How to keep from losing your mind when injury knocks you out of the game.
During a woman's forum at work, we were going around the room answering personal questions as a get-to-know-you activity. The prompts were printed on index cards, and when it was my turn I drew, "What makes you happy? Why?"
I answered without hesitation, "Hiking!" It's a no-brainer. Not trail-running, not aimlessly meandering down a path. Hiking. Choosing a route, planning the attack, and executing. Whether it's a new trail with a destination I've never glimpsed or the trail in my neighborhood that I've hiked hundreds of times, that tangible sense of accomplishment, of completion, is addicting. I crave that moment when my heart races from the exertion of an uphill climb rather than from anxiety; when my breathing, normally constrained from stress, deepens and I finally draw a full breath; when, with a mighty push, my powerful legs heave me onto the summit and my heartbeat, my breath, my soul are finally at home in my body once again.
That is when I am happy. That is when I'm free.
As I offered my answer to the group, my voice choked with a bit of emotion. It will be a long time until I'm hiking again. I'm 10 days into a 12 week rehab for a dislocated kneecap, and already it's been quite a ride. From the pain of the initial injury, to the relief that it wasn't worse, the disappointment at hearing the length of my recovery, and the visceral realization of what 12 weeks off the trail would really mean, it's been one hell of a rollercoaster. All winter, I watched my newsfeed as similar stories popped up: badass women finding themselves benched because of an injury and grappling with how to self-identify without their sport of choice.
Most of their injuries were worse: torn ligaments, broken limbs, surgeries. I'll have 100% recovery without surgery by the end of the season, but that doesn't change the fact that, for the first time in my life since discovering hiking, I'm faced with the challenge of figuring out who I am without it. How do I keep myself happy without being able to do the thing that I love most?
My physical therapist said it very well... my biggest challenge with this will not be managing my injury, but rather managing my mental health! I hike almost every day, and when I'm not hiking, I'm hitting the gym or a yoga class. But what is it that I'm seeking from those activities? It's easy to say that they keep me sane, but what does that really mean? In an effort to answer that question for myself and the countless others who ask it, I broke down my activities and attempted to pinpoint the single most important benefit they offer me:
Hiking: An opportunity to be outside, unplugged from distractions, tuning in to the natural world.
Running: Power. A feeling of tangible progress toward becoming stronger. Measurable results.
Strength Training: A way to sustain my routine in rotten weather, when I get home too late to go outside, or when my legs are too sore to run or hike.
Yoga: Passivity. Me-time. 90 min to re-set without any other demands on my time.
Then, I brainstormed non-weight-bearing activities that could have the same effect. You see, I realized that I needed to let go of my attachment to specific activities and focus on finding something that could replicate the positive impact each one has on my life. I started by creating a list of things that I wished I had time to do before I got hurt, and then looked for things on that list that could start to deliver similar results to activities that were now off the table.
Here's where I netted out:
HIKING -> GARDENING, EATING MEALS ON THE DECK, SITTING OUTSIDE AND READING A BOOK
These new activities enable me to take a slightly more stop-and-smell-the-roses approach to being outside. Literally. In the age of Instagram and Strava it is really easy to let outdoor time be driven by a quest to take the best photo, beat your PR, or be queen of the mountain. Now, because most of my physical activities are taking place earlier in the day (see below), my outdoor time can be much more focused on truly unplugging and finding peace in the world around me.
RUNNING -> STRENGTH TRAINING WITH A PERSONAL TRAINER ON MY LUNCH HOUR
Strength Training was already a part of my routine, but it was very underutilized. With this injury, I realized that it was a great opportunity to set some tangible goals for myself, get rid of my gymtimidation, and build a foundation that will serve me long after this injury is rehabbed. My personal trainer worked with me to assess my current level of fitness, set goals, and develop a plan for achieving them. Sure, I could have done those things on my own, but working with a trainer gives me an added level of accountability and ensures that my routine is modified properly to keep me safe as I recover. It will also ensure that I burn calories and keep my weight in check as my overall level of physical activity decreases. By amping up this part of my routine while running takes a back seat, I'm able to feel powerful and see tangible progress in other parts of my body even while my poor left quad turns into mush.
YOGA-> MANICURES, ICE CREAM, COFFEE, WRITING, DRAWING
One area of my life that has been sorely neglected is my me-time. Like most adults, I easily get caught up in work and chores and structured "to-do's" and forget to leave time for myself. Yoga was providing a safe, structured way for me to escape the pressure of adult responsibilities for 90 minutes and just enjoy moving and breathing along with someone else's instruction. Since getting hurt, I've been trying to make a conscious effort to be more tuned in to what I need, and give myself the space to pursue those interests with the same freedom and lack of guilt that I had when pursuing yoga. Before, I felt selfish taking 90 minutes to sit on the deck and write a blog post, drink a cup of coffee, explore my artistic side (for something other than freelance work) or pamper myself a little. Now, I'm giving myself permission to do those things when the mood strikes, and it feels really great!
Will these new activities be able to carry me through 12 weeks on the bench? Who knows, but at least they are giving me a place to start. A huge part of successful recovery is mental, and having a plan for how to meet my hierarchy of emotional needs has enabled me to keep my chin up, keep looking forward, harbor less resentment about my current state. Who knows, maybe during these next 12 weeks I'll form new habits, find new activities that I love, and learn to feel at home and at peace in more situations than just on mountain summits. I highly doubt it, but it's always worth a try!