Keep moving. No matter what.
Since 2011 I have had 3 surgeries. All 3 were very different. I was able to train shortly after all 3 with minimal loss in overall fitness.
- In October 2011, I had a super emergency appendectomy (after about a week of thinking my “psoas is just tight”).
- In July of 2012, I suffered a severely broken hand and what they call a “hangman’s fracture” of my C2 vertebrae after a gnarly car accident. I had surgery shortly after to fuze my C2-C3 together. My hand was in a cast for about 2 months, neck was in a brace for the same amount of time.
- In July of 2015, at the 2015 CrossFit Games, I suffered a complete ACL tear with damage, also, to my meniscus. This is the first and only injury I have ever suffered competing in this sport. Shortly after I had surgery to repair my ACL and clean up the damage to my meniscus.
For whatever reason, it is part of my purpose in this community to show that you can continue to train through injury and adversity. Experiencing the annoying and scary injuries hasn’t been fun. But, I welcome the opportunity to share what I have learned through all of it.
I am finally writing this down because I receive at least one email or direct message pretty much every single day from athletes of all levels out there who have found themselves injured and worried that they will not be able to train. Most of their doctors are telling them what my doctors told me, “don’t work out”. Most of the emails ask for a specific plan that I followed for my knee or my neck. While I don’t have a specific program to share, I do have some advice and can tell you how I approach it.
LISTEN TO YOUR DOCTOR.
I am not saying that if your Dr is saying “don’t work out” to stop moving. But you do need to listen to some of their timelines and suggestions. With my neck, I asked if I could air squat. I had to show them what that was. I asked them if I could lunge, and ride the bike. They told me some timelines for how long I needed to avoid moving at certain speeds or in certain planes. I listened to that.
For my knee, I had a machine that I was supposed to have my leg in for 4-6 hours a day until I could hit a certain range of motion. I did that too. I was told not to walk on it for a certain amount of time and to wear my brace/use my crutches. I always listened to these instructions. (Ok, almost always).
ONCE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU CAN’T DO. FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU CAN DO.
How do you do that? You combine what the Dr told you not to do with the parts of your body that are still working. This is going to be different at different stages. But you can always do SOMETHING.
Shortly after my neck surgery, I had a super unstable neck and had to wear a brace at all times. I also had a broken hand which was in a cast. There were so many things I couldn’t do. I had one hand, I wasn’t allowed to really bend forward or use any weight. I was in no way to do anything fast or explosive. During those initial times, here’s what I could do:
Air Squat – Walking Lunge – Ride the Bike with no hands – Put a sled around my waste and walk with it. During this time I set a goal of doing 1000 air squats per week. Some were in workouts, some were just random. I gained some serious leg stamina during this time.
As time went on, I could start to add a little weight. But I still only had one hand and had the damn neck brace on all of the time. I added in:
Zercher squats – I started doing a 5×5 every other day…the first 5×5 I did was with the empty bar. I went up 5-10 lbs every time.
I started to do some 1 arm dumbbell stuff too, and I was able to start doing med ball cleans with my casted hand (which became my best friend). My crew was doing wall balls and I couldn’t look up? Med ball cleans. My crew was doing thrusters? Med ball cleans. My crew was doing cleans with the bar? Med ball cleans.
Once the cast came off, my hand was still really fragile. So, getting back to holding onto a barbell or the pull up bar came slow. I had to start with no weight on the bar and had to use bands to try to hang from the pull up bar.
For my knee, I was in this giant, completely locked out, brace for I think like 6 weeks. I was to be completely un-weightbearing. And at first, I was stuck on that damn machine all day long.
What I could do though was a lot of gymnastics stuff. I did a ton of strict pull ups, dips, push ups, ring rows. I was able to do the ski erg – seated and even figured out how to row by putting my foot on a skateboard and only using the other leg to drive.
I would sit on the ground and pull a loaded sled toward me for something I could do heavy. I would lay on a bench face down and do weighted rows. Both of those were huge for me feeling like I was still using a little weight. I would obviously bench and do seated overhead presses as well.
AS YOU START TO FEEL BETTER – DON’T GET TOO CRAZY TOO SOON.
Once you get clearance to add stuff in – don’t add in all of it all at once. And, there is a difference between something being uncomfortable and painful.
With my neck, I specifically remember getting permission to start to add some quicker motions back into my training. It had been months since I had done any olympic lifting or kipping. I remember when I tried to kip for the first time, it hurt. I had permission to do it, but it hurt – so I waited a little longer before I tried doing it again.
My knee still has stuff to this day that will feel ok sometimes, and then hurts on other days. If I go to do box jumps, or run, or catch a clean and it hurts – I don’t do it. The only time I got super dumb with it was during the Open, and I will be the first to admit that it has set me back.
If you are adding a new movement in for the first time, probably don’t add it in a workout that is for time. It’s too easy to keep pushing when that is the case – even if it starts to hurt or feel sketchy. Try adding it in like an EMOM or something, where you can make better decisions about it on the fly.
FIND A PT WHO UNDERSTANDS ATHLETES AND GO TO THEM FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.
When I was still in NorCal I had a great PT. He is a PT, who also owns a CrossFit gym and understands completely the level that I was at before my injury and where I wanted to get back to. He was not afraid to have me try and test CrossFit specific movements in our visits and I could ask him specific questions about what I should or shouldn’t try and he knew what these things were. He understood that the movements we use in CrossFit are just “life’s movements”. Air squats are no different than sitting down and standing up. Deadlifts are no different than picking my shoes up off of the ground.
Both after my neck surgery and my knee surgery – I knew I needed to get to the gym for my psychological well being more than anything else. I would go to the gym and ride the bike with my neck brace on and just watch my NorCal crew train. After my knee, I would go and my crew would bring my machine in for me and set it up in a spot where I could watch/heckle them.
Of course it was difficult to just be on the sidelines, but it also kept me super motivated and in such better spirits than if I had been stuck at home missing out completely.
I know it seems like if you don’t squat for 3 months that you will never be able to PR your squat again. I know it SEEMS like if you haven’t done pull ups for 12 weeks that your fitness is completely gone, but it’s not true. It will seem like forever while you are in it. It will feel like you are losing a lot. But, I can promise you that if you are in the gym, doing what you can, you won’t lose nearly as much as you might think.
USE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO WORK WEAKNESSES.
I became really good at strict gymnastics and gained a crazy amount of stamina in my legs when I was wearing that damn neck brace. I know that the reason I won Jackie at the 2013 Regionals was from the 1000 air squats a week and crazy amount of med ball cleans.
I was able to focus on gymnastics once again when my knee was messed up. I still feel like my conditioning with a lot of things is better than it has ever been, because I had to scale the weight and do mostly body weight movements combined with rowing or assault bike for so long.
This one is going to be hard. But I will leave you with this – you are injured. You are not dead. And as a matter of fact – the fact that you are even reading this and care to try to stay in shape while you are recovering from whatever it is you are recovering from means you are LIGHTYEARS ahead of most anyone else who has been in your situation. Do your best and trust that it will be enough. Be happy that you have the fitness that you have that allows you to keep pushing forward.
Check out these awesome IG accounts from some of the baddest guys and gals on the planet. They will truly show you that, you can adapt anything for an injury (whether temporary or permanent). And if nothing else, they will motivate the shit out of you:
Wheel WOD: @wheelwod
Zach Ruhl: @pitbullruhl
Kevin Ogar: @kevinogar
Steph Hammerman: @stephthehammer
Krystal Cantu: @krystalcantu
Gustavo Marquez: @gmarqx