Written by Ariel Stephens
As many of you know, I had shoulder surgery 2.5 months ago, to repair a torn labrum. If you have been following me, you may also know that i have not posted any material since this surgery. Since I have been recovering, I have experienced a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. I have been inspired, sad, frustrated, irritated, depressed, excited, and anxious. Yes, these are normal emotions for people to experience, (injury or not) but the center of these feelings have stemmed from one injury. Poor me, right? Wrong. In the past few months, I have learned just how strong I am and how dedicated I am to being better than ever.
Most athletes, especially elite level athletes, experience some type of injury during their athletic careers. Whether the injury is a sprained finger or an injury that needs to be fixed with surgery, there are five basic steps on the road to recovery.
Resting is one of the hardest things to do, even when you know you need it. “If I rest, I won’t get better.” I lifted on my torn labrum for 8 months, before I decided that I should rest it. My coach always told me that I should not work on it if it hurt. Being stubborn, I tricked myself into thinking that the pain was part of my imagination. Even after surgery, I wanted to work out as soon as possible. Thanks to my physical therapist, I have given my body the proper rest to assist recovery.
When a specific part of your body is injured and you continue to train on the injury, you may be able to push through it and make gains. However, I can guarantee that you will not be able to achieve your full potential. An injury constantly puts stress on the mind and body, even if you aren’t aware of it. Giving your body the proper rest will allow you to recover faster. What is the proper rest period for an injury? It depends on the type of injury and how serious the injury is.
The best advice I can give you, is to listen to your body, coach and medical professionals (who know your sport). If your injury is serious enough that it needs medical attention, get multiple opinions!! The first surgeon that I saw proceeded to tell me that I may want to consider another sport, but I knew multiple people who have had the same surgery, are back to weightlifting and stronger than ever. Of course there is always risk in re injuring yourself. If you are doing something you are passionate about, you need the help and attention from professionals who understand your passion and are dedicated to returning you to your sport. Find these professionals and LISTEN to them! Most of all, pay attention to your body and the level of pain that you are experiencing. If pain levels are increasing over time, your body is probably telling you to rest!
Rehabbing injuries, is THE most important part of recovery. If you don’t rehab an injury properly, then it will be extremely difficult to reach your maximum potential.
I was told that I would be able to recover in 4-6 months. I remember thinking that two months could be the difference in whether I would be able to compete at the 2013 American Open. When I asked why there was that 2 month gap and the doctor said that depended on how fast I healed. This seemed to be a circular answer that did not provide much information. It wasn’t until I started rehabbing that I knew what the doctor was talking about.
Proper rehab is the difference between a 4 month recovery and a 6 month recovery or a 9 month recovery and a year recovery. This doesn’t mean doing rehab exercises once a week, it means making that extra time in your day to do rehab exercises every single day, scheduling soft tissue massages to work through scar tissue, and using ice/heat therapy after workouts. Even if it is a small injury, like a sprained finger, it is important to move your finger throughout the day to increase your range of motion.
It is incredibly important to first, increase range of motion and second, rebuild strength to the injured area of the body. So you have done both of these? It doesn’t stop there! Rehab maintenance should be a part of your work out to keep that once injured area healthy and strong. If you are experiencing an injury that is not healing, research physical therapy facilities that are sports performance based. These facilities will, more than likely, be able to help you with a rehab plan that is sport specific.
3. CHANGE FOCUS
Changing focus does not mean changing sports! It simply means using your recovery period as a time to focus on other areas of your training.
Since my shoulder is not yet strong enough to lift or even hold a bar on my back for squatting, what have I been doing to maintain strength? I started off biking with resistance for calories. Then, I started air squatting and doing lunges. Next, I was interval biking, leg pressing and doing hamstring curls on a machine. More recently, I have been able to safety bar squat, do hip dip squats, and RDLs while holding a dumb bell.
Finding exercises that you can do during recovery, rather than dwelling on exercises that you can’t do, will help you stay focused and give you the ability to set short term goals. These short term goals will be the stepping stones to your long term goals, after recovery. For example, because I have not previously used a safety bar, my goal every week is to increase the weight on the bar. This has given me a chance to set PRs (personal records) in something other than the Olympic lifts.
Use your coach and physical therapist as reliable people to assist in your new, temporary change in focus. Again, listen to your body! If an exercise increases your pain level in the injured area, then stop doing it. The long term reward will be much more rewarding than the short term satisfaction of completing that exercise.
4. STAY POSITIVE
Cliche? Maybe. True? Yes.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this phrase. However, staying positive does not mean that every second of every day you need to be happy and smiling.
As I mentioned earlier, I have experienced an array of thoughts and emotions from my shoulder injury. Ask my coach. I have complained multiple times, saying things like “This sucks”, “I just want to lift”, and “It’s so hard to watch other people making gains, while I am stuck recovering”.
There is a difference between negative thoughts that inhibit confidence and negative thoughts that fuel your fire. Negative thoughts that inhibit confidence and decrease your athletic drive, are when you tell yourself things like, “I’ll never be able to do anything again” or “I suck because I can’t perform”. Negative thoughts that fuel your fire to return stronger than you were, before injury, are thoughts like, “It sucks being injured, I just want to lift”.
As long as your outlook is more positive than negative, you will thrive in your recovery. When negative thoughts begin to outnumber the positive thoughts, people tend to become less motivated. Less motivation results in lack of training and rehab. Lack of training and rehab can lead to a prolonged recovery.
Surround yourself with people who support your recovery and people who push you to stay positive. It is also important to do things that involve you in whatever you were doing before injury. For example, since I can’t currently compete or practice the Olympic lifts, I have been coaching and attending training sessions to watch my competitors. Watching other people improve, while you are in recovery, can provide motivation to continue building your strength.
5. MINIMIZE FUTURE RISK
Once you have recovered from an injury, it is crucial to minimize the risk of injury in the future. This may seem obvious, but many people heal, do too much too fast, stop rehab, don’t listen to their bodies and then injury themselves again.
The surgery that I had two months ago, was on my left shoulder. About two years ago, I had surgery on my right shoulder. Although I did not reinjure my right side, having to get surgery on the left side was just as bad. I should have been more proactive in preventing my body from further injury, but I wasn’t. I knew that I had hyper mobile joints and that it put me at a higher risk for injury. I slacked off on rehab exercises and started doing them when it was too late.
The key to prevention, is first, identifying how you were injured and second, why. Were you negligent to performing accessory exercises? Did you avoid weaknesses and over develop your strengths, which caused an imbalance? Did you not warmup properly? These are three basic questions to help identify the initial cause of injury. Talk to your coach and design a program that will keep you healthy and prevent injuries!
So, stop wallowing in your injury and become proactive on your road to recovery. Experiencing an injury is never fun, but it is not the end of the world! If it was an injury that ended your athletic career in a specific sport, find a new passion! Nobody else can do the work for you! Taking responsibility for your injury and recovery will be worth it in the long run, when you are strong, healthy and have the ability to maximize your potential.
Ariel Stephens is a fast rising Olympic weightlifter based out in Woodland, CA and competing for Monterey Bay Barbell Club where she is coached by Jacob Tsypkin. Ariel competed in swimming for the University of Hawaii-Manoa before beginning to compete in weightlifting in March 2012. Her PRs of 98kg in the Clean and Jerk and 76kg in the Snatch make her a very formidable competitor in the 69kg weight class.