Nov 8, 2022
Injury and recovery are no fun and not why we train. They're a part of life, and come with training, especially if you push yourself over a long period of time. How do you adjust programming and mindset to keep training and keep improving.
Niki Sims shares her story of an injury that altered her training, identity, and pursuits, which ultimately caused her to not only alter reps and sets and exercise selection, but her approach and mindset regarding training and physical activity.
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Niki was trucking along nicely, hitting squat and deadlift PRs, improving in BJJ. Enter pain and injury.
She heard a pop during some deficit deadlifts. Her approach in the past had always been to do what she could, as much as possible, so she continued to pursue PRs. She hit a nice squat PR soon after that.
Performance continued to improve in the gym, and pain increased in intensity and frequency. One morning, she woke up and was in so much pain she couldn't see straight. She deadlifted later that day in a friendly competition.
She started to realize that looking at her lifting shoes was inducing anxiety, and the time that had been fun and solace and a welcome break every day - her gym time - now came with pain and anxiety.
She wasn't ready to stop lifting. Reduced intensity and doing as much as she could only increased pain over time. It wasn't working.
Niki had built an identity around performance, competition, and ability. The previous period of relatively stable progress in the gym and on the mat had to give way to an examination of why she was training in the first place, what she wanted to get out of training going forward, and what was best for her - physically and mentally.
She realized she couldn't go down that mental road of comparing what she used to be able to do to what she can do now. She also couldn't second-guess decisions she had made in the past about training or continuing to chase after PRs.
She had to embrace reality and possibility, while digging deeper to understand her deeper reasons for training and exercise in the first place. Deadlift 440 pounds was an important goal for her, but based on current limitations and important whys, keeping this as a goal was counterproductive for her mind and body.
You can't let yourself spiral into mental cycles of associating the gym with pain and failure.
Reintroducing play into the gym helped. Focusing on having training time be pleasant mattered. The cycle of pain and dread had to end.
Finding exercises that can be pushed a bit more without pain can help - and those might not look anything like the four main lifts. This might and probably will involve exercises that use less muscle mass over a shorter range of motion with less weight.
Niki found that not having programmed squat and deadlift workouts helped, because if these were programmed and she wasn't able to do them or they were performed at extremely low intensities, this created a feeling of failure.
Be able to experiment with what works - what's fun, what doesn't produce pain, what makes you want to go to the gym.
Find metrics that matter more (which also can quantify improvements outside of weight on the bar). Niki found that tracking pain in the morning not only helped inform programming decisions but also helped her see the big picture that pain had decreased and that she could have fewer days with pain, and the pain could be less intense.
The programming changes that you might think would get her back to PRs more quickly only made things worse. Slight reductions in intensity, volume, and exercise selection did not suffice.
If you're a coach or coaching yourself and something similar happens, you might try those smaller MED changes at first, but sometimes the MED change is actually quite big, and requires big adjustments to programming and mindset.