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Recovering from an Injury: The Most Important Rebound

Recovering from an injury isn't always linear. There might be struggles and setbacks, but the key is to keep going. Lauren Heap, a Senior Fitness Specialist at the CU Anschutz Health & Wellness Center, shares what she learned after recovering from ACL reconstruction recently. Check out her advice below.

by Lauren Heap, Senior Fitness Specialist

No one wants to have to go backward because of an injury; to have to start over when you’ve made so much progress. Sometimes it is inevitable. 


When we’re injured, we feel helpless, especially if you’re an athlete or if fitness plays an integral part in your life. The truth is, you’re not powerless. So, if you’re struggling, I’d like to share some insights that can help you see your injury as an ally rather than a hindrance towards your goals.


Getting ready for surgery from a injury

I recently recovered from an injury, which in most cases, can be seen as a setback. But this isn’t the first time that I underwent a significant trauma.


I am an avid soccer player and competitor. In 2012, I went through an ACL reconstruction at the peak of my Division I college soccer days and had to skip my junior year of soccer. It sucked, plain and simple. Fast forward to December 2019, I got the same surgery to repair my other knee.


My first experience was a massive struggle, but I had a little more flexibility for my most recent one because I didn’t have an athletic sport to rush back into. So, I was able to return to my routines at a good pace, go up and down the stairs, sit on the couch with ease, and walk a far distance without compensation.


However, it’s because of the first experience that I was able to get through my second injury with ease. 


I realize I can overcome setbacks, and with the right mindset, do more than I think I can. I also learned the necessity of obstacles, and how it can push us to exceed our old normal and come back stronger – physically and mentally.


Recovered from injury

Set small goals. This is crucial. You have to realize, you will not be back to your pre-injury self anytime soon, so you NEED to break down your progression into smaller chunks. You hit one goal, then you move onto the next one. 


As an example, my first goal was to be able to lift my leg up while sitting. Then it was to bend my knee to a certain degree. Everything is relative. Enjoy your small achievements, and keep chipping away. 


Click here to view an example of the goals I hit.


Have a support system. You need to have people that understand what you are going through and are there for you on your less-than-sunny days. 


Don’t bottle up your emotions. You will feel much better if you have someone you can vent to and get things off your chest. As you progress, share your achievements as well, so everyone can celebrate your successes!


Be patient. Don’t you wish this is as easy as it sounds? Your brain wants to go back to your “normal” routine, but your body is not on the same page. 


Remind yourself regularly that this is a process, and your outcome is found by trudging through the mud. The days will go by slow initially, but as you start to recover, it will fly by, and you will be back to where you were before you know it. 


Consistency over intensity. Your body needs time to heal and recover. More is not always better, especially in the early stages of rehabilitation. You need to balance your efforts with adequate recovery periods. 


This was and still is extremely difficult for me. I had to really keep myself in check and remember I can take my time, and I don’t need to move (or workout) so much in one day or even a week. Just keep chipping along consistently, and you will get there. 


I made sure to never do anything strenuous until my physical therapist gave me the go-ahead. I would do what she asked with great attention and then let myself rest so I could be more reliable the next day. 


Document your journey. Documenting my journey was extremely helpful for both injuries. I wrote down my recovery progress, my workouts, and my thoughts and feelings. It was an outlet to get things off my chest, whether I was excited or frustrated. I also took “progress pictures” to see how my leg looked from a different lens – literally and figuratively!


Now, when I look at the pictures and videos, it serves as a great motivational tool. It’s fun to see how far I have come. We often forget where we started, and looking back at photos reminds us of our hard work and dedication.


BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. No one is going to do it for you. You are responsible for how you handle your “setback.” If you don’t think you can do it – who will?


You have to take ownership of your situation and trust that if you do everything in your power to make it happen, it will. 


During my 2012 recovery, I learned about positive affirmations and how it affects the brain. Every night before I went to bed, I would write down this statement five times: “I am confident in my ability to be the soccer player I know I am.” I would then say it out loud to myself while visualizing what that meant to me. 


It did wonders on my return! I was able to accomplish a fitness test that I had previously struggled with before my injury.


Your brain is the most significant muscle in your body, use it to your advantage!


Let go of the pressure of who you were before. Do you think about what you could do before and how easy some things could be? Do you say something like, “I used to be able to sprint up the stairs” or “I used to do box jumps.” 


You will only continue to be frustrated as you torment yourself with these fights. You have to acknowledge that your body is different now, it always will be different, and that is okay. 


To quote Judith Minty, “Nothing remains as it was. If you know this, you can begin again, with pure joy in the uprooting.” 


You have this new opportunity to build yourself from a new place! Shift your mindset and embrace rather than fight.


Try new things! There is no better time than now to explore different things. We often get into habits and routines that narrow our consideration of other activities. Maybe, the things you were doing before were feeding into why you got injured. This goes along with letting go of who you were in the past. 


I found a new love for hiking and road biking that I had not considered before because I was so focused on soccer and weight lifting. These new hobbies have added a breath of fresh fitness air into my life! Plus, it’s a lower impact and great for helping build my new body.


Don’t compare yourself to others. This one is tough. When someone else is going through similar circumstances, and they are healing at a faster pace, it sends you in critical mode.


At one point, I compared my previous injury to my most recent one, but it didn’t take long to realize I am a completely different person today than I was in 2012, so it’s not going to be the same journey. 


Everyone’s path is unique, so don’t let yourself fall into the comparison trap. You are YOU for a reason, so make it your own story.


Reflect on how this made you better. You gain many gifts from an experience that tests you. 


My 2012 injury taught me the importance of mindset and how to better fuel my body and my most recent injury taught me to be a better personal trainer.


For example, when a client is going through a frustrating obstacle, I know how to connect with them and explain the benefits of starting slow and taking things step-by-step.


I am thankful for both experiences as it has enlightened my personal and career growth. 


Going backward can be a blessing in disguise. I have gained so much more because of my injuries – physically and mentally. 


The key is to keep going. You might start off in baby steps from a physical standpoint, but don’t forget you’re also strengthening your mind. How you shape your mindset is your fuel to get through those tough days when you just have to gut out. Give yourself grace and take it one day at a time.