Man, I lost it.
“How much do you really need to use your knee?” the Doctor asked. “You can still do your job without doing squats.”
I’d been dealing with some pretty severe knee swelling for about 6 weeks before I finally went to the Doctor. We assumed it was meniscus related. He and I discussed the best-case scenario: quick surgery, 4-6 weeks of rehab, and back to business. No big deal, right?
Then the MRI results came back.
Grade 3 cartilage lesions, likely hereditary. Not caused by overuse or injury, and no great surgical options. Only in the left knee now, but it’ll be in both eventually. You can reduce the swelling and increase range of motion, but it’s always going to be there. Welcome to your new life.
I lost it.
I’m no stranger to injury. I studied anatomy and corrective exercise to help people work through precisely this sort of situation. When it hits you, however, the game changes.
When you deal with an injury of your own, no matter how minor, here are 6 steps that can help you come out stronger on the other side.
1. Give Yourself a Chance to Grieve.
There’s no sugar coating this: injuries suck. From the mild strains to major tears and dislocations, they freaking suck. And because of that, you gotta know it’s okay to be upset. It’s okay to get mad. It’s okay to be frustrated. Injuries rob from you; your time, your emotional energy, sometimes your livelihood. So take a moment for yourself. Get mad. Yell, scream, cry it out, whatever works for you. Take time to get it out of your system, because once you do, we’re moving on and not looking back.
- Take a second for yourself
- Know that it’s okay to be upset
- Grieve, get it all out, move on.
2. Use Your Support Network
There’s an immediate feeling of isolation that occurs after an injury, especially as all your workout buddies, running partners, teammates, etc, keep working and keep moving forward. But as tough as this may be, you have to remind yourself that you are not alone. Your workout buddies - your fitness support network - are rooting for your recovery just as much as you are. They want to know how you’re doing, they want to hear about your progress, they want to see you in the gym doing what you can. And they’re going to cheer you on every step of the way.
- You’re not alone.
- The guys that cheered on your successes will get your back when you’re down.
- It can be tough, so lean on your workout buddies for support.
3. Don’t Be Afraid To Get Help
The swelling and pain associated with knee issue I mentioned earlier sidelined me from doing any knee flexion at all. No squats or lunges. Even getting up and down off the couch was difficult. But, not being able to do what I enjoyed ever again was not an option. I wanted to squat again; I just had to figure out how. So, I consulted with some folks who are way smarter than me. We came up with a program for eliminating the swelling while gradually increasing range of motion and even more gradually increasing the weight. The plan for getting my butt moving again included squatting to a certain dept for a handful of reps and waiting to see how the knee responded. If it didn't swell, I'd go a little deeper the next time. Once range of motion improved, we could very slowly and for only a few reps at a time start adding weight back on the bar.
It was slow and often tedious, but it was progress. And it certainly beat never squatting again.
- For most of us, this is uncharted territory.
- Seek help from the pros or from people who’ve been there before.
4. Make A Plan
After the swelling subsided and I was able to move again, I was still limited to partial depth air squats. Super lame. Anything below parallel caused my kneecap to shift laterally, the knee to swell, and the recovery process to essentially start over. So, for any squat workout, I had to get creative. I set up a crate with a stack of 10lb bumper plates behind me, which stopped me from getting too deep in the movement. Over the course of about 3 months, as strength and range of motion improved, I removed one plate at a time and tested the new depth under load. My goal became to remove 1 plate per week. Every plate was a huge victory. It was a slow but necessary process and gave me an avenue to focus my efforts. 3 months later and I was squatting to full depth. It would be another 3 months before I was able to put some significant weight on the bar, but every day was a step forward.
- Set incremental, achievable goals.
- Celebrate your successes.
5. Stay Connected To Your Gym, Sport or Training Program.
Because of my job as a personal trainer, I never had the ability to step away after the injury. Every day I was surrounded by people doing things I couldn’t do. At the time, it was frustrating. But in retrospect, seeing people work hard kept me amped about my own recovery. Remember, my goal was never to stop working; it was to find a way to work around the issue.
Depending on the severity of your injury, you may need time away to recover emotionally. When you’re ready, however, finding a way to engage as a spectator, coach, or cheerleader can keep you motivated to stay on track with your recovery. Rehabbing an injury can be a tedious process, and staying connected with what you love can keep you focused and on track.
- Find a way to stay involved in what you enjoyed doing before the injury.
- If that’s not possible, physically or emotionally, find another outlet for your energy.
6. Take it slow.
Admittedly, this one was a tough one for me. I suffered more than a few small setbacks because I rushed the recovery program. These things happen. I felt good at the time and wanted to see what the new limits were. Well, each time I overreached meant an extra week of rehab. Not fun. So, as much as you may want to rush back, take it slow. Think about the long game and not the moment right in front of you.
- You’ve got a plan. Stick to it.
- Slow and steady wins the recovery race all day.
NASM - CPT, CES, FNS