Two months ago, after scaling my way—in the dark!—through some of the oldest caves outside of Bogota, Colombia, I was feeling pretty smug with myself. I managed to avoid the freezing water, and I crawled through tight crevices with the light on my helmet as my only guide. What I didn’t realize was how much it rained in the surrounding rainforest while we were underground. As I took out my phone to capture a photo of a stray dog, I lost my footing and fell. All of my weight piled on my left side and I sprained my ankle. Luckily, two guides helped me hop down to the nearest road and call a taxi. But the discomfort from the ankle injury continued for weeks.
After the elevation-and-ice tango for a solid two weeks, I was brave enough to start working out again, even though I wasn’t 100 percent up to speed. What I didn’t fully anticipate was how much this common injury would impact my self-esteem. Therapeutic yoga specialist Diane Malaspina, Ph.D., says that I’m not alone. She explains that having an injury impacts your ability to work out as well as the way that you feel mentally. “While it’s important to rest and allow an injury to heal, finding an alternative to your fitness routine can help you feel better physically and mentally,” she says.
Here’s how I recovered from my ankle injury, while still working out:
Try lower-impact cardio workouts.
Since I was in college, I’ve always preferred running outdoors or on a treadmill to work up my heart rate. But with an ankle that isn’t fully cooperating with me, I’ve had to switch my machine of choice to ensure that I still implement enough cardio in my schedule. Physical Therapist Lauren Lobert, DPT, OMPT, CSCS says that lower-impact options, like a bike or an elliptical, are easier for those with hurt ankles. The pressure doesn’t fall so hard on this part of your body. Rather, it’s felt throughout your legs and core. These days, I’m up to a solid hour on an elliptical—at a mid-level difficulty.
Strengthen, by standing on one leg at a time.
Here’s the truth: it took a solid month before I would dare to put all of my weight on one leg. But, once I rested enough, I knew nursing my left side wouldn’t serve my fitness routine (or health) in the long run. Lobert says that strengthening your ankle by standing on one leg at a time and moving into warrior III pose in yoga, throwing a ball, or even just picking an uneven surface will improve the weakened area. For an extra challenge, she says to close your eyes. This will force you to trust and apply the weight you might resist with your eyes open.
It’s also important to focus on hip strength because everything is connected. “Other non-weight bearing exercises that can strengthen your legs can be beneficial. [These include] clams, quadrupled kickbacks, or the hip abduction/adduction machine,” she adds.
Focus on your upper body and your abs.
Air squats and jumping jacks are still a little tough for me. But, I’m fully able to improve my arm physique through a variety of movements. Lobert suggests that those recovering from an ankle ailment should turn to chest presses, biceps curls, tricep extensions, rows, bench presses, push-ups, and any sort of upper body workout that feels comfortable.
The same goes with your tummy. “Don’t forget your core! Most abdominal exercises can be done without worrying about twisting or pushing through your ankle or foot,” she says.
Don’t skip leg day—just shake it up.
I’m someone who has been lucky to have pretty strong arms and legs. So, totally skipping on leg day was difficult for me at first. As I recovered and stretched out the ankle muscles, I was excited to get back into it—but slowly. Certified Personal Trainer and Orthopedic Exercise Specialist Cary Raffle says, though I’d be smart to eliminate or switch to single leg squats and leg presses, there are other leg-specific movements to keep me in shape. These include leg curls, leg extensions, abductions, and butt lifts.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch of a hotel room, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Cabos, Mexico. I’m lucky to be traveling through tropical areas for the next few weeks. This gives me ample access to some of the most difficult cardio workouts, ever. What exactly? Water! As Dr. Malaspina explains, swimming is a no-impact way to move your body without putting any sort of pressure or strain on the ankle. Believe me, 30 minutes worth of laps later, and I’m just as wiped out as I am after running a handful of miles.
Don’t let an ankle injury sideline your fitness routine—just change it up. Focus on low-impact workouts and other uninjured areas of the body to stay on track while youre injury heals.