Food for Thought: 5 Ways to Keep your Mental Edge Through Injury

This is a little bit long, so put the time aside to read it!  From Barbell Shrugged.

Athletes that train hard and push themselves must eventually face and fight through injury. And many will feel lost when they realize that the strength they’ve worked so hard to attain has temporarily left them.

That feeling can be painful, but it’s easy to resolve. Here are a few simple ways to train your mind in times of injury. This will help you maintain your edge, but it’s also the secret to coming back to the barbell and growing stronger than ever before.


1. The first step is acceptance.

As we have all heard, the first step towards getting better is admitting that you have a problem.

Acceptance is not about putting your head down. It’s the ability to tolerate discomfort long enough to make it productive. You have to acknowledge that you’re injured if you ever hope to turn this injury into a strength.

The first step in acceptance is developing the ability to reduce judgment and criticism. Regardless of circumstance, the focus of rehabbing an injury cannot be rooted in attacks on weakness, criticism of self, or negativity. Instead, the focus has to be rooted in understanding and forgiveness.

All of us are carrying a load, both mentally and physically, and sometimes the body demands a break. So, it’s critical to make the very most of these moments. We have to start by seeing that this discomfort is exactly the tool we need most at the moment.

Begin every period of rehab with an honest assessment of the injury, a new set of intentions for the rehab process, and a daily moment of compassionate reflection in which you give yourself permission to relax and heal.


2. Self-care and compassion will make you much stronger. 

In my experience, people lose the motivation for change as a result of struggling with the incremental nature of setting goals.

When we are injured it has the ability to throw our entire sense of self out of whack, and for many of us this is the birthplace of constant re-aggravation. The reason for this constant cycle is the difficulty we have accepting that we are always changing, and that an injury is a vibrant sign of that change.

If we are injured and our only goal is the immediate return to our previous numbers, we are simply clinging and attached to an old part of our ego. This make us want to speed-up recovery. We take jumps in weight that we are simply not prepared for. The overall effect is that we end up stunting our growth, despite the amazing opportunity to improve.

In this part of the process we need to learn how to reset goals that reflect our resiliency and not our clinging. We need to mark the new areas of ourselves that we can strengthen, both mentally and physically.

The goal setting process coming back from injury should include anything from strengthening small muscles we may have neglected, to learning how to listen to ourselves better. Regardless, this is a time for checking needs everyday. We get a chance to be more attentive to ourselves then we have ever been. That’s important, because there is a possibility that your injury is the direct result of a lack of self-compassion and self-care.

The goals we set when we are injured should include not only a return to strength, but also a return to a stronger relationship with our body. Begin each day with a body scan to see if there are areas of tension, and attend to those areas any way you know how. Start setting goals that include daily self-care, massage, mobility, relaxation, more time off, etc.

You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to start making this a daily priority. It’s just as important as barbells when it comes to being strong and fit.

Even if your injury was devastating, you can come back stronger than before. 

3. Mobility is more than range of motion. 

It could just as easily be called humility. One of the greatest benefits of working through an injury is reconnecting with our ability to be humble and learn.

I remember the first time I injured my hip, it was the result of neglect of my glutes and hamstrings. For example, I always considered glute ham raises, a tough hamstring exercises, to be torturous and worthy of criticism. Then a brilliant PT friend of mine had me stand with my butt against the wall, with a slight knee bend, and asked that I hinge forward at the hip, basically a good morning movement. I couldn’t do it.

This sparked a fascination in mobility, not only because of the alignment and performance benefits, but also because I find incredible value in including humbling movements in my training weekly.

Find someone who understands movement and ask fr their help. Let them help you strengthen something you’ve been neglecting. Even if it’s not directly related to your injury, this is still your greatest opportunity to discover weakness and build strength. So make the most of it.


4. Curiosity is a key component of progress.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of slowing down from injury is reestablishing curiosity about strength, your body, and your innate ability to work through adversity. It’s also a great time for assessing the environment in which you train.

For the sake of this discussion, I am using the word curiosity to represent our ability to be truly concerned with learning new things about ourselves, our injury, our training, our environment, and our connection to the sport. There are few things more important, in terms of the psychological side of strength, than our willingness to learn. We are more likely to be injured when we have started to lose our willingness to be flexible, make changes, listen to our body, and find new ways to enjoy our training.

This is also our chance to assess our world outside of training as well. Are you carrying too much stress? Has your body given out because you took on far too much? Many of us use physical activity as a way of coping with daily life, so we have to face these questions when hurt so our personal stress and strain doesn’t prevent us from getting well.

Begin by creating one key training question that you can reflect on each day. Work to learn something new about yourself, your boundaries, and your true motives with every response.

Speaking of questions, this book is a must read for creating lasting change. Check it out.

Speaking of questions, this book is a must read for creating lasting change. Check it out.

5. Visualization is everything.

Canadian Olympian Doug Hepburn was one of the strongest humans to every live. In his biography, ”Strongman,” he openly discussed all the ways he would visualize lifts before stepping onto the platform. One line from that book says it all…

The more you can visualize yourself succeeding at your goals, the more likely you will be to succeed for real when the opportunity rises.

The process of guided imagery, visualization, or any other form of mental practice is a well accepted and scientifically support concept, but the role of this practice in rehabbing an injury is pivotal and unique.

To keep your edge throughout an injury it is important to start practicing some kind of guided mindfulness, which will allow you to still experience the lifts. This is basically a change to train the memory of the lift – your pre-lift ritual, technique, mindset, soundtrack, everything! – all with zero risk of re-injury. Start visualizing the lift as you do it. Step by step, pay very close attention to the order you fire your muscles.  Find areas of your body that are not firing in sequence, and start mentally going through the experience of a rep or movement performed perfectly.

What does that feel like?

Envision the body supporting the injury and find the true center of your strength. Begin a regular practice in which you envision the entire process of the completed lift. Do not leave out any detail. This will allow you to feel completely mentally prepared when you physically return to 100%.

By keeping this list handy you can continue the process of feeling empowered, even through the most difficult of injuries.

Remain creative, compassionate and strong!