A full house of Squatters
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?
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