Living through this health scare was the motivation I needed to re-evaluate my fitness strategy.

By By Gabrielle Kassel
Updated: November 26, 2017
Photo: Gabrielle Kassel

I gritted my teeth through a foreign pain that seized my neck. I woke that morning unable to move from an awkward bent-neck and curved-spine position, as the muscles in my neck and trapezius (a major upper-middle back muscle) contracted in a series of spasms, over and over again. The relentless pain worsened each time I cried out in fear or clenched my jaw with anxiety as I waited for the waves of tension-which came every minute and lasted a full five to ten seconds-to pass.

A few moans later, my roommate came into my room with frozen peas and comforting words. Unwilling to call the ambulance (I was in pain, but that felt extreme), I FaceTimed my CrossFit coach. That might seem strange, but he is remarkably skilled in body-awareness and anatomy. After having me do a few drills, he told me he thought the issue was muscular (as opposed to a life-threatening spinal injury), and told me to take some Motrin and breathe. Admittedly, looking back on the situation, I should have immediately called 911 in case the issue was more perilous.

A few hours later when I was finally able to convince myself to get out of bed, I went to urgent care to get it checked out. I left with a soft neck brace that the doctor told me I was to wear for two weeks, and a prescription for medication that would help with the pain and muscle tightness. The diagnosis? A neck sprain. The doctor said it could have been caused by anything from overtraining or my sleeping position to even how I had stretched out in bed that morning.

When I called to tell my coach what the doctor said, his response was direct and eye-opening. "We both know it's from not training smartly," he said. As the pain began to subside, I realized the truth: I am very lucky. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had definitely been "winging it" with my training, and I was overdoing it altogether.

I hadn't thought about (or researched) how my training should look on any given day, let alone from week to week. I didn't pair muscle groups in a way that was efficient and purposeful, and I didn't give my body the rest it needed. I fell in love with the ritual of waking up for a 6 a.m. class, and soon I was working out six times a week, and then six turned to seven, and then seven turned into a few two-a-days with CrossFit in the morning and weightlifting in the afternoon. There was no such thing as an active recovery day for me. I had let my ego push me harder than my muscles wanted to be pushed, and I had sweat my way to the leaderboard at the expense of my body. I had stopped recognizing the obvious signs of stress during a workout, seeing muscle soreness as a badge of honor earned from a good workout.

So when the doc told me that for two weeks I needed to say goodbye to CrossFit, dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and weight training machines, and could only use the stationary bike for 20 to 30 minutes each day, I thought life as I knew it was over. Surely I'd lose all my hard-earned muscle, I'd gain 20 pounds, and my identity as an athlete would be gone. But contrary to the dramatic "what ifs" I came up with in my mind, the opposite actually came true.

In the two months since my injury, I have totally re-evaluated my workouts, including how much of my precious free time I spend in the gym or box. And you know what? I'm healthier and happier than ever. Here's why and how I did it.

I became a fitness student.

Because I had never gotten hurt before this-What did I tell ya? Lucky!-thinking about the mechanics of my lifts, my posture while I ran, and the structure of my workouts had never been a priority. Coaches had always carefully crafted my workouts for me, and why or how they were putting them together had never crossed my mind. I was an athlete on auto-pilot, and that needed to change. So I decided to take myself to school. I grabbed a copy of Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier and The New Encyclopedia of Modern BodyBuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger, hoping that being armed with knowledge would help prevent an injury like this from happening again. Now, I enjoy learning about muscle anatomy and researching exercise science, and I'm constantly asking my CrossFit coaches to answer questions.

I became more in tune with my body.

While I was recovering and using the stationary bike, I would unplug my headphones, close my eyes, and allow myself to really feel my legs pedaling. I noticed how my right foot always seemed to land harder on the down stroke, and how I subconsciously scrunched my toes. Without any other distractions, I had only my neck brace, my bike, and my movement.

Although I've healed from my neck injury, I've held on to this eyes-closed, body-awareness practice. During a workout, I check in with myself. What hurts? What part of my body feels strong? How is my neck feeling? What about my back? Am I thirsty? Will I be able to do this next set of reps with good form? I will only continue when I'm sure I have a strong mind-body connection.

I started exercising my neck.

If you aren't doing this, start. Don't wait for an injury like mine to force you into paying more attention to this crucial body part. Every day I do a series of neck strengthening and stretching exercises, hoping that by working the long-neglected muscles, I'll avoid reinjury.

Want to try my go-to neck stretch? Hold both palms against your forehead. Try to move your head forward but resist the head with your hands. Hold for 5 counts. Repeat with both hands behind your head (attempting to move head backward), then on the right and left sides using the same resistance method. Do 5 to 10 cycles as many as 3 times daily to isolate, strengthen, and stabilize your neck muscles.

I made sleep a priority.

The week following that painful morning, I slept in for an extra two hours because I wasn't waking up for a morning CrossFit class. After sleeping eight to ten hours a night, I felt more energized, happier, and calmer than I could remember. Yes, even with my neck mishap and without my go-to exercise routine, I was feeling better and more clear-headed than I had pre-injury.

I transformed my fitness routine into a wellness practice.

Before my neck injury, I trained obsessively and called it "being healthy." Two hours in the gym every day is not a marker of health, but a routine dedicated to developing and strengthening mind, body, and soul is. Here are a few things that helped me turn my grueling workouts into a self-care routine.

  • I keep a gratitude journal, which I write in every night before bed.
  • I focus on non-muscular health: my teeth (I floss), my skin (I moisturize), and my hair (I mask).
  • I wake up a few minutes early to drink coffee in bed while reading the news for a calmer start to the day.
  • I run once a week at a pace that's slow enough for me to practice moving meditation.
  • I drink water BEFORE I'm thirsty.
  • I prioritize spending time in the sun (with sunscreen on, of course).
  • I breathe intentionally when I find myself feeling stressed.

I became more honest on social media.

My injury forced me to confront the reality that I was portraying myself as a fitness "expert" on Instagram, yet it was my so-called fitness expertise that got me injured. When I posted about my neck injury, I felt like I was coming out as a fraud, but I was amazed by the support I received. Since then, I made a promise to myself to be honest on social media by posting my truth, sharing my story, and never pretending to be something that I'm not.

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