Injuries can be tough on outdoor lovers, who suffer more than most by having to spend time on the sidelines. It’s easy to slip into a funk while waiting to heal, and then be tentative when you try to resume sports that you love. Coloradans also grapple with the temptation to do too much too fast, which can set back recovery and add insult to injury.
Whether it’s hip, shoulder, or knee pain from overuse or sudden trauma, injuries are an inherent risk of an active lifestyle, especially among hard chargers who like to get after it. The most common outdoor-related injuries include ACL tears from skiing, sprained ankles from hiking, rotator cuff tears and tendon strains from climbing, knee pain and plantar fasciitis (foot arch pain) from running, and neck and shoulder pain from biking. No two injuries are the same, and recovery varies.
Whatever the cause, getting hurt takes a mental and physical toll. Here are some tips to help you cope and bounce back as quickly as possible.
Get an expert opinion
If you’re hurt, don’t wait to see if the pain goes away. See a doctor and get a diagnosis, which will save you time in the long run. Whatever you do, don’t start Googling your condition and try to self-diagnose. Pain can refer from one part of the body to another, so the pain you feel isn’t necessarily the actual injury. If you see an expert and determine the exact problem, then you’ll have a better chance at starting to heal yourself the right way—right away.
Seek advice from others who have had the same injury
If you’ve badly sprained your ankle, or find out you need ACL surgery, it can be helpful to talk to someone else who has experienced the same injury so you understand what the healing process entails. Plus, hearing about someone who recovered fully offers hope. Just be careful not to try to determine your own treatment based on the advice on a friend or family member. See a doctor. Period.
Look on the bright side
People who are active typically have a hard time being relegated to the couch. It’s tough to sit still when it’s dumping snow in the mountains or hot summer days call you to adventure. But there is a bright side, and it’s important for you to find it in order to stay sane. Relish all of your extra time to catch up on books, go on a TV-series binge, get together with friends you haven’t seen, or tackle that annoying pile of paperwork. There’s nothing you can do to change the reality of being injured, so you might as well accept the situation, make the best of it, and tame the mental agony that comes with fighting what you can't change.
Celebrate your progress
Every seemingly insignificant baby step is progress to recovery. Embrace and acknowledge each tiny improvement. Maybe two weeks ago you were ripping jump turns down a 50-degree slope, and now you’ve just managed to bear weight on your leg for the first time. It might not be the kind of thrill you usually seek, but ditching the crutches is a huge accomplishment that will make your life easier. Celebrate it. It will help you through the tough days.
Keep a positive attitude
Don’t let yourself spiral into darkness. Sure, it sucks to have to alter your lifestyle, deal with pain, and not be able to pursue the activities that you love. But most likely it’s temporary. The more negative energy you put into the situation, the more your mind will get the better of you. Stay positive and keep your chin up. There is light at the end of the tunnel. A happier mindset will even help you heal faster. So step out on the porch and drink in the sunshine, take a neighborhood walk on your crutches, appreciate the tulips that are sprouting up through the spring soil, or ask a friend to come for a visit. Your injury could actually be a gift that allows you to slow down, appreciate the small things in life, and receive love.
Do your physical therapy
Even though it seems tedious at times, physical therapy is key. Do what your physical therapist tells you, including all those boring at-home exercises that are easy to push by the wayside. You will recover a lot faster if you stick to a regime.
Also consider the value of supervised physical therapy. Some insurance plans will set you off on your own with a loose set of exercises and guidelines. This can work out, or it can lead to longer than necessary recovery times. Even if your insurance won’t pay for it, seek the professional guidance you need.
“A lot of times we’ll see an ACL [patient] only so many times, and they’re released before they can run,” says Russ Overy, a doctor of physical therapy and a board certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy at Alta Physical Therapy & Pilates in Boulder, Colorado. “Don’t let insurance make your decisions or dictate how well you are.”
Some physical therapy practices offer lower rates if you’re paying out of pocket, so be sure to ask.
Overy also recommends finding something you can do while your physical activity is limited. If your upper body is hurt, hit the spin bike at the gym. If your leg is hurt, maybe you can do crunches and upper body work. Find an outlet of some kind to keep from going stir crazy. Your physical therapist can make recommendations.
Patience is the most important asset when recovering from an injury. It will take time—probably longer than you’d like. The more you stick to your physical therapist’s recommendations, especially when it comes to resuming activities, the better off you’ll be. If you push too hard too fast, you risk reinjury.
Nicole Haas, a Boulder-based physical therapist who is nationally recognized as an expert on running analysis and injury prevention, says, “Tissue takes a long time to heal, and the rehab process is what it is no matter what kind of super human person you might be. Even when tissue is healed it doesn’t mean you’re functional, and once you’re functional it doesn’t mean you’re ready for sport, and even when you’re ready for sport, it doesn’t mean you’re ready at the level you’ve been.”
This can be a tough pill to swallow, but acknowledging and respecting your body’s need to heal will pay off in the long run. The people who go after it too soon are the ones who develop chronic problems. Work with a physical therapist who can help you understand the path to recovery, be realistic about what it will take, and ease you back into activity.
Get a trainer
At the end of the physical therapy road, when you’re resuming normal activity, you might find things are going just fine, or you might have a nagging feeling that you just don’t feel as strong as you’d like. This is the time to hire a personal trainer, who can work with you to customize a strengthening program that will address your specific weaknesses. A good trainer will be a stickler about alignment, correcting your mechanics, and targeting exercises at specific muscles that are out of whack.
Get your confidence back
Post injury, it’s common to feel a little cautious when resuming activities, particularly the one you were doing when the injury occurred. Many ACL patients start skiing again and feel tentative, afraid of reinjury, or skeptical that they’ll ever be as strong as they were before surgery. When you’re 18 months out and feel like you’ll never be back to 100 percent, believe in yourself and do whatever it takes to regain your strength. In most cases, you can and will recover fully as long as you address the issues head on and propel yourself over the mental hurdle.
Prevent future injuries
Poor muscle mechanics can set you up for imbalances that lead to future injuries. Talk to your physical therapist about a biomechanical analysis, running gait analysis, or professional bike fit. These can do wonders for identifying and figuring out how to correct improper posture or alignment, and prevent future injury.
Overuse is another biggie. Take rest days and give your muscles time to recharge. “Around here we see a lot of people who get injured because they don’t let their bodies rest and recover,” says Overy.
Whatever you do, stay on course. The common theme with all the injuries is the importance of a proper diagnosis, understanding the process for recovery, and dealing with the mental anguish. The more you commit yourself to recovery, the better you will heal.