Tips for Coming Back After Injury

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injury to knee during tennis

Injuries happen, but how you recover from them makes all the difference.

I’m starting to think that many of my blog posts are written to help me get through my own challenges, or to remind myself about important things about fitness and health.

Ah well. I’m only human.

So I’ll start off this post about injury by telling you that I’m slightly more than six weeks post- hip injury and I’m constantly reminding myself about the points I’m going to share with you.

The Athlete’s Curse

Lest you think this is my first injury (hahahaha), I need to mention that I’ve been an athlete most of my life, first in karate and now in physique competitions. I’ve put my body through some serious tests over the years and here is a list of the injuries I remember having:

Sprained ankles
Hamstring tear
Shin splints
Tennis elbow
Patellafemoral syndrome (knee)
Tendinitis, bursitis and a tear in the shoulder
Achilles tendonitis
Multiple sprained thumbs
Bunions (not sure if those are injuries exactly, but they hurt!)
Enough bruises to last a lifetime

And now what appears to be a pulled tendon of one of the glute muscles that inserts into the SI joint of the spine (probably caused by SI joint instability). It’s amazing I’m still functioning really!

Ask any athlete you know and you’ll probably find a similar laundry list of injuries. It’s part of the reason why I once thought I wanted to be a Physiotherapist. It was only after I did my Sports Therapy Diploma as part of my Sports Science degree that I realised that dealing with injuries daily wasn’t going to be for me.

I’m mentioning all this because it needs to be clear that I know a lot about preventing and treating injuries, both through personal experience and through education, and I still screw it up a lot. Even so, I’m at a point where I’ve definitely learned from my mistakes and I’m trying to do things right.

Hopefully you can benefit from my years of messing things up to get back in shape after your injury.

Here are my six tips:

1) Get Professional Help

Even if you have a good understanding of injuries, it’s important to get an assessment and treatment plan from a qualified and experienced Physio or Injury-focused Personal Trainer or Athletic Therapist. The Physiotherapist will make sure that you’re doing the right exercises and avoiding anything that may aggravate your injury. It’s also important to have guidance as your injury heals to progress yourself at the right pace and with the proper exercises.

Most people make the mistake of stopping all their rehab exercises as soon as their pain goes away, which may lead to re-injury or further muscle imbalances (which could potentially cause another injury. Yikes!).

Follow through with your Physio even when your injury gets manageable, or when you don’t feel anything at all. If you’ve taken time away from certain exercises then you can’t expect to go straight back to where you were, but you’ll get there quicker if you follow the process progressively.

2) Do Your Physio Exercises

The people who go to Physios for treatment, don’t do the exercises that are prescribed, and then complain that the treatment isn’t working, won’t get any sympathy from me. Yes, they’re usually boring and sometimes make you feel weak and feeble, but they’re important.

Even if you get treated by a Physio two or three times a week you need to do daily exercises on your own to heal the injury and get stronger. You need to commit to making yourself better, rather than relying on someone else to massage your injury away a couple of times a week.

3) Be Patient

It’s very tempting to just jump back into your usual workout routine as soon as you feel the injury is better. DON’T! That’s an express ticket back to Injury Town. Your muscles in the area have gotten weaker and they won’t be able to handle the stresses you previously placed on them.

I was doing single leg deadlifts holding about 35-40 pounds in each hand before my hip injury. If I did that now, I would either topple over or manage to pull another muscle that’s become weak through disuse. I’m only using tiny 3 pound weights (just to get used to holding something) and I’m doing the exercise slowly to make sure that I’m contracting the glutes and stabilizing the hips before I move.

Anything else, in my current state, could lead to re-injury.

4) Take the Time to Overcome Muscle Imbalances

Injuries are a good time to assess your whole body and fix things that might not be functioning optimally. Maybe you need to stretch certain areas more frequently, foam roll others, or strengthen areas that have always been weak. When you have an injury, your training becomes limited and many of your favourite exercises won’t be on the menu. Take that extra time to work on other weaknesses.

Also remember that an injury places stress on other parts of the body. Muscles rarely function independently, and an injured area will affect surrounding areas and parts of the body you wouldn’t expect (a sprained ankle can end up affecting your knees, hips or back because it throws your body out of alignment and puts more stress on the opposing side). As your injury heals, strengthen and stretch the other affected areas as needed so that you don’t end up with other problems later on.

5) Come Back Stronger Than Ever

Yes, you will. If you follow the rehab plan conscientiously then you’ll train your body to function better and even out muscle imbalances you have (EVERYONE has them) that may have even caused the injury. Your body will perform at a higher level than before because you’ve dealt with your weaknesses.

Don’t think about where you were before the injury. Work from where you are and focus on your progress. This was a tough one for me because I was getting stronger and building muscle, and after my injury I lost almost 5 pounds of muscle from the glutes/legs, where I’d so painstakingly put it on over the past few months. I keep reminding myself that I’m now performing exercises with even better technique and with more concentrated activation to the areas I want – and the results will surpass what I’ve previously achieved.

6) Learn from Your Mistakes

Remember that sprained ankle you had about 10 years ago that you never bothered to rehab? Does it still ache when the weather gets colder? Thought so.

Do the work now to rehab your injury and you’ll have fewer regrets in the future. The first few weeks after an injury are crucial for recovering fully and without later problems.

My Path

Hopefully those six tips will help you as you recover from your injury. I have to keep reminding myself of these tips regularly. I get frustrated. I get impatient. I wish the injury hadn’t happened.

It’s all normal. I’m now in the capable hands of a qualified Physio, who also happens to be a Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and I’m working with her to get myself back to 100%…and then to get better than ever before. Hopefully you now feel confident that you’ll be able to do that too.

Ivana Chapman 

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 5-year-old boy. She is a writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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