Recovering from an injury sucks. But not listening to your body is even worse.
Let me back up here.
Eight months ago, I tweaked my elbow attempting ropes climbs in a CrossFit competition. At the time, I didn’t quite have the footwork down and ended up using my upper body and sheer thigh grip strength (yeah, it’s a thing) to somehow complete those five rope climbs. Not gonna lie – I was pretty pumped! I had overcome my fear of heights, finished those rope climbs, and took second place in the competition. But a few days later, I had this lingering elbow pain, which I attributed to the rope climbs. Well, it never went away. I stayed away from rope climbs and movements that might irritate my elbow, but otherwise it was business as usual, getting ready for another competition three weeks later. I had massages and was told to rest, but I resisted. Not competing wasn’t an option – it’s what I lived for. Thankfully, the pain subsided during the competition (or rather adrenaline took over), though I noticed my grip strength wasn’t there in my left arm during a deadlift-knees-to-elbow WOD. I pushed all of that behind me after I won my first CrossFit competition. Nothing could stop me now!
I did take it easy after the competition – my body needs more time to recover than most – and then focused most of November on starting the Hatch squat program. But I still did WODs here and there, and was convinced this elbow pain would eventually dissipate. Plus, I had been looking forward to starting an Olympic lifting class twice a week mid-December, and I wasn’t going to let a sore elbow stop me.
The evening of December 2, 2013 was cool and muggy, making the thick air resemble late spring rather than deep in the throes of a Wisconsin winter. So naturally, the WOD included running, along with weighted jumping squats and chest-to-bar pull-ups. I love when WODs include running. For some reason I feel fast, and am usually at the front of the pack. This was no different and I cruised along the first 400m and back in for the set of squats. Almost immediately, I could feel my foot protest in agony. Each squat, I let out a yelp, hoping this would help me to finish the set and mask the growing pain. I did strict chest-to-bar pull-ups using a band and concentrated on what I thought was good form, then flew out the door for the next run. My foot (which was injured over a year prior) felt particularly vulnerable in my New Balance Minimus’ that night and was not happy when I returned for the second set of squats. I can’t recall how many rounds I got or was supposed to get, but I was in pain. That was it, I said, I need to take time off from WODing. My elbow hadn’t even been the catalyst, though it certainly wasn’t feeling 100%, but I knew I needed to rest my arm too.
I continued on with Hatch, though, despite my foot taking quite some time to recover (I was later told that I had probably just severely bruised it, not re-fractured the bone), and I insisted on starting Olympic lifting. During the class, snatching felt fine, but it was the clean and jerk that bothered my elbow, particularly the jerk. While the pain seemed to be localized around my elbow, it also radiated up into my shoulder, under my armpit. I continued to get massages but was frustrated that no matter how much I “rested” or how many massages I received, my elbow didn’t seem to show any signs of improving.
Finally, after two months of pain, I went to see a physical therapist. After much prodding and poking, I received a diagnosis: tendinitis in the shoulder. My elbow hurt because I compensated for the weakness in my shoulder by using my biceps and forearms instead of my scapula. Yet, he didn’t tell me to rest. He told me to take it easy, not do anything that caused pain, and gave me a bunch of exercises. On I marched, determined to be okay to compete in a team competition in mid-February and be completely back in business by the 2014 CrossFit Open.
I snatched, cleaned (sometimes omitted the jerk if my elbow hurt), squat, and did a modified WOD here and there. At my weekly PT appointments, things would get better one week, but then even worse the next. This cycle continued for three months. I honestly felt like I was taking it easy. After awhile, I did no other upper body movements other than the Olympic lifts, and thought this would help. But the pain persisted, and the inflammation in my shoulder refused to subside, so much so that my PT threatened a cortisone shot twice. On the second threatening he told me finally to stop all upper body movements. No barbell work, no dumbbell work, no burpees (DANG.), no deadlifts, nothing. (And so then I proceeded to burn out on squats, but that’s for another day…)
For almost two months, I did nothing but squat, abs, and shoulder rehab. It was so hard to watch others lift, but I knew that after seven months of not seeing any improvement, it was time to completely heed my PT’s advice, or else (literally). In late May, I got the ‘OK’ to start using a dowel, to do banded pull-ups, and push-ups and finally on June 3, I was cleared for all movements!
Since then, I’ve worked from a dowel to a training bar, to a 35-pound bar, and finally to putting some weight on in the past two weeks. And it.feels.so.good. Any WODs that I do are very deliberate and slow, hyper-concentrating on form. I am more aware of my scapular positioning in all movements and continue to strengthen those tiny muscles that were neglected for too long. It has been a long and rough road to recovery, and there is still much to come, but damn, it feels good to lift again.
Moral of the story? Listen to your body. Seriously! Had I stopped and rested when I should have back in October, this process could have been much shorter. Eight months of pain?! Eight months of frustration, and eight months of worrying that I’ll never feel 100% again. I wasted a lot of time and strength resisting rest, and it’s going to be a few more months AT LEAST until I am at the level I was right before the injury happened. Let me tell you, I PR’d my squat a couple of times though. Balance, people! :)
I’m not afraid of rest days anymore. I’m not afraid of eating enough to let my body properly recover, and I take all the steps I can to ensure I can get restful sleep. These are just a few preventative things we can all do, but don’t start until it’s too late!
EDITED TO ADD:
As this post was written back in mid-June, a few things have happened since then of note. I have started the Hatch squat program again and I am working up to 4 WODs a week! I was a last-minute alternate at the BrewCity CrossFit in-house team competition last weekend, and my team ended up winning! (Recap to come!) That was just the boost of confidence I needed after feeling slow and out of shape in recent workouts. I still have a long way to go, but it feels so good to be back at it.