Jesse Thomas’ eight steps to dealing with being sidelined by injury.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Bend, Ore., 75 degrees and perfectly sunny. But instead of being three hours into an epic bike ride with some training buddies, I’m alone at my kitchen table writing this column. Why, you ask? Well, my season is over. Cue the Sad Trombone.
Two weeks ago, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture that required surgery. So instead of racing Rev3 Quassy, then Vineman 70.3, then 70.3 worlds, I’m out for the rest of summer.
To make it perfectly clear how much this sucks, here’s a list of collateral damage:
My “A” goal, 70.3 world champs, gone.
No riding or running for 6–12 weeks. No swimming for a while too, but that doesn’t exactly break my heart.
No exercise = no endorphin release = depressed Jesse.
No hanging out with riding friend Matt Lieto.
No bonuses or prize money.
I’m getting fat.
Before you call the wambulance and turn the page, let me explain why I feel the need to share. All of us, regardless of level, get injured. It is the quintessential athlete experience. So as much as it sucks, I’m going to use this opportunity to remind you all (and myself) how you (and I) should deal with this stuff when it inevitably happens.
Jesse’s 8-Step Process for Dealing with an Injury
The first thing you should do is cry. As I’ve done so eloquently above, acknowledge all the ways it sucks, and then cry about it. Because it does suck and it should make you sad. Yes, you can stay positive, find silver linings (see No. 5), but you have to be real and let your mind process the reality in order to move on. I cried three hours after winning Wildflower because I knew my foot was jacked. Then I cried on the trainer (am I the only one who semi-regularly cries on the trainer?) 12 days later when I was riding in my boot and it finally sunk in that I was done for a while. That doesn’t mean I didn’t keep a positive attitude about it in the bigger picture—I did. But I also let myself feel the emotion that I needed to feel.
2. Release the guilt
No matter what your level, experience and plan, this stuff happens. Athletes get injured. It’s part of the process. So don’t beat yourself up about what woulda coulda shoulda been if you’d just skipped that last repeat, etc. Like any time you hit a big setback in your job, relationships, school, whatever, it doesn’t mean you failed. It means you experienced a new step in the learning process. So acknowledge the lessons that need to be learned for next time, and then move on.
3. Forget the plan
One of the hardest parts of dealing with injury is “loss” of expected experiences and accomplishments—all of those things I listed that I won’t be able to do now that I’m injured. But while it feels like I “lose” those things, they never actually existed in the first place. They were future expectations and hoped-for experiences in my head, not in reality. It may sound a little metaphysical, but your reality is always now, and it’s the only thing you should be concerned with. My sports psychologist, Dr. Mitchell Greene, told me, “What you resist, persists, and what you let be will let you be.” Once you let go, you can actually move on.
If someone tells me to “relax,” I get mad and do the opposite of relaxing. So instead, my wife, Lauren, tells me to “wewax,” which makes me laugh and actually relax. “Hey. You. Wewax!” When dealing with a major change in your plan, it’s important to give yourself a psychological break before moving on. Depending on the injury and prognosis, that could be 1–2 days or 1–2 weeks. If you skip this step, you risk burning out in your comeback when it’s harder or longer than you anticipated.
5. Find the silver lining
We all sacrifice a lot to compete in this crazy sport, so go back to some of those things. In this instance, Lauren and I were expecting our first baby, so I jumped into full prep mode in a way I wouldn’t have been able to had I still been competing. Your injury might let you dive back into family, go to the Saturday brunch you always missed, or see what all the big fuss is about “Game of Thrones.”
6. Make a new plan
Once you’ve wewaxed, you can make a new plan to get yourself back up and going. But please, for the love of God, BE PATIENT. The No. 1 mistake we all make is trying to come back too fast. “I really wish I’d have rushed my injury recovery a little more,” said no one, ever. According to the Journal of Jesse’s Brain (JOJB), 50 percent of injuries lead to other injuries because people try to come back too fast (50 percent margin of error). The JOJB also recommends that you add an extra 25 percent to your expected recovery time because the JOJB has never seen a recovery from an injury in the initially expected time. Don’t get frustrated by “falling behind” every step of the way; give yourself more time than you think you need to keep yourself sane and ensure a full recovery.
7. Do what you can, but heal first
Yes, it’s important to exercise in ways that you can. It makes you happier and maintains fitness. So put a water sock on over your cast, use the Vasa Trainer, ride with a boot on or take your Rollerfoot out on the trail. But whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the top priority—healing. Make double sure that whatever you’re doing to stay in shape doesn’t affect the injured area or stress your body so much that it slows the general healing process. Keep it light, and 100 percent pain-free. Remember, you can’t race fast if you can’t race.
8. Remind yourself that you’re still an athlete
The hardest part of being injured is the loss of endorphin release from a workout. This daily “lift” keeps me motivated, makes me a better husband, a better Picky Bars boss, a healthier eater—I’m the best version of myself.
So when I don’t get that lift, it’s really hard not to get depressed and let all those things suffer. While I haven’t discovered a direct substitute for endorphins, I have found that I can stay mostly psychologically engaged and motivated if I remember I’m still an athlete. That means I approach my recovery in the same way I would my training. I replace training time with a “recovery session.” That could be extra sleep, icing, massage, rehab or wewaxing. While it certainly doesn’t give you the same lift endorphins do, it creates a sense of accomplishment and forward progression, which helps me be the best version of myself even when an injury makes me feel like I’m not.
So anyway, that’s how you (and I) should deal with this crap when it hits the fan. Like any plan, it’s impossible to do it all perfect all the time, so don’t hold yourself to that standard. But the closer we get to following these steps, the happier we’ll be during our recovery and the sooner we’ll be back out there again.
Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a three-time Wildflower Long Course champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com). Follow him on Twitter @Jessemthomas.
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