I am not a superstitious person; however, I knew there must be a danger in putting in print, as I did in an earlier column, that I was "injury free" after 33 years of training. (Well, I did say no chronic injuries.) Such pronouncements, in an eerie way, set the scene for an injury. So, in making that statement, I became an injury waiting to happen.
A few days after I finished the article, I suffered a severe strain in my right hip area from squatting. A millisecond before the injury I knew it was going to happen, but it was too late.
And not surprisingly, after so many years of training myself to push through workouts, I made a bad situation worse by doing a few more reps to complete the set.
Fortunately, with age there does come a little wisdom. In my younger days I would have finished the workout regardless of the injury. This time I only did movements that would not further hurt my hip. That bit of gained wisdom probably prevented a major injury from occurring.
I was also determined that this time around I would learn something from the injury instead of just jumping back into training. Moreover, as I started to think somewhat more positively, I realized that my own experiences could help IRONMAN readers. While there have been a number of excellent articles in this magazine, particularly in the sports medicine department, on injury prevention and treatment from a biomechanical perspective, less has been said about the BEHAVIORAL perspective.
Psychological Reactions to Injury
For most athletes an injury precipitates a crisis that can impair their ability to train or compete for a considerable period of time: They lose confidence in their training approach and their ability to profit from training. In my own case the injury also led to depression, which I attribute party to my reduced activity level, partly to the fact that my schedule of goals became derailed, and partly to the loss of confidence.
The temptation is to escape the crisis by jumping right back into training and somehow "training around the injury." That's what I have always done, and it's worked out reasonably well in the past; I seem to have inherited a wondrous recovery ability and have always come back very quickly.
So we get past the crisis, but something is missing.
We learn nothing from the injury.
Specifically, we fail to find out the following crucial information:
What conditions led to the injury?
Were there enough warning signs - could we have foreseen and avoided the injury?
What can we do to prevent injuries in the future?
Learn From Injury
As I've suggested, we can learn a great deal from these experiences if we pull ourselves out of a funk, avoid jumping back into training and instead do some reflection and analysis.
As we get older, there are also the haunting thoughts that it may now take a long time to recover or that a greater and more serious injury to the same area could end our productive training days altogether.
If we start with the supposition that most injuries are not accidents, then we are in the position to analyze predispositions, warning signs and preventive steps.
Let's take my own injury. These were the warning signs:
1) The injury occurred to a spot where I had been having some soreness from walking and some aerobic exercises. The stress of training just found a weak, slightly injured spot that I had ignored.
2) I had changed my squat so that I could go deeper. In a prior workout I noted that this position placed new stresses on my hips, but I ignored the feedback.
3) Furthermore, I ignored what I had noted in my training diary: that in order to get in my early morning workouts I had been going too quickly through my warmups; also that I was letting my concentration drift to the day's activities that lay ahead.
4) I also noted in my training diary that going deeper for squats had not remedied my more basic problems of leaning too far forward, my original reason for trying that technique. I know that it's better to remain straighter than to worry about depth, but I ignored that insight.
5) In my warmup squat sets for that day I felt that something wasn't quite right. I never stopped, however. I ignored the feedback and plowed ahead.
These points support my major supposition: The vast majority of injuries are not accidents. Any one of those five pieces of information should have led to a change in training, not to mention my avoiding the injury, if I had not ignored the feedback.
Take Positive Preventive Steps
My forced, though brief, layoff and the pain and immobility that came along with the injury brought me face to face with those haunting thoughts I mentioned above. More positively, however, the experience helped me clarify my feelings about how very important training is to me and how it is something that I want to continue doing for many years. The more positive thinking, along with my analysis of the conditions that led to injury, brought me to the following decisions:
1) I will always remain upright when I do squats. If that means using less weight in regular squats or focusing on safety bar squats, that's far better than constantly using heavy weights and asking for another injury.
2) I must pay as much attention to minor injuries and my overall recovery as I do to my training regimen itself.
3) Training is only productive when concentration is highly focused. I have to minimize all distractions - specifically, I need to sort out the day's activities before I train, not while I'm working out.
4) While in the past I have emphasized just warming up a specific area, I now try for a more complete warmup. It prepares the body for better workouts and decreases the likelihood of injury. I have added a few minutes of easy riding on the Air Dyne as a prelude to a regular, more specific warmup.
5) I will not attempt any leg or lower back exercises until all the pain is gone and my full range of motion has returned - an approach that as a young man I would have considered procrastination.
6) I also decided to experiment with using more moderate weights and focusing on specific muscle contractions - a process that as a power-oriented youth I would have considered heresy.
By definition we "ageless athletes" are training for the long haul. While we delight in the day-to-day satisfaction of the process of training and the pursuit of short term goals, our ultimate objective involves health and fitness through our lifetime. Prudence in preventing injury is one of the keys to long term productive and enjoyable training.