Early morning. Dark outside. Treadmill whirring. I'm halfway through my warmup when *ZING!* Pain stabs my forefoot. It's familiar. Dreaded. My old demon, Metatarsalgia.
This isn't a running injury, per say. In my case, it's a chronic condition caused by an unfortunate genetic cocktail of bunions, arch construction, and long toes. (Seriously? Long toes?) Most of the time, I keep it under control with custom orthotics, stiff-soled shoes, and an anti-inflammatory diet. But occasionally, it flares.
We all have something, don't we? Whether it's periodic acute injuries or aggravated chronic ones, there will also be times when pain gets in the way of our goals. As I sit here with my foot wrapped in a frozen clay pack, I realize that age and experience have improved on my skills when it comes to maintaining fitness while managing injury.
Here's what I've learned:
#1 - Know When to Fold 'em
Kenny Rogers was right. Sometimes, it's better to give up than to push through.
When my metatarsalgia attacked mid-run, I seriously considered finishing my planned workout anyway. It was only a recovery run! Just 4.5 miles of undulating hills! Maybe if I stretched my forefoot a little? Nope. Ran with my toes curled? Nope. Ignored the pain? Sure.
Right on cue, my online trainer started saying things I already knew. Ignoring our bodies' whispers will, eventually, force them to shout. What could have been a minor injury requiring a few days off may blow up into a serious problem that decimates race plans and wipes out months of gains. He was right, of course.
Sadly and brewing with frustration, I did the hardest thing. I stepped off the treadmill.
If you've ever been an athlete on a roll, you know it is terribly difficult to give up on a workout. You feel like you're violating your own commitment. Cheating. Wimping out. But think about it: Isn't it better to sacrifice a few miles today in order to avoid a month of missed runs? To skip those final few bench presses rather than taking several weeks off to nurse a nagging shoulder?
When injury strikes, base your decisions not on the workout in progress, but on the longer term. You'll achieve higher training volume overall by backing off early and recovering quickly than you will by pushing through. Injury will always call your bluff.
#2 - Focus on What You CAN Do
We left my tale of woe with me stepping off the treadmill mid-run. I was worried. I was irritated. And, I was prepared to shift gears. Instead of heading for the shower, I limped across the gym and switched my running shoes for cycling flats.
When we're hurt, it's really easy to bask in our misery. I'm going to lose so much fitness. I'll never be ready for my race. This sucks. What if, instead, we got creative?
It's perfectly possible to train around most injuries. Get specific about what you can't do (in my case, push off my left forefoot) and find challenges that don't involve that movement. If you can't run, maybe you can walk or cycle or swim. If you've tweaked your elbow, you can probably still squat and lunge. Sprained ankle telling you standing balances are out of the question? Skip the vinyasa yoga and do hatha instead.
You might even make some gains while you recover. For example, cycling has long been hailed as a beneficial cross-training modality for runners. (Now I have time to do more of it!) Even if you don't gain, you'll minimize loss. Research demonstrates that training your uninjured bits helps preserve muscle even in immobilized limbs.
#3 - Maintain Your Usual Routine
On a related note, sticking to your usual workout schedule ~ even if you're changing up the activities ~ has benefits of its own.
Have you ever noticed that, despite initial resistance to taking a break due to injury, our natural tendencies toward laziness still kick in? "I can't run right now" has a way of morphing into "I'm going to binge Netflix and eat all the Cheetos." Don't do it!
You've worked hard to establish habits and routines, so stick to them. I hopped on the bike again this morning at my usual running time and pounded out a HIIT workout. After lunch, my strength workout is still on the docket, though I'll be working around a hamstring that I pushed a little too hard on Wednesday.
Even if your injury (or illness) really is severe enough that you can't do an alternative workout, still set aside your usual gym time to focus on your health. Use the time to stretch or read up on current research about your chosen sport. Alternatively, engage in a contemplative practice. Research has demonstrated real mental and physical benefits from mindfulness activities such as meditation and prayer, regardless of whether they are secular or religious in flavor.
Keeping your usual schedule will help you remain focused on getting back in the game instead of letting the sofa steal your success.
#4 - Actively Treat the Injury
Speaking of focus, there's a big difference between resting and recovering. Sure, rest is usually an important part of recovery, but there's so much more you can do than sit back and wait for your cells to repair. Depending on the nature of your injury, taking an active role in your recovery may even make the difference between a complete fix and chronic problems.
Don't be afraid to enlist a professional. The right practitioner (whether in sports medicine, chiropractic, soft tissue therapy, functional medicine, or whatever) is one who understands your goals and has the knowledge to help you return to full function. If you have that person's number in your phone, consider dialing it.
Of course, there are a lot of common sense steps you can take on your own. Get out your ice packs, foam rollers, and therapy balls. Soak in an epsom salt bath. Modify supportive devices, if applicable. (For me, that meant adding temporary forefoot support to my usual orthotic, per my podiatrist's direction). Tend to localized and systemic inflammation using compression, more ice, extra sleep and diet.
#5 - Eat Even Cleaner
Oh yes, diet.
It can be especially tempting to treat ourselves to junk food when we're injured. Self-medicating with food is common, including among athletes facing the depressive tendencies that accompany setbacks. The problem, of course, is that these "medicating" foods are usually pro-inflammatory choices like pizza, mac & cheese, or cookies.
Instead, try to stick to food that really does contribute to healing. You choose quality fuel to support your training, right? Wouldn't your damaged body appreciate quality building blocks even more?
Personally, I've upped my veggie and fish intake while staying away from inflammatory foods like grains and sugar. At the very least, it helps me mentally to continue treating myself like an athlete rather than a slug.
#6 - Stay Positive
It all boils down to positivity, right? The mental game is at least half the battle, and all the strategies listed above contribute to it.
Personally, I find that curiosity and positivity go hand in hand. Recovery is an opportunity to explore new activities, read some research, and get creative. You really can maintain your athletic mindset throughout your recovery and out the other side.
Bonus Tip - Take This Advice to the Barn
Oh, horse people: Don't miss the crossover application to our furry friends! Having an injured horse can be just as frustrating to having an injury of your own...and it can also offer just as much opportunity.
If your horse is laid up, look for ways to spin his down time to your advantage. Work on a low-activity training issue, like accepting the bit, touching ears, or picking up feet. Learn some physical-therapy "tricks" like carrot stretches. Bond over extra grooming and hand-grazing in the sun. Get in some extra steps on a slow handwalks.
Whatever you do, don't let an injury lay waste to your time or ambition. Recalculate your route and keep going!
Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog explores the mental, physical, and technical aspects of being a better horseman, athlete, and human.
The Sweaty Equestrian