By Michael Krueger
I have a client who is really gung ho and motivated–or not. She’ll work hard through every workout, get in extra cardio, and be really meticulous about her diet. Her progress will be amazing, and then she’ll fall off the wagon for a couple of weeks. Her enthusiasm never fails, but her long-term discipline and consistency leave a bit to be desired … but she always comes back.
Everything was going fine …
When it comes to fitness, maintaining continuity in your habits is probably the key to long-term success. Always putting forth maximum effort during exercise, eating well, sleeping enough, and making the effort to care for your mental and emotional health are what the pursuit of fitness is all about. Getting in your scheduled workouts week in and week out instills in you a sense of purpose and confidence that will serve you well when the time arrives that work, relationships, or money issues threaten to derail you from the pursuit of your goals. You understand that fitness has become such a major part of who and what you are that no matter what else is going on in your life, you still unabashedly and unapologetically get in your workouts and maintain your healthful habits.
When you are in the groove and making progress, going to the gym or out for a run is a pleasure. The thought of something disrupting your routine doesn’t enter your mind. You don’t think about injury or illness. Why should you? Life is good. You don’t think about the way the unpredictability of life can have a way of overtaking and overwhelming you. You don’t think about debilitating injuries, personal problems, missed workouts, insufficient sleep, eating badly, thinking negatively, or anything else that can turn your world upside down; but you should, because sooner or later it’s going to happen.
Eventually everyone will run up against an obstacle that is so daunting, so strong, and so devastating that it crushes you. It might be an intensely physical event such as a serious injury or an illness. It could be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the dissolution of a relationship. Sometimes it’s nothing in particular, simply an accumulation of a million little problems, all the hurts and insults to your body and spirit that wear you down until you just grind to a stop. Everything you’ve worked for begins to slip away, and life doesn’t look so good at that moment.
It is important to understand what caused this unfortunate set of circumstances. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as when you suffer an acute injury. This should be the simplest setback to come back from, but that is not always the case. A lot depends on the how and why of the injury. Was it an accident, or did it come from the wear and tear of repeated activities over time?
The acute injuries suffered in accidents may be minor or life threatening. It may take just a few days to come back from a sprain, a few weeks for a broken bone, or a year or more from a major injury. Obviously, the first thing you do is heal. Since you were fit and strong prior to the injury, you are already ahead of the game when it comes to recovery.
Once the healing process is done, you go to physical therapy. Therapy can be a frustrating experience for anyone, but for a person used to being active it can be awful. Struggling to do even simple things can make you a crazy person in no time. Rehab involves small, specific movements designed to bring your injured body back to a normally functioning state. The tough part is that before the injury you were functioning at the highest levels of fitness, and now they have you sitting on a ball curling two-pound hand weights; it can be demoralizing, and you may want to scream, curse, and quit.
Well, get over it. Do what needs to be done so that you can come back as soon as possible and with the best possible long-term outcome. Don’t rush it, don’t ignore it, follow through, and do as you are told. If you need some help getting your head around the injury and its aftermath, then talk to someone who can help. Don’t try to tough it out alone; it won’t work, and it will only make things worse in the long run.
Focus on doing the physical and mental work needed to get healthy, and it won’t be long until you are ready to resume your previous workouts and get back to your fitness program and your work; and then life will be good again.
The accumulated wear-and-tear injuries are different in cause but the same in treatment. Long-term runners and lifters will sometimes develop chronic overuse injuries. Firefighters develop some of these same injuries, since many of your activities involve repeating movement patterns over and over. Shoulders, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, and backs can accumulate a lot of damage over time. The worst aspect of this type of injury is the denial that it is happening. At first you just want to “work through it,” insisting it will be fine. The reality is that continuing to abuse an injured joint will make the problem bigger and the recovery longer and, in some cases, impossible. Tendonitis can easily become a ruptured tendon. Nonspecific back pain can become a chronic problem and cause more acute nerve damage over time. Seemingly minor shoulder injuries can become debilitating and even require surgery.
The annoying little aches and pains that accumulate over time can often be healed by the judicious use of ice, anti-inflammatory drugs, and simply taking some time off. Unfortunately for long-term fitness athletes, “taking some time off” isn’t so simple. We have an image of ourselves that doesn’t include inactivity for any reason, including a little pain. We will limp through run after run, insisting that “it’s getting better.” We don’t like to surrender our program, our workout, or our goals to anyone or anything and that includes injuries, illnesses, doctors, therapists, or common sense.
Well, get over it. Do what needs to be done so that you can come back as soon as possible and with the best possible long-term outcome. Don’t rush it, don’t ignore it, follow through, and do as you are told. If you need some help getting your head around the injury and its aftermath, then talk to someone who can help. Don’t try to tough it out alone. It won’t work, and it will only make things worse in the long run. (I told you the treatment was the same.)
Sometimes, however, the problem isn’t physical, although the first real sign may be that you just don’t feel right. When your mental/emotional game is in the toilet, so follows your physical fitness–and rather quickly, I might add. It’s important to treat this malaise in the same way you would treat an acute or chronic injury: Get appropriate help.
The last issue to deal with is when you just let little day-to-day events derail you. These events aren’t the overwhelmingly important type, either. Rather, they might be an unexpected lunch invitation, a beer after work with friends, a canceled run because of a rainy day, or a bailed-on workout because the gym was busy. The next thing you know, you’ve missed a week’s worth of workouts. When these missed weeks happen often enough, they really begin to take a toll on your fitness and, more importantly, on your discipline. Soon you begin to string them together one after another, and all of a sudden you’ve missed an entire year.
This is a straightforward problem to come back from, since it didn’t involve an injury you need to rehab or a malaise you need to overcome; you just got lazy. So, get off your butt and start again. Put some boundaries in place to avoid the recurrence of the problem, set some new goals, and soon you will be back in the game.
You can always come back
In many ways resiliency, the ability to adjust and recover, may prove to be far more important than all the hard work, consistency, and program planning that you have put in over the years. As I said, eventually something is going to smack you down. That’s when all the resolve, discipline, and determination that you developed during those years of working out will definitely come in handy; when you need them most, when you need to come back.
A fact of life is that eventually we’ll all falter, and, as they say, “It isn’t how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up.”
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.