Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

“I was training two to three times per week, but then I got injured and I had to take some time off. Now, I just can’t find the time to start up again.”

I think it is fair to say that, if we have never spoken these words ourselves, we know at least one person that has. Let’s face it injury equals pain, and pain is scary. Whether it is the pain of damage or the pain of recovery is independent of the fear factor; most people do not like to feel or risk pain. Period. How about this one:

“I am staying away from the gym/ fitness class until I finish healing. If I go, I’ll be too tempted to train and I just can’t risk making this injury worse.”

Seems like a sound argument, doesn’t it? I would be willing to bet that many of you out there, reading this blog, have uttered one or both of these statements at some point in time. And, again, if not you personally, then certainly at least one person you know or train with. However, there is an inherent problem with them…

They are not statements of fact. They are excuses!

There, I’ve said it out loud, what most of us think when we hear someone say one of these phrases, but usually dare not say, and which we cannot sympathize unless we find ourselves in the same situation. They Are Excuses. Why? Well, let me ask you this: Have you ever been at 100% physical potential or capability? Before you answer, take a moment to really think about your physicality throughout your life thus far. Be honest with yourself and then let me break down some myths for you.

When I was a kid, I could do the splits

No, you couldn’t. And don’t tell me that you have pictures of it, and video, and 17 gold and silver medals to prove it because they are all lying to you. What? Am I that nuts? No. You are simply falling victim to Myth #1 about our changing physical abilities:

We are fit, flexible, and healthy as children. It is age that breaks our bodies down.

We all have fond memories of all of the physical feats of impossibility we could do as kids; we could jump of the roof and not break a single bone, do splits and straddles and flips, we could run for miles while playing outside (well, at least some of the older generations could because they actually went outside to play) and not feel tired. We could hit the ball farther, play longer, leap higher, kick harder and faster, climb every tree on the block, and never run out of energy. And the truth is that, yes, we had more stamina back then than we do now, though not for the reason. you think. The reason for that uncanny ability to play soccer all day with our friends at the park and not get tired is that you were out there, every afternoon, after school, playing until your parents dragged you back inside for dinner by the hair, kicking and screaming that you wanted to keep playing with your friends. All of those afternoons of running around the block, playing hide and seek and climbing trees for hours, were actually exercise. Yes. You were exercising at least three hours per day, five days a week, eight hours on Saturdays and Sundays. You worked hard to sustain that level of cardio fitness. You worked harder at it than most fitness professionals do.

So, what about the splits? Well, I have some bad news. You could “do” the splits because your body (a.) didn’t know that it couldn’t, (b.) did not have fully matured muscles, tissues, joints, or bones, and (c.) because your mind demanded that you do the splits, it ordered your body to use any means necessary to accomplish it. In simple terms, you started doing harm to your body well before you had a healthy body to harm. Don’t worry, it was not your fault. the technology to do better and know better just wasn’t there. Unfortunately, most sports coaches and teams still lack this technology and treat their athletes as disposable materials that are easy to renew with a new crop of young bodies to exploit. Here is the skinny, point by point:

  1. Your body didn’t know that it couldn’t. There is this really great quote by Mark Twain that says, “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.” As a kid, you lack experience, but need to gain it; and, the best way to gain experience is through experimentation. So you try out different things. Maybe your parents indulge your interest in dance, and you start a ballet class where, on day one, they tell you to put your foot up on the barre, fold at the hip, and reach for that foot until you can touch it without any effort. Your body does as it is told. This may be the first time that you experience pain near your joints, but you’d been told that you were going through growing pains before, so, because of your body’s inexperience, it and you figure that these are growing pains, too, and you keep working, in spite of the pain.
  2. Your muscles, connective tissue, bones, and joints were not matured and set yet. We tend to make the assumption that we were born with perfectly fit bodies and that our actions deteriorate that body at a rate proportional to our activity level, sort of like those college courses where the teacher tells you on the first day, “You start out with an A in this class for free, but you have to work to keep it.”   Back at that dance class, you do as you are told, at first because it is what is expected, later because it is habit, and finally because you’ve done it your whole life — without question. Any time that the back of your knee hurts when reaching for that foot you think, “Well, it must be me because no one else seems to be having a problem,” you put your head down, and you keep reaching for that foot. What you are taught is that you are stretching, what you are actually doing is putting inappropriate pressures on tissue that has not solidified and matured; the tissue does not have the ability to tell you, “I think I am tearing, but I don’t think I am supposed to be.” It is not mature enough to speak up for itself, much the same way that, on that third day of dance class, when you raise your hand to say the back of your knee hurts when you reach for your foot, the dance instructor motions you to be quiet and keep right on stretching. You are not damaging healthy tissue; you are damaging young tissue and never giving it the opportunity to grow up healthy.
  3. Your mind demanded action. Your body is incredibly adept at pleasing you. If you tell your body that you want to do the splits, it will take whatever actions it deems necessary to obtain the desired result, or as close to it as it can get. Enter Recruitment and Substitution. Any movement that you attempt requires a certain set of mechanics, firing off specific muscles to contract or elongate as needed. Ideally, only the muscles immediately required for the movement take action to produce the result; but, when those muscles are unable to complete the action on their own, they call on all of their other little muscle friends to come help out, effectively recruiting other muscles to do the work that they cannot complete and substituting players that can do the job. For example, raise your arm above your head, reaching for the ceiling. Go ahead, do it. Your arm is clearly above your head, right? Chances are that you cannot actually lift your arm and put it where it is. The only muscles necessary to perform this task live in your shoulder, so, only your shoulder should demonstrate a change of position when you lift your arm. But, I ‘d be willing to bet that when you raised your arm you actually used your neck muscles to get it up, and I’ll prove it. Raise your arm up toward the ceiling again. Now, take stock of how close your shoulder is to your neck and head. Did you do that? Ok, great. Put your arm down. Now, try to reach for the ceiling WITHOUT letting your shoulder shorten the distance between it and your neck. Stop moving once you notice that the distance begins to shorten. This is your actual ability to raise your hand up over your head. Everything else is recruitment and substitution: your body using the neck muscles to finish raising your arm. This is the same premise as the split. You told your body as a kid that you wanted to do the splits, and, because the joint structure was still loose and the tissue new and gooey, your body called on every muscle, ligament, tendon, and bone and made it happen. but the truth is that you did not actually do the splits, it just looked like you did.

I didn’t mean to burst your athletic bubble. What I did mean to do is let you know that the “I’m too old to do that now” excuse is simply not valid. Your body did not finish maturing until your mid-twenties, and, by then, depending on what activities you undertook as a child and how careful your instructors and coaches were, you had likely already done quite a bit of damage. Here in lies the truth:

We are not born with a perfectly fit body. We are born with a young body that we either nurture or damage.

That brings us to Myth #2:

We peak athletically in our late teens/ early twenties.

Absolutely FALSE. We peak between 35 and 45 years of age. Honest truth. It is not until that time that a number of stars have aligned for us: Our bodies have completely matured, we have lived in our matured bodies for a number of years and have a grasp on how to make them work, have amassed a series of experiences with which to make more informed judgement calls, and have matured mentally and emotionally to a level where we can handle our physicality in a responsible manner. At this stage in life, we should be able to make better decisions about our health, our exercise routines, our injuries, and our recoveries. We may still let fear creep in and keep us from doing things we should be doing, like the fear of pain keeping you from training when you are injured, but the mental maturity at this stage in life and beyond should also translate into will power and self control.

Well, now I am injured. If I train, I’ll just hurt myself

While I agree that if you are injured you need to take time to recover and rehabilitate, that time does not, in most cases, need to include what amounts to immobility or bed rest. I’ll give you an example. I started training martial arts in my mid thirties. I had already had 2 knee surgeries and constant back pain at that point, but I wanted to exercise and get fit while doing something I loved and that also helped me work on my inner fitness. Three years ago, I suffered a severe neck event. Three cervical disks herniated bi-laterally, damaging peripheral nerves down my right arm and pressing into my spinal cord. I lost the ability to perform fine motor movements with my right arm and hand and lost all sensation down the arm and right sides of my chest and back. The first 2 specialists that saw me at the hospital said surgery and now. The third opinion was more in line with what I wanted to do, less invasive treatments, and so I stuck with him.

As a part of my recovery, because of the position of the herniations and bone spurs, I was remanded to weeks of essential bed rest while under treatment. With the exception of the neck brace, which made me feel like I was choking, I followed instructions to the letter. But, after a while I got restless. I had not been on the martial arts mat in a couple of months, I was gaining weight, and I was bored. But I knew that I could not participate in any martial arts classes; one wrong hit or break-fall would put me right back in the hospital, and this time there would be no escaping the scalpel. So, I started to go to class again, only I sat on the sidelines and watched and asked questions. I wanted so badly to get on the mat again and train; be physical. But, I exercised my maturity, self control, and will power and continued for the next two months to train from the sidelines, in a seated position, visualizing myself doing the movement, watching everyone else move, and taking it all in as an observer.

When I did, finally, return to the training mat, I still had to be, and continue to have to be, extremely careful in my movement and interaction with training partners. For example, I can no longer regularly spar because of the danger of taking a bad hit,  and I now have a limited number of break falls I can take because of the possibility of a bad landing. So, I train with moderation and measure. I take the mat with people that are aware of and willing to address my injuries without reducing the quality of the training for either one of us. My husband, Cat Sensei, for example. We spar in TaeKwonDo, Jeet Kune Do, and Filipino Martial Arts, and we do so intensely! But, and this is the key, we also do so with control. Funny enough, it turns out that training with intensity while maintaining control of contact level is a much harder workout that the same situation without having to pull a hit at the last minute. When we train Aikido, he is the only person I allow to throw me because, thanks to his decades of experience in the art and in teaching it, he is able to take care of me, even when I fail to take care of myself.

I had to relearn my movements. I was amazed to discover that techniques that I thought I could do, I actually could not. The amount of muscular substitution that had crept into my movement was incredible. Plus, in becoming so acutely aware of my body, I began to find areas that, while not directly affected by my injury, were very much in need of dissection.

My time in recovery resulted in my most meteoric growth as a martial artist, and not once during that time did I get on the mat and physically practice. Sitting back and being forced to watch and listen offers the freedom to examine without the anxiety and frustration of performance, something that, when we are on the mat or n the gym, we cannot always enjoy. However, I found that the most valuable gift I received from training through my injury was a discerning eye to my own movement; I am much better equipped, now, to reproduce movement in a way that is healthy and in line with my body’s abilities, as well as help my students find the same for their bodies.

I also had to redefine pain. There is the pain of damage, there is the pain of growing, and there is the pain of healing. I could no longer lump all pain under one umbrella. It simply did not fit me anymore.

Training through injury, the hardest thing you will ever do

The difficulty in training while injured is not in the pain or discomfort that we expect to endure. Injuries help us discover where we cheat ourselves in our movement. Remember when I talked about Recruitment and Substitution earlier? When we are injured, and lose the ability to use certain muscle groups or bones, we are faced with unexpected inabilities; suddenly, we can see where our bodies have been substituting muscles to perform movements in which they should not be involved. The injury forces you to reevaluate the way in which you do things, often questioning things that you have done your entire life. This is what makes training while injured difficult. It requires you to be compassionate with yourself, take care of yourself, and take a long, hard look at ways in which you risk yourself on a regular basis. If you can take this opportunity to really study and potentially revolutionize the way that you move, training while injured can become the fastest and most difficult path to growth that you will ever experience.

Don’t make your injury a set back. As cliché as it may seem, it really is an opportunity to grow your athletic maturity, getting you on the path to peak performance like no other training ever will.