An Unconventional Guide to Navigating Injury and Recovery
It was a little over a year ago when I started to experience odd sensations within my left hip. A ‘giving out’, loss of power, aches that would wake me up in the middle of the night, loss of range of motion as if it would sharply get ‘stuck’ and random nerve twinges down my leg. My symptoms seemed to come and go without much consistency. It was just enough to ignore, train through, or try every way around what ended up needing surgical repair. Through months of trying to manage on my own, I found out I had a labral tear, bone growths and once under the knife the surgical team realized I needed much more work than what was originally anticipated. I ended up with a complete labral reconstruction, three sites of bone removal, two sites of microfracture and a bursectomy on January 14, 2020!
There’s no way around it, being injured or recovering from an injury is the last place an athlete wants to be. We time manage and formulate our lives to depend on our body to move, train and perform in a way that makes us feel strong, powerful and effortless. When that’s taken away, it has a way of making our world feel completely upside-down. The snow globe settles and everything stands completely still. Of course, I can only speak from my personal experience. From the beginning stages of injury, denial, more denial, the heartbreak of stepping away from racing, more denial, a hint of acceptance, surgery, full acceptance, then the real road to recovery – it’s been a year of radical change, and that only started to really happen when I became more comfortable with being still.
As much as I do trust the meat and bones of recovery: sleep, nutrition, physical therapy, keeping your mind engaged, etc. – there have been a few key aspects I’d like to share from my experience that may help you process your own road to recovery.
Acceptance: Accept that you have an injury.
This one makes me laugh, because I fought it SO HARD. I can honestly say I was in denial as to how injured I actually was right up to going under the skillful knife of Dr. Philippon at The Steadman Clinic in my home valley of Vail, CO. Laying in my hospital gown, cracking jokes with the surgical staff, moments before taking my med-cocktail, I was completely convinced I was going in for a standard procedure that should’ve taken half the time. Coming out of my drug-coma, Dr. Philippon wrote it out for me how gone my labrum was, among an additional laundry list of damages he cleaned up. He was shocked I was still riding. That’s where the (stubborn) athlete’s mindset can be our best and worst attribute. I am a constant work in progress at distinguishing types of pain. A little history, because history loves to repeat itself, I learned how to mountain bike 9 years ago with an unknowingly broken leg. For whatever reason, physical pain is easy for me. That’s a story for another time, but it ties into more acceptance; acceptance that pain is not a badge of honor.
As you can see, I have years of denial patterns that pushed my acceptance beyond an arms reach until I was truly ready to lean in that extra inch to grasp it. That’s the thing, only you can accept your injury. I had physical therapists, doctors, other athletes, MRI’s and X-Rays that were clearly putting the writing on the walls. I chose not to read it, which stretched out my suffering until my hip’s labrum was so far gone the only thing keeping it in its socket were my muscles. When they fatigued, my entire leg would turn into a dead fish and go limp. I got to the point where I knew the timeframe, so I just kept my harder efforts within that time and gritted out the rest until insurance cleared and I could get it fixed. My path to healing didn’t truly start happening until I fully accepted how injured I was and accepted the direction I was going for recovery. That’s another point – everyone will give you examples of people who cured their injury that was JUST LIKE YOURS doing x, y, z. This leads me the next topic of TRUST.
Trust: Trust your process.
There is no other phrase that is overused more in the sport world than “Trust the Process”; saying something was EPIC could be a close second. I live and die for catch phrases like this. They both roll the eyes of my Nirvana loving 16 year old self and lighten the load on my 35 year old self’s shoulders. I like to look at this phrase more as Trusting YOUR Process vs. Trusting THE Process. To me, that helps to emphasize that your process is unlike anyone else’s. It can’t be found or curated in a step by step article, a structured training program, or that green smoothie you are adding into your routine. It has to be felt.
You have to trust yourself enough to know that you will get back, you will recover, you will regain your form and you will learn something from this that’s beyond your control. Once I stepped away from training and racing, I was able to learn for the first time how to trust myself. As soon as I let it all fall away, the forcing of my body to do something it wasn’t healthy enough to do, I was able to really step into my own trust.
This ability to trust my own process helped me truly take it one day at a time. I have full trust in the surgeon but once I was on the rocky road to recovery, I learned to question things and quickly became my own advocate. I stood up for what my body needed, I came up with my own little tweaks to peer reviewed guidelines to match what I knew I needed. Some days that meant doing more, some days that meant doing less, and some days it just meant doing something different. Other athletes who had gone through similar procedures became a community of support and was such a helpful space for all of us. However, this is where trust also came in as I received and offered support with the understanding that no two experiences are ever the same. I disassociated my own process from others to not let a faster or slower recovery affect my own. I tried to show up fully for others and not place my own experience onto them or let theirs intertwine into mine.
Every surgeon has a different approach with their procedures and recovery protocols. As much as I believe it is beneficial to have a community to ask questions and bounce little experiences off of, I do believe it is the most effective to hone in on YOUR surgeon’s plan along with your inner trust of what your body is telling you. Communicating this to your surgeon’s team will keep you the most sane as I was a little surprised how different each recovery protocol can be. For example, I had to lay in a CPM machine that kept my hip slowly flexing and extending for 6-8 hours a day for the whole time I was on crutches – 7 weeks! Many other surgeons are not as strict, but I trusted what my surgeon found to be the most successful and I generally followed it to an almost T. That’s where my inner trust came in. I needed sleep, and sleeping in that thing was no longer working for me during those last couple of weeks. I recognized why I was using it and just took note of how I felt when I reduced the time or on nights when I’d skip it all together. If I noticed added stiffness, swelling, etc I told myself I would go back to the recommended time. Luckily, each time was a positive experience and it was a celebrated day when I was able to return it!
Last, but not least – Forgiveness.
Forgiveness: Forgive yourself.
This is a loaded one, and a daily practice for me. I am currently on the path to forgiveness for being so hard on myself, for weighing myself down with expectations, and for not treating my body with the love it deserves. Each area of forgiveness is deeply rooted in years and years of patterns I’m learning how to unlearn and soften into. I honestly thought by doing so, that I’d lose my edge, never get stronger or be the athlete I wanted to be. I’d constantly push workouts above what would’ve been acceptable, I’d overload my schedule, and I’d ignore ways my body was telling me to slow down. To no surprise, these patterns do not end well and are tied tightly to injury.
I believe that the best way to show forgiveness is by making changes. That’s the current work that I’m in, and it’s the hardest work I’ve ever committed to. My fear is that if I don’t make changes, that I’ll fall right back into the same patterns that got me on this road to recovery in the first place. Ways in which I’m stepping into this aspect of my recovery is by nurturing my emotional and spiritual self, parts of me that I stifled for a LONG time. I’m learning to welcome all parts of me to the table and trust that there is still a place for me in the cycling world by doing so.
This work is different for everyone, and you can see why I’ve titled this Unconventional. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never quite fit into a numerical list to health, wellness or achievement. My recovery from injury has been a positive one, but by no means linear nor do I see a “finish line” in all of this. It’s been a deep dive and I hope by sharing a bit of my journey, it may help you on yours.
I’ve accepted my injury, I’m trusting my process, and I’m learning to forgive. I believe you can, too.