It’s an athlete’s worst nightmare — an injury that requires surgery. Many articles will tell you how to decrease swelling, how to regain range of motion, and even how to utilize a detailed exercise regimen for the various stages of recovery. But most don’t talk about how surgery can cause depression, that setbacks do occur, or how hard it will be to stay motivated during a long term recovery.
I tore my right ACL in July 2014. And a year later, I was still struggling to find my way “back to sport.” Although an ACL tear can be devastating to an athlete and it is one of the longest surgeries to recovery from, most people will be back to “normal” after 6 months to a year. It is not uncommon for athletes to have a physical therapist who specializes in getting you back to the basics (daily function), but not back to full strength (sport). It is also common for insurance companies to stop covering physical therapy for the duration of such a long recovery. This can leave athletes feeling a little like they are stuck in limbo and even abandoned.
In my case, I lacked range of motion and extension before and after the reconstruction and had a second surgery a few months later. As an avid soccer player, CrossFitter, and hiker, this was extremely difficult to cope with. The surgeries left me with a severe strength imbalance between my two legs and a significant worry about whether or not I’d ever be able to participate in the things I previously enjoyed.
I am still in the recovery process, 15 months post-injury, and one year from ACL reconstruction. But I have been doing CrossFit in one way or another throughout the entire process. I have had my ups and downs throughout my recovery and have learned a few things that I’m hoping might help others. CrossFit is modifiable and has enough variety that it can keep you interested and focused on what you CAN do, instead of what you can’t. It is probably one of the few active things you can keep doing as you “work around” a significant injury. I am not a doctor, physical therapist or even a trainer — but I have struggled to find information about recovery for athletes, so I want to share as much as I can, as I suspect there are others out there in a similar situation.
Here are 5 things that get in the way of an athlete’s recovery from surgery and a few tips on how to deal with them:
1. High ExpectationsYou can read thousands of online accounts of people rehabbing and being “ahead” of schedule -- for example, returning to sport in three months when it should take six. A positive outlook is particularly important, but keep in mind that everyone is different. Do not fall into the trap of feeling like you are behind. Focus on you. Do whatever it is that you need to do, and stick with it. It is great to have goals and to push yourself, but don’t get caught up in “shoulds.” “I should be further along” will not help you; however, if you truly believe you could be doing more or taking physical therapy more seriously, then do it. But remember that the further you are away from a surgery, the better your body has healed. Rushing things could cause new problems or re-injury.
2. Other people’s opinionsYou will need a lot of help and support from doctors, therapists, trainers, family, and friends. But some people won’t understand what you are going through and will have trouble relating. Some will think you are crazy for being back in the gym a couple weeks after surgery. What matters is what you think. You will know your limits. You know your body best. You will have to work through some pain and a lot of discomfort, but don’t let anyone else push you beyond what you are comfortable with.
3. Negative ThoughtsLast night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song
What if I can never squat again? What if I can never play soccer again? What if I never run again? Beat them back with a baseball bat if you have to. Change them. Challenge them. Focus on what you can do. Being sad or scared are normal feelings that come with these experiences. Just don’t set up camp and live in those places.
4. Poor Nutrition“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
5. Self Esteem"We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”
― Chris Cleave, Little Bee
Scars will remind you that your surgical limb isn’t quite the same as it once was. One leg might be visibly smaller than the other. With an injury, you will be off your game. What was once easy is now difficult. You’ll have to start squatting with a PVC pipe while everyone else hits PRs. Your burpees make you look like a fish out of water. Walking correctly might be difficult for a while. You will likely have to use one-pound weights at some point during physical therapy. All of these things can be frustrating and a punch to the ego. Luckily, you will learn more about your own personal strengths during the times that you feel weakest.
Are you a CrossFit athlete with an upcoming surgery? Here are my top 3 tips.
1. Don’t give up what you love doing if you don’t want to. Talk to your surgeon about the recovery timeline and about working around the injury in a safe manner. Make sure all the coaches know about your limitations and understand how you plan to train while recovering.
2. Sit down with your trainers and coaches and talk to them about expectations, theirs and yours. Ask them what their limits are in terms of helping you recover. Ask them about how they want you to modify things and how much time they want you to take off. Make sure all the coaches know about your limitations and understand how you plan to train while recovering. Set measurable and attainable goals for things you CAN do (i.e. pull-ups if your leg is injured, squats if your shoulder is).
3. Find support. Not everyone will have a significant other or nearby family or close friends to help them. And even so, those people may not really understand what you are going through. A psychologist can provide an outlet for concerns and fears. Even if it is through social media, it is good to talk to people who have been in your situation. I found that Instagram was very helpful and motivating.
Injuries are difficult for most people. But they give you a chance to see what you are really made of. They challenge you and make you stronger in the long run. They give you a chance to rebuild, from the ground up, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. It’s a process. Trust the process and keep moving forward.