How suffering an injury doing what you love can be turned into something positive—and ultimately help you get fitter, faster
It happened on September 21. My boyfriend and I were in Killington, VT for the Spartan Sprint, a 4ish-mile race along part of the Spartan Beast World Championship course. In typical obstacle course racing fashion, we were told we could plan on climbing mountains, traversing water, carrying very heavy things, and doing anywhere from 30 to 300 burpees, but not many more details. The most predictable thing about Spartan Race is its unpredictability. And that’s a huge part of the appeal—at least to me.
I’m a regular CrossFitter (shout-out to my box, CrossFit NYC!), so I train four to five days a week to be functionally fitter for any of life’s unpredictable challenges. I can deadlift 235 pounds, do pull-ups until my hands bleed, and sprint a mile in five minutes and 41 seconds. So on Sunday’s course, when we approached the pole traverse (a thick metal pole above a big water pit; the task: use your hands to get from one end to the other), I was all, "I totally got this." I rubbed dirt between my palms to try to dry them and give myself a better grip. The two guys manning the obstacle told me that only one girl had successfully made it across that day and two the day prior. Then I thought, "Well, I’m about to be number four."
And I almost was. Until I slipped (for the record, I blame wet hands versus inadequate strength). Assuming I was falling into the water pit, I went ragdoll on my five-foot descent. But there wasn’t more than a couple of inches of water to break my fall. So my left ankle took the brunt of the hit. And the audible crack still makes me want to barf a little.
I wanted to keep going, but my boyfriend pumped the brakes. I couldn't put weight on my foot, and much to my chagrin, I was carted off the course where I was told my injury was nothing more than a sprain. Never one to let a good weekend away go bad, I convinced my (worried) boyfriend that pumpkin pancakes at Sugar and Spice were far more important than a second opinion at urgent care. Though this would be my first ever race DNF (that’s race-speak for did not finish), the day wasn’t a total wash.
Flash forward to today: I’ve been in a hard cast for exactly four weeks and on crutches for six. I broke my entire fibula (the smaller of the two lower leg bones) and have an anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL) tear. (That second opinion—allbeit a little later than it should have been—paid off.) I’ll need aggressive physical therapy once the cast comes off.
So what's a fitness addict to do? Well, rather than sit on the couch crying about how many killer CrossFit WODs (workout of the day) I’m missing and swearing off obstacle course races, I’ve found ways to turn my injury into opportunity (really!). And the next time you find yourself benched—whether it’s a week or three months—you should do the same. Here, a few top ways to stay in the better-body game even when you're benched.
Focus on Food
This may sound like an oxymoron, but don’t forget that what you eat can affect how your body looks and functions—regardless of how badass you are in the gym. Pre-injured me was eating a ton of protein because that’s what my body was craving. But a few days of being immobile had me drooling over kale, sweet potatoes, quinoa, green smoothies, and more. So I listened to my body and started experimenting with vegan recipes from blogs like Deliciously Ella and Oh She Glows. For someone who recently dabbled in the Paleo diet, this was totally foreign territory. But I quickly realized two amazing things: 1) Cooking really healthy food is really easy 2) Cooking really healthy food is really delicious. On top of that, clean eating was giving me energy I’d otherwise find in a good cardio workout. And knowing that the foods I was cooking were lower in sugar, carbs, and calories made me feel better about burning less than I typically was. I’m not telling you all to go vegan—and I’m not sure this is a permanent change for me—but I do think it’s important to listen to your body: Give it what it needs, not what your mind craves.
Modify, Don’t Quit
Sitting on the couch for the entirety of my injury was just not an option for me (and it doesn't have to be for you either!). I dusted off my 15-pound kettlebell, a set of 10-pound dumbbells, and a variety of resistance bands. I’ll do assisted push-ups, seated and lying upper-body exercises, and use the bands for some barre/Pilates-style butt and thigh toners. I also work with a personal trainer at a gym once a week for some heavier upper-body lifting. I even went for a two-hour kayak in the Hudson one afternoon. Sure, I’m not burning a ton of calories (or breaking much of a sweat), but I enjoy these activities—and they keep me active. Depending on the location and degree of your injury, there are likely ways you can get some semblance of a workout in too. Just make sure to check with your doctor and consult a trainer so you’re very clear on exactly what you can and cannot do. The last thing you’ll want is to further aggravate (or worse, extend!) your injuries.
Have a Non-Negotiable Plan to Get Back on the Horse
The first thing a lot of people ask me when I tell them how I got injured is, “So are you done with obstacle course races?” And my answer is always an emphatic, “Heck no!” In fact, I can’t wait to toe the line at another Spartan Race. And as soon as my physical therapist clears me, I’m going to register for one. But this time, I’ll be more careful. I’ll pay better attention to my surroundings, and exercise more caution during obstacles. If I approach something I think could result in trouble? I’ll skip it. But I certainly won’t run away from them entirely. Yes, I broke my ankle during one. But it could have happened walking down a flight of stairs at the subway station. You can’t predict injury—you can do things to avoid it, but writing off something entirely won’t necessarily keep you safe. Whether you fell off your bike, got plantar fasciitis from running, or destroyed your shin doing box jumps—ease back into where you left off. You’ll have a whole new perspective on the activity and you’ll feel an incredible sense of accomplishment and confidence each time you work through a session or race injury-free.