Two weeks ago, I was the strongest I’ve ever been. I’d recently pulled 815 for reps, squatted an all-time American record, and finally started to make inroads on my bench press. Life was stressful -- I’d recently started teaching classes at the University of Texas, competed twice in the past two months (with huge weight cuts), and was in the process of moving to a new apartment with my girlfriend -- but I felt pretty good overall… until, attempting a PR deadlift set with 740, I felt that awful pop in the back of my thigh. Y’all know how a pulled hamstring feels, so I won’t tease it out. Mine wasn’t bad -- definitely a grade 1 tear -- but it bruised up real nice, and I had some serious tightness for a few days afterward.
In the past, I’ve handled injuries very poorly. In fact, I can’t really say that I “handled” them at all; I wallowed in my situation until my body finally healed itself despite my negative mindset. Tearing my distal biceps tendon was practically a life-altering experience for me, and not in a good way, and I let myself get lost in the injury.
Your Mindset Makes the Difference
I’ve written before about the enormous difference that mental training has brought to my strength and performance. But despite that, and despite how much ESPN loves to talk about hear about clutch players, hot hands (a myth), and choking, relatively few top athletes mention the importance of mindset. And for that reason, many athletes who aspire to reach that top level ignore the importance of training the mind. But your mind has so much potential for growth: it can carry you through a competition, intensify your training, enhance your recovery, and even help you to overcome injuries. If you choose to compete in strength sports, you will get injured. It’s a question of when, not if. Smart training can reduce the frequency and severity of injuries, but it can’t prevent them altogether. That’s unfortunate, because injuries suck. Any setback sucks, but injuries are more painful and frustrating than most, especially because it often feels that there’s nothing you can do but wait for your body to heal itself. Obviously, that’s not true: successful rehab of most injuries requires some form of physical therapy, even if it’s self-administered. I can’t write enough about how much my recovery has improved since I began working with Tammy Marquez of Kinetix Body Science in Austin. I can go into a session feeling like death and walk out an hour later feeling like I just took a week off, and if you have access to any body therapist with a background in strength sports, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of their knowledge (you can reach Tammy at email@example.com). For the hamstring, we took an aggressive approach: I came in twice a week for gua sha, active isolated stretching, and massage. One session restored my range of motion significantly, and by the third session, I was pain-free and able to squat and pull in the 60% range with no issues. But honestly, physical rehab is the easy part. If you train, and train hard, then you’ll jump at the chance to do anything remotely physical that might speed your return to lifting. Addressing the mental aspects of rehab and recovery is more difficult.
Weak Mind, Weak Body
From an academic perspective, here’s what we’re looking at:
- Negative affect(emotions like anxiety and fear) is highly correlated with a stress response, with both physiologic and psychologic consequences. Stress can produce changes in the nervous system like increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate; and in the hormonal system, like elevated cortisol release. Ultimately, very high levels of stress tend to result in decreased performance.
Furthermore, the source of stress is largely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if you’re stressed about your torn hamstring or your moving-day hassles; both can affect your body in similar ways. In fact, studies have shown correlations between life stress and injury -- basically, I probably hurt my hammy because I was stressed about all the other shit I have going on in my life right now.
- On the flip side, the relaxation response is the mirror image of the stress response (decreased heart rate, respiration rate, and so on), and it’s associated with decreased negative affect. Our rehab protocol should involve some method of inducing a relaxation response despite injury (which, for almost all athletes, is a stressful experience).
From a non-academic perspective, here’s what we’re looking at: I’m not saying (and neither is Mark) that you should ignore your injuries and train through them. I’m saying that if you don’t have the mindset that Mark exemplifies in the video, it’ll take you a lot longer to heal up, because you’re body is more likely to be stuck in that stress mode.
If you’re like me, you understand the importance of a positive mindset, but getting there is a different story. It’s so easy to get attached to your training that when it’s disrupted, you feel stuck, or lost. That’s often because we try to think our way through rehab. In fact, the NCAA claims that “Knowledge is Power,” and that understanding your injury should be the first step to fixing it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. No matter how much you think about or understand what’s going on with your body, it won’t change anything, and won’t give you any more control over it. That’s a hard thing to accept, especially in an information-based society. But unless you accept the fact that you can’t think your way to health, the disconnect between what is and what you want to be creates a whole bunch of negative emotions: frustration, anger, denial, despair. And those, in turn, stress you out, trigger the release of cortisol, and further impede your recovery. So what do you do?
You Are In Control
The first step is to recognize that you are in control: Not of how quickly your body heals itself, but how you respond to adversity. The second step is to decide how you’ll respond. You have three choices:
- You can wallow in your situation, wait it out, and eventually begin working your way back to where you were before getting hurt.
- You can reframe your situation, decide that it’s an opportunity, and use your time off from heavy training for something productive. You’ll still have to wait out the healing and work your way back, but when you do, you’ll actually be a step ahead of where you were before getting hurt, because you’ll have improved in some way during the downtime.
- You can let go of the situation entirely, and realize that even though you’re hurting now, and that’s uncomfortable, the past and future are irrelevant. In this case, there’s no rehab, at least not in a traditional sense (more on this below).
I’m not even going to address the first one. It sucks. Don’t ever wallow.
Look On the Bright Side
Reframing a situation is a useful skill in almost any area of life, but especially when it comes to adversity. Being able to find opportunities in misfortune helps you to make the most out of a bad situation; that’s why we have so many phrases encouraging us to “make lemons out of lemonade” and “see the silver lining.” Obviously, it’s easier said than done, but it’s a good way of dealing with injury. If you’re hurt, and struggling to find the bright side, here’s some inspiration:
How to Heal Any Injury Overnight
There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side. If that works for you, stick with it! You’ll become a better lifter for dealing with the situation. For me, though, looking on the bright side falls flat. I love to train, and train heavy and hard, and anything less feels worthless. Obviously, that’s not a productive mindset, and I don’t advocate adopting it, but I do understand if you’re unable to remain optimistic and opportunistic while dealing with injury. I’ve found that a different approach works for me, one that involves mentally stepping back from the situation, forgetting about getting back to 100%, and just focusing entirely on the present moment. If it sounds a little too zen, I totally understand -- it sounds that way to me, too. But focusing on the present can dissolve the pressure of an injury: the feeling of falling behind competitors, the fear of never returning to previous bests, and the frustration of wasting time. There’s a catch, of course. This isn’t a mindset that you can turn to only when injury hits: you have to constantly work to build, strengthen, and maintain it, even when everything is going great. In fact, in a later article, I’ll explain how it’s even more important to maintain a steady state of mind when you’re in the midst of your best training ever. Fortunately, building the mindset isn’t that difficult, and you can start small. Try this drill during your next workout:
- Before a heavy set, take a few minutes to compose yourself. Sit down somewhere you won’t be disturbed, and take a few deep breaths, inhaling for a count of 5 and exhaling for a count of 5.
- Mentally commit to “opening” your set, setting aside any thoughts and focusing yourself on addressing the bar.
- As you being the set, repeat this practice of “opening” each individual rep, focusing entirely on that rep until it’s completed with perfect form, and then “closing” the rep, letting go of any thoughts of how heavy or light it felt, or how fast or slow the bar moved.
- After you finish the set, close it off in your mind. It’s over -- move on to whatever you’ve got next in your workout.
Again, it’s a simple practice, but I bet if you implement it for a few workouts, you’ll find your training more intense, more productive, and more satisfying. Over time, mental strategies like this one can help to handle any training situation, whether it’s missed reps, injury, or other difficulties that inevitably arise in the gym or at a meet. Ten days after I tore the hamstring, I came back and pulled 635 for 5 sets of 5 with just a soft neoprene belt (so beltless, basically). It’s not my best, but it’s close, and I consider myself fully healed -- and stronger, both because I was able to practice mental discipline and got some great hypertrophy work in in the meantime. If you’re struggling with an injury yourself, share in the comments what you’re doing to rehab!