A forced break from exercise, due to injury, is frustrating. You’re sidelined from your favorite workouts for days, weeks, or even months. It can also seem like all that hard-won progress is going down the drain. However, giving yourself time to fully heal from any injury, through healthy eating, low-impact activities, and a thoughtful plan for recovery tends to be the best option. Here are six ways to stay positive with an injury and cope with the physical and mental challenges of a fitness setback.
Accept a new “normal,” at least temporarily.
Getting hurt is obviously not what you intended or wanted. So, it might sound counterintuitive to practice acceptance in the face of injury. Still, making peace with the reality of your recovery plan often helps you move past the initial resentment and unhappiness.
“Frustration and sadness are probably the biggest two mental side effects that come with having an injury,” explains Aaptiv trainer Kelly Chase. “You’re limited to what you can do, yet you’re unable to do what most everyone else is able to do. These emotions are specifically heightened when you’re actually training for a particular event. You get injured during training and aren’t able to participate in said event. This could mean [that] you have to wait a few months or a whole year. Or it could even mean that you may never be able to participate in said event due to the intensity of your injury.”
Even though it’s normal to feel negative about an injury, you basically have a choice. You can wallow in depression, or you can remember that you’re much more than your ability to workout. The healing process is challenging, but also incredibly important. It gives your body a chance to reset and regroup. It also allows your mind the opportunity to reflect on why the injury happened in the first place. Again, most of the time, an injury is only temporary.
Redirect the time you spent working out.
For many of us, exercise fills anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours of each day. When you can’t work out, it’s common to wonder what you’ll do instead. Chase suggests exploring whatever pursuits take your mind off your injury or pain. The more you can place your energy elsewhere, the better you will probably feel.
“Stay positive with an injury by focusing on other things that make you happy,” advises Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham. “Work on your mindset. Think of how much better you are going to be after you are recovered and how you will come back stronger. Find something else you enjoy doing, like cooking healthy meals.”
You’ve heard the phrase, “Abs are made in the kitchen,” and it’s true. What you eat impacts how your body looks, but more importantly, how it feels. Not being able to work out is a chance to clean up your diet. Proper nutrition will lead to a renewed sense of energy until you can get back to the gym. Rather than relying on an extra cardio session to burn off that pint of ice cream you ate last night, focus on eating right in the first place, regardless of how much you move later on.
“When we eat foods that make us feel well, then overall [we] feel better about ourselves,” says Chase. “Furthermore, eating nutrient-dense whole foods will help aid in the recovery process, as you’ll be eating anti-inflammatory foods.”
Try low-impact exercise to stay active.
When you get hurt it’s tempting to think you’ll have to sit on the couch until you’re fully healed. However, experts say this isn’t the case at all. “You can find things you could still do that you enjoy,” says Cunningham. “For example, if you hurt your knee, but are still able to do some non-impact stuff or upper body work, then do that. Or, take up yoga or another form of light work that can help you relax.”
Of course, always talk to your doctor before returning to any form of exercise after an injury. Once you get the all clear, experiment with strength training other parts of your body, walking, swimming, or meditation. Go slow, modify, prioritize good form, and avoid pushing too hard, so that you don’t aggravate or extend your injury.
Don’t obsess over lost results.
“When you take a break from being active, you lose strength and flexibility,” says Chase. “Our muscles have what is known as ‘muscle memory.’ Yet, it can take time to gain the strength and/or flexibility [back], depending on the type of injury or how long you’ve been in recovery. You can lose strength or flexibility in a matter of two weeks if you simply just take time off. Imagine if you’re out for six months.”
That’s not a reason to despair, though. “Physical muscle loss typically takes about three weeks or so, but it all depends on the person and how their muscles respond to different things like glycogen stores, how their diet is, etc.,” notes Cunningham. “Muscle can still be retained for a few weeks with no problem, dependent on these factors. On a positive note, once you recover and start going back at it, you will find that building that muscle again is easier than the first time. This is because the muscles still contain some of the nuclei that were originated during the first building up cycle. You can adapt quicker once you have already done something.”
Yes, it sucks to PR your running pace or finally do a certain number of push-ups and then feel like you’re starting from scratch, but you’ll survive. Give yourself a break, and rest up as much as possible to support a fast recovery, knowing that you will eventually work your way back to where you were.
Set new goals.
Being patient is hardest when you’re trying to stay positive with an injury but do your best. To stay motivated, Cunningham suggests developing a plan of action that will get you going after you recover. Start thinking of new goals to set for yourself. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about when you can return to exercise at 100 percent. Then sign up for a race, make a date with a workout buddy, or plan for what you want to achieve once you get the green light.
“Maintaining a positive outlook for what is to come and finding things that you are still able to do that you enjoy is a great way to work against the frustration,” adds Cunningham. “If your injury is something that happened because of overuse or doing something you knew you shouldn’t, then try to focus on how you can get better versus bitter from this. Learn from it. Don’t let it get the best of you. We all have setbacks, but some grant us the opportunity to have an even bigger comeback.”