Time away from your fitness routine has likely caused your muscles to lose some strength and your cardiovascular endurance to decrease. You even may have gained some unwanted weight while taking the necessary time off to heal.
All of these factors affect your emotional state and can make ‘jumping back in’ to your exercise routine a daunting endeavor.
Sports injuries can be as challenging mentally as they are physically, says Diane Wiese-Bjornstal, Ph.D., associate director of the University of Minnesota School of Kinesiology. She studies the psychological side of kinesiology. “When an injury occurs, it causes an immediate change in our day-to-day routine,” she explains, “not only disrupting our exercise habits, but adding a sense of disarray to our lives.”
What makes injuries particularly difficult is that they are unexpected, so they catch you unprepared: They’re one of those things in life you simply can’t anticipate. When exercise is taken away from us unexpectedly, the impact can be significant.
But there’s good news: We have the opportunity to come back both physically and mentally stronger after an injury if we’re open to working on our mental fitness as much as our physical fitness during rehabilitation.
Whether you’re a college swimmer, a recreational basketball player or a yoga enthusiast, an injury certainly has the potential to impact your psychological well-being. And when professional athletes suffer an injury, the impact can be profound: It’s their job to stay physically healthy, and their sense of identity and self-esteem is often wrapped up in their sport.
Minnesota Vikings Head Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman has helped numerous professional athletes get back to playing after an injury. It’s his job to make sure his athletes get back into the game as soon and as safely as possible, often sending them back onto the field in tip-top shape after an injury that would have the average person sidelined for many more months.
When we asked Eric why pro athletes are able to bounce back so rapidly, he is quick to point out that their bodies are built differently than ours, and their tremendous level of physical fitness truly sets them apart. But, he adds, “professional athletes also have available to them every state-of-the-art treatment method that’s out there, and access to endless hours of treatment every single day of the week.”
Even with these additional resources at their fingertips, Eric says that a player’s state of mind is a huge factor in his or her ability to get back into the game. “Many professional athletes bring to their recovery what they bring to their sport – a positive attitude and mental toughness,” he explains.
We all have the power to influence our bodies. There's a clear connection between the way your brain thinks and the way your body feels. Research suggests that maintaining a positive attitude and using mental skills can be connected to a shorter rehabilitation period.
Dr. Wiese-Bjornstal agrees that the mind-body connection is profound. “Changing the way you think about your injury can help change the way you feel about it, which ultimately changes what you do about it. All of this can significantly affect your health outcomes.”
One of the mental skills we can put to work while we’re injured is imagery.
“Early on when you’re injured, you can use pain management imagery or healing imagery, where you envision your body repairing itself or getting stronger,” says Dr. Wiese-Bjornstal. “If you’ve injured your back, envision it as a suspension bridge or an image that makes you to see your back as strong and repaired.”
When you’re moving out of the acute injury phase, then Dr. Wiese-Bjornstal suggests using your skill-based imagery. By mentally picturing yourself practicing yoga or playing basketball, you can still benefit from a skills perspective, she says, “so you don’t feel like you’re entirely losing your skill set while your injury has you sidelined.”
Eric says when it comes to physically getting through an injury, the same rules he implements for his professional athletes apply to the rest of us. His short list of requirements? A balanced exercise program, proper nutrition, time for rest and recovery and a focus on preventing future injuries.
“You need to first make sure you’re healthy enough to exercise again and that your body is able to perform proper physical activity,” he says. “It’s imperative that we put the time in to our physical rehabilitation, follow our doctors’ and physical therapists’ orders and trust their expertise. Once your doctor has confirmed that you’re capable physically to exercise, then prevention becomes the focus.”
Two keys to preventing another injury, says Eric, include making sure you stretch properly and focusing on a balanced exercise program. That means working antagonistic muscle groups, or opposing pairs of muscles – like biceps and triceps or quads and hamstrings – to help maintain muscle balance.
Proper nutrition is a top focus for Eric and his players. He believes our bodies are working most efficiently when we practice proper nutrition and also when we get enough rest and take time to recover.
“You have to make rehabilitation a part of your regimen,” says Eric. “You have to book the physical therapy appointment and stick to the appointment. It’s so easy to think of some excuse or reason not to exercise or not to go to therapy. But you’re not going to get better that way. And always stay positive – it’s a powerful thing.”
Putting the time in when it comes to focusing on both our mental and physical fitness during our injury recovery can have an unexpected payoff: The new skills we develop during our rehabilitation will continue to help us post-injury as well.
“Use your injury as an opportunity to establish a new and better normal,” says Dr. Wiese-Bjornstal. “You’ve been dealt an unexpected challenge. You can either view this challenge as a barrier, or you can see it as something that can take you to the next level – where you come back stronger and better because of the injury.”