Fitness Friday: How NOT to Exercise When You’re Injured

Last month, Abel James, aka the Fat-Burning Man, wrote a really great blog post about using an injury to your fitness advantage. After hurting his shoulder doing Krav Maga, he was faced with the difficult decision: do I give into my psychological fear of getting fat/desire to continue with my planned fitness program and risk more injury, or do I find ways to work around the injury and either correct other imbalances or give myself permission to rest?

That post resonated with me then (given my struggle with chronic pain in my bum right ankle), but I think it’s even more poignant now, post-getting-hit-by-a-car.


My cast goes well with my maxi dress, no?

As an exercise addict, the past two years have been incredibly difficult for me. Being forced off of my feet due to my disability (called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome) was, in many ways, worse mentally than it was physically. Besides the fact that my right leg atrophied and is, a year after surgery, still appreciably smaller than my left leg, my fitness levels have dropped significantly and I’ve lost not only muscle tone but strength. Where I could once do ten pull ups from a dead hang, I can now barely do a dead hang. And this has really screwed with my psyche.

To go from being strong to being weak, to feel unable to use my body the way I once could, is absolutely excruciating. And it’s not as simple as just going back to the gym once I’m healed. Because chronic pain doesn’t heal, and years of imbalances are not just corrected once the doctor says you’re good to walk again.

For the last several weeks, I had decided to go back to yoga and also to incorporate some (very) basic MovNat training into my routine. The goal was to start to regain my lost strength by correcting my imbalances. Three weeks ago, I did my first correct, full squat in two years.


Doing my first squat in two years with Fithab’s MovNat workshop in Palo Alto

And then I was hit by a car.*

And now, not only was my incremental progress stalled, but I’m going to be starting back at  square one with two bum ankles.**

This is not only horribly depressing, but also just horrifying to the Exercise Addict in my brain. That facet of ED is terrified of getting fat. That facet of ED is ashamed of being weak. And even though I’ve been able to manage my relationship with the Exercise Addict (EA, for short) while dealing with acceptance of my chronic pain (because I can still use that ankle to do yoga and go on long walks, etc.), these last two weeks have been excruciating.

With a broken leg, I’m not doing squats any time soon. With broken/bruised ribs, I’m not even doing a dead hang. It hurts to move, and my doctor’s only prescription (because I refused to take any pain meds) was to rest.

So the question is, how do I move past this ingrained mindset of disorder? How do I drown out the voice of the EA in my head whose fear and shame seem deafening as my  body sinks into its newly made imprint on the couch?

pain is a sign that something needs to be changed


 I think there are a couple of strategies that we can employ in such situations–because injury happens. Pain isn’t always avoidable. So here goes:

First, you have to assess what you can comfortably, safely do. Are you able to modify an exercise? Sit on a bench and flex the beach muscles? Can you swim or do yoga? If you absolutely must exercise, modify modify modify–and seek help from a trainer, physical therapist, or coach who can make sure that you’re not compensating and creating further imbalances.

Next, ask yourself why you want to work out. Is it because it makes you feel good, or because you feel like you have something to prove. Is it because you have a sustainable, progressive fitness program or is it  the voice of EA/ED whispering Fitspo lies in your ear? Is it a reward or is it a punishment? Be as honest with yourself as you can.

Then, you have to accept what you cannot do. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. You have to forgive yourself and rest. And rest assured knowing that you’re not going to “get fat” by letting your body recover. And if you do lose a little muscle tone or put on a pound or two, then maybe that’s what your body needs right now. Trust me: I’ve been sitting on my butt for the majority of two years. I’m not going to be a fitness model or do Olympic lifts any time soon, but I haven’t changed all that much. And when you rest, you give your body the chance to repair itself so you can come back stronger.

Finally, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for the negative thoughts, for the fear, for the times when you struggle against acceptance. Forgive yourself for the worry about your size, your fitness level, your speed, your strength. Forgive yourself for hating the injury, hating the pain, hating being forced to break your routine or your stride.



It gets better. You will get better. Even chronic pain can be managed and worked through. And fitness isn’t found on a Pinterest board or on the cover of Oxygen magazine. Fitness is “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a role or task.” And when you’re injured, your task is to heal.

Plain and simple.

How have you dealt with injuries? Have you ever worked out while injured? What are your strategies for coping with the inability to exercise? 

Stay hungry,


*Not while I was doing the squat. That happened a week later.

**Although I prefer to look at it this way: it’s a double negative and they cancel each other out. Two atrophied legs mean I can start at square one instead of trying to have one leg catch up to the other.

2 thoughts on “Fitness Friday: How NOT to Exercise When You’re Injured

  1. First of all, great post! I think we all need to take a step back and think about why we want to exercise every once in a while.
    So, how do I deal with injury? Not well, to tell you the truth, but I’m getting better. In the fall, I injured my knee after the cross country conference meet, and insisted on running in states despite stabbing pain. After states, I was miserable, knowing that I would not be allowed to run with my knee in such bad condition. I moped for a few days, then realized what an idiot I was being. Why should I be running, when I have swim season coming up? Encouraged by my genius solution, I started swimming to train for the season.
    Fast forward to this spring, during track season. Knee completely healed, I was having a great season. Then one day, I went for a trail run, fell, and split my knee open on a rock. When I got home and washed it off, my mom thought it looked really serious, and took me to get stitches. Between the stitches and the swelling from the fall, I couldn’t run for a week, at least. I was devastated, and again was pretty depressed for a few days. My coaches were great, though. They still included me in practices, and suggested I lift weights instead. This helped balance my body, and give my legs a rest from constant pounding. I still freak out when I’m injured, but I feel like I’ve gradually gotten better at coping.

  2. I feel your pain. I have done ballet for 25 years and suffered from exercise bulimia along with all my other manifestations of ED. I recently had to wear a foot cast for a month due to a stress fracture and the inability to exercise in the way I usually do irritated me. I lost muscle tone, gained cellulite and put on weight. Horrible for my self image, psyche and over all well being. I still did some modified yoga and floor exercises every day but it seems that they had little impact.

    Anyway, I am back at work and exercising now but I am currently wait listed for a foot surgeon and a knee surgeon to deal with the ongoing injuries I have that won’t heal. Having had foot surgery once and having experienced muscle atrophy, I am not keen to go down that route again. I wish you well in your recovery and perhaps you can find modified activities to keep your spirits (and muscle tone) up. Also, sometimes rest is not such a bad thing for bodies that have been abused for so long. Hugs and happiness.

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