Have you ever become more sedentary or lost your motivation to exercise after suffering an injury? Maybe you were in a good rhythm with your workout routine, but an injury threw you off track. Or, maybe you were trying to establish a consistent routine for the first time, but you got injured and it prevented you from turning exercise into a habit. In this article, you’ll learn how to bounce back if you get hurt. You’ll also learn how you can use injuries to get even stronger.
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Getting Stronger After an Injury
The date was December 5, 2009. It was a frigid day in Washington, D.C. The wind chill was in the single digits. My flag football team was in a second-round playoff game.
After intercepting a pass at the back-right corner of the end zone, I launched into an all-out sprint down the right side of the field. In an attempt to cut me off around the fifty-yard line, the opposing quarterback was running toward the sideline. I cut back, and he ran right past me. All I had to do now was run straight ahead for another forty yards to the end zone.
I never made it though. One second later, I tore my hamstring. Did you hear it snap? It felt like a tennis ball was fired out of the back of my left leg. After a few hops on my right leg, I collapsed at the twenty-yard line.
This play occurred in the second game of a double-header. We had a twenty-minute break in between games. During that time, I sat on the sideline and hung out with my teammates. I figured I would warm-up again during the next game. Little did I know that I would be attempting a one-hundred-yard sprint a few moments later, while my body was freezing cold.
A torn hamstring is unfortunately one of the many injuries I’ve experienced over the years. For example, as a kid, I once broke my thumb while playing around with my brother Matt. As another example, I suffered a significant abdominal strain as a college athlete through excessive core training (done on my own and not based on recommendations from my coaches). I’ve also torn ligaments in my ankles multiple times while playing basketball.
Injuries Provide Clues
Some injuries (like breaking a bone while wrestling with your brother) are freak accidents. However, most injuries are simply your body’s way of telling you to change your workout approach. It can be tempting to feel sorry for yourself and to become more sedentary after you get hurt. However, the stronger approach is to ask yourself these two questions:
- “How can I still remain active despite this injury?”
- “How can I enhance my workout routine in the future, so that this injury and other injuries are less likely to occur again?”
For example, if you tear ligaments in your ankle and are unable to run for a few weeks, you could focus more on strength training for your core and upper-body while you rehab your lower body. I’ve gone to the gym many times while on crutches (due to my ankle injuries) to do workouts for my core and upper-body.
If you suffer an injury, you should also ask yourself how you can prevent that injury (and other injuries) from happening again. For example, after tearing my hamstring back in 2009, I analyzed my workout approach at the time and acknowledged several major flaws. Since then, I’ve made many enhancements to my workout regimen and my overall approach to well-being. Here are three of the biggest:
- More strategic warm-ups: Instead of only warming up when I was in the mood or when I felt like I had extra time, I became maniacal about warming up properly before every workout.
- A more balanced training approach: Instead of focusing mainly on training my beach muscles (i.e. chest, abs, arms), I became diligent about building full-body strength by consistently training all of my major muscle groups (including my legs and back).
- More emphasis on recovery. Instead of thinking it was not that important, I recognized that proper recovery (including post-workout nutrition, stretching, foam-rolling, and sleep) is essential if you want to look, feel, and perform your best over the long-term.
As a result of these changes, I’m stronger today in my thirties than before my hamstring injury (in my twenties). Most people (at all fitness levels), would be well-served by making the three workout improvements noted above.
How likely are you to get injured?
You can see how you stack up (and how likely you are to get hurt in the future) by answering these questions:
- How diligent are you about warming-up properly before workouts? Do you ease into your workouts strategically, or do you typically just jump right in without much thought?
- How balanced is your training program? Are you training your entire body and doing aerobic activity, strength training for all major muscle groups, and flexibility exercises each week, or are you just focusing on one aspect, like running, yoga, or strength training for some of your body parts?
- How much emphasis do you place on recovery? Are you fueling yourself carefully after your workouts, stretching/foam-rolling, getting quality sleep most/all nights, and being strategic about maximizing your recovery time?
Your answers to these questions will give you a sneak peek into how you will look, feel, and perform in the future. Your answers will also indicate how likely you are to suffer injuries down the road.
What if you suffer an injury that makes physical activity impossible?
Even if you suffer a more serious injury than a torn hamstring or torn ankle ligaments, chances are that you can still do some sort of physical activity while you rehab and recover. However, if your injury truly makes any physical activity impossible, what about focusing on forming stronger habits in another area that impacts your overall health, energy, and performance?
For example, what about using your recovery period to improve your eating habits, to make sleep a bigger priority, or to focus on stress-reducing habits like meditating or journaling. Physical activity, while immensely important, is only one component of your overall health and well-being.
Many injuries can be avoided with a smarter, more balanced workout regimen. However, if and when you do get hurt, you can actually use injuries to get stronger. Begin by identifying any weaknesses with your prior routine that might have contributed to your injury. Then, develop a more powerful program for the future.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is a consultant, speaker, and author who helps leaders and companies thrive. He is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter at Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area. He has also competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.