to max again today, I listened to some Donny Shankle and sacked up.

264( yes! It's all in your mind)

Power Clean+2 jerks
286(went below parallel)

Cannot wait to rest tomorrow, and I am happy I pushed it today. Would have been easy to go "light". SHANKLE

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJakeL

I can't resist posting on this QOD. Sorry it's a little long; here are 6 things I've learned from being persistently injured, and finally having and recovering from hip surgery...

1. Progress is bullshit. Or at least it bears very little relation to what I used to think of as progress. Not being hurt is progress. Getting under a bar once a week is progress. Feeling both legs push up evenly out of the hole is huge progress. PRing my squat? Unfathomable and unnecessary.

2. I am a person, not a lifter. Being a person who was able to do literally nothing but lay on our couch wrapped in ice packs for a few weeks helped me remember that I’m more than just someone who lifts. If I never lifted again, I could still be that person. That led me to diversify my interests and activities, starting with getting back into singing, which has been a great life improvement.

3. You can only progress from where you are. Here’s one I’d heard a zillion times, and nodded at, and ignored. Turns out it’s true. You can only start where you are, not where you used to be, or where you wish you were. And sometimes where you are is lying flat on your back just trying to gently squeeze a soccer ball between your feet five times so you can go back to sleep. And that’s ok. There’s a lot of improvement to be had, from there.

4. It’s ok to let go of the hunger. Sometimes the hunger Noah talks about is fucking overwhelming and does way more harm than good. If you can’t use it productively, if there’s nothing active you can do to improve your situation, and being inactive is the best thing for you for a bit, it’s ok to put the hunger away. It’ll still be there to fuel you when you are able to work toward goals again.

5. Injury is not punishment. Being injured for a long time, desperately trying to be “perfect” in my lifts, needing surgery anyway, and slowly recovering – really drove home the fact that there is nothing ‘deserved’ or ‘earned’ about injury. It just happens. I had gotten into a pretty f’ed up headspace along the trail, assigning moralistic qualities and consequences to my actions, and the whole surgery/recovery process was a really good cure for that crap.

6. Running across the street against the light is fucking awesome.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermelon

Melon, all awesome awesome points. What lead me to write this piece was the difference in headspace from my last injury to this one. I think I internalized a lot of the things you talked about- basically dissociating "self" from injury. Well said.

Thanks all for the comments and the shared stories. I think DO is spot on in identifying the added empathy and understanding that comes from an injury- a sister/brotherhood in a sense. If you ever need help finding your way back from "the shelf," please don't hesitate to reach out, its incredibly satisfying to pay it forward.

Stay healthy, stay hungry.

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNoah

12pm class with Josh and McDowell

fun work out. 92 rep RX. I probably could have got 5 muscles up but 5 no reps in the last set of 10 overhead squats cost me a lot of time. I should have broken down the last 10 in 2 sets of 5. Well lessons learned. Burpees were surprisingly easy

February 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPierre Davidoff

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