Getting hurt sucks. It sets you back in the pursuit of your fitness goals, it robs you of the cathartic workout experience, it makes you gain weight and, worst of all, it traps you with yourself (my least favorite drinking buddy). Unfortunately, however, for many of us, injury is an inescapable part of the fitness journey, and recovering from injury is what separates athletes from the people who just tell stories about fitter times long past.
I’ve never been a natural athlete. I was an awkward kid with bad hand-eye coordination and a bony build – destined to be last picked on the playgrounds of life… that is, until I found my athletic calling. Skinny as I was, it didn’t take long before I realized that I was a bruiser; well suited for only two things: taking a lot of punishment, and occasionally, dolling it out myself.
In high school, I set records on my football team as the lightest starting varsity lineman in state history when I was one of only three sophomores to make the varsity squad. At the time, my coach attributed my success on the field to lacking “any sense of self-preservation whatsoever.” Helmet to helmet contact was my weapon of choice, and 9 times out of 10, I found that my head was tougher than the other guy’s. Of course, eventually, I’d get hurt bad enough in a game to require a week’s stay in the hospital… but in my mind, that was just the price of being me.
In college, I earned a starting spot on my rugby team without ever touching the ball. “Thunder and lightning” is what they called my best friend and I – he was a big brute that could run through crowds, I was the smaller, quicker guy (at six foot, 225) that would punish encroaching ball carriers whenever we didn’t have possession. Of course, I’d eventually be knocked out cold during a winter game, only to wake up in the hospital with staff holding me down and cutting off my clothes.
In the Marine Corps, I made my unit and then base football teams while nursing a torn PCL. Unlike your ACL, you can get away without the ligament, as long as you don’t push your luck by doing something silly like playing football against Marines. We won two championships in a row. Of course, I also have my time playing Marine Corps ball to thank for two of my three knee surgeries.
Each of those injuries and, let’s be honest, dozens more, have set me back in my pursuit of some invisible fitness finish line – taking time off to heal made me softer, dulled my skills as a ball player, a fighter, a Marine – and each time, I clawed and scratched my way back; a little slower, a little wiser, and a bit more self-aware. My list of injuries is so long, it’s practically comedic, especially for a guy that touts himself as an athlete… but then, I’ve always known that it wasn’t my body that won me trophies or championships. It’s always been my head. Over the years, I’ve developed a unique relationship with pain: I acknowledge it’s coming or that it’s here, and then I move on. Pain, as far as I’m concerned, is like a check engine light: sometimes it’s a big deal, but most of the time, I just ignore it.
The problem with pain caused by injuries is that, over time, it compounds. My right wrist, which I’ve broken four times, sometimes can’t support my body weight doing push ups. My right ankle, supported by screws, pins and plates, pops painfully and audibly any time I turn my foot inboard. My knees, which are both supplemented by bits of dead people, screws, and chunks of my hamstrings removed and repurposed as other ligaments are more accurate at predicting the weather than the app in my phone. A detached retina, history of concussions, slipped discs in my lower back, and the metal screen inserted just below my sternum to hold my guts in are all just bullet points on a list of injuries I’ve earned through choosing to pursue victory over safety, choosing accomplishment over longevity.
I didn’t figure myself as the sort of guy that was going to be around for the long haul. To quote my best friend the day I attempted to cross a waterfall during a thunderstorm near the top of Mount Washington, “Guys like Alex are here for a good time, not a long one.”
The problem is, I’m getting too old to die young.
On a long enough timeline, you come to learn that all those things old timers warned you about, those lectures about how you’ll “regret this when your older,” start to make more sense. I don’t regret my choices; they’ve made me who I am, but I do sometimes wish I could squat down to tie my shoes without making noises like an injured wildebeest.
Having spent so much of my time laid up on the couch, nursing surgery stitches or broken bones, one might think that I’ve learned some secrets that might help others recover more quickly and effectively – but as some of you already know, thanks to our interactions in the comments sections of my articles, what I’ve really learned is that there are no secrets, no tricks… all you can do is give yourself a chance to heal, and try to keep busy mentally until you have.
Some of you, I know, are working through this struggle as I write this. You’re biding your time, waiting for the doctor to clear you hot to hit the trails, the weights, or the blacktop again. Others, like me, are fighting a never-ending battle with injuries you’re just trying to avoid making worse. I may be able to avoid back surgery, the doctor says, if I can just keep these three discs in place using regular cortisone injections and not pushing my luck. I can avoid knee replacements as long as I’m willing to manage without cartilage. I can avoid a worse day as long as I keep this one just regular bad.
Injuries aren’t the byproduct of the fitness game, they’re an integral part of it. They show us our limits, teach us about mental strength, and in a very personal way, help us to define how far we’re willing to go, how much we’re willing to hurt to achieve our goals.
How much hurt is worth it? How far are you willing to go?
That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself. Until then, I’ll see you on the pavement.
Images courtesy of the author