Recovering From An Injury – Part 2: The Mental Aspects

When you become injured there are stages of emotion just like any major issue in life: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Unless the injury is obvious: broken bone, concussion, etc., our brain wants to “ignore” the fact that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Whether this mind set is due to “we don’t want to be considered weak and injury prone” or ”if I ignore it, it will go away”, either way, we as humans fight the idea that we are injured and we have to pull back in our training and become more creative to get your workouts in.

Once we acknowledge and accept the fact that we are hurt, anger inevitably sneaks in. No one clearly understands the sacrifice of time, energy and resources you have invested in your current level of speed, endurance and strength. You feel that all these performance elements will quickly slip through your fingers and your fitness levels will regress back to where you were a year ago. The anger and frustration levels escalate to completely new levels when the source of your injury isn’t truly your fault: car accident, dirty move by one of your competitors, equipment failure, etc…

We begin to bargain with ourselves that instead of training eight hours a week, we will pull back to six hours and this will be enough for us to heal while minimizing our fitness loses. Many times, we will continue with the same sport specific activities, but rationalize our behavior by “going slower”.

One of the huge benefits of consistent training is the hormonal release of endorphins commonly referred to as the “athlete high”. When your body doesn’t get to experience the releasing of these feel good moments on a regular basis, the mental capacity to deal with relationships, professional obligations, financial situations, etc., becomes less resilient and even intolerant. Little issues that used to roll off your back now set you off in a verbal tantrum adding to the frustrations of not being able to exercise and sport specific train like you used to.

Once you recognize that ignoring your injury won’t help heal the injury (chemically, mentally or physically) and staying angry isn’t going to solve your situation, it is time to move into a state of acceptance. Facing accountability for why the injury happened is one of the hardest things for an athlete to do. Over my last 35 years of coaching, I have found that the catalyst of injuries typically falls into three categories:

1. Working in a mode of fear. Instead of working in a mode of fear, successful individuals work in a mode of pleasure. They are motivated by enjoyment of success and look at each decision as a building block to moving them closer to the desirable outcome verses looking at decision and behavior as a punishment for poor choices. Pro-active example: If I go to bed early, I will get more sleep and wake up leaner and fully recovered. Mode of fear example: If I don’t go to bed early, I will get fat. Ironically, the brain much prefers pleasure over pain. However, our society has glamorized the “no pain, no gain” mindset that has literally hurt us.

2. Not listening to the body. The human body is an incredible machine and has a multitude of ways to let you know when something is not correct. It is our responsibility to look for, recognize and respect when things do feel right. This is where there is a slight overlap with number one above, working in a mode of fear.

In the exercise realm, I refer to using exercise for punishment because of the bad food choices that were made. Individuals that work in a mode of pleasure take the time to understand “why” they are drawn towards bad food choices. For example, if someone is craving simple sugar, it is a sign of adrenal fatigue that needs to be offset with high quality fats, not simple sugars as the brains wants to tell you.

When a sign of an ailment begins to reveal itself (virus: an elevated heart rate; muscle strain: hurts to walk; bone situation: pain throbs at night while sleeping; stress: becoming more intolerant and even short tempered or get physically weaker with more effort, etc.), if you are working in a mode of fear, you will take the necessary steps to turn the situation around immediately because you are motivated by the enjoyment of success. You recognize that if you acknowledge and respect the messages your body is giving you, you may miss a day or two from training to address the situation (virus: sleep and avoid simple sugars; muscle strain: foam roll or get a massage; bone situation: let it rest; stress: avoid negative people) but it will get you back onto the path of health, wellness and associated performance in a shorter period of time. It will also reduce the amount of residual damage that is done.

The accumulation of residual damage (not sleeping enough, not getting massage or foam rolling, not eating fruits and vegetables, etc.) creates a hole that can take a long time to dig out of. For example, when it comes to adrenal fatigue, I get asked frequently “how long will it take to turn my symptoms around?”. The answer is two-fold. First, how long have you been ignoring the body’s indicators – we need to determine the depth of the hole you have dug yourself into. Second, how committed are you to proactively addressing each element necessary to recovery: food, sleep, soft tissue maintenance, balancing volume and intensity of training, managing the overall levels of stress you are placing on your body – professionally, personally, athletically, etc.

3. Following uneducated trainers and self-serving agendas. When someone presents themselves to our office, we always strive to uncover the source of the injury. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is associated with some so-called expert or coach that has recommended some ridiculous training program that has no justification behind the volume, intensity or exercises. Thanks to the proliferation of online coaches and weekend certification courses, everyone has become an expert and as a result, has led to epidemic levels of injury and burnout.

The most imperative question to ask is any program or trainer is “Why am I doing this workout and how does it contribute to eliminating my biggest frustrations that are keeping me from achieving my fullest potential”. Anything that you are doing that doesn’t move you towards YOUR personal achievement goals, puts you on the path of your program or trainer’s agenda.

This agenda doesn’t have any regards to your health, wellness and ultimately performance, it is simply an agenda. We have picked up clients that are on a collegiate athletic scholarship and the injuries that they are presenting are nothing more than too much, too hard, too often and the athletes are told “if you don’t want to do what we tell you, we will replace you with someone who will” – no matter what the physical sacrifice.

Every minute of every day needs to be spent moving you closer and closer to your desirable goals in a healthy and sustainable manner. You should know why you are training a specific number of hours and what percentage of them are going to be aerobic and anaerobic. The volume and overall intensity need to be in line with the amount of stress your body can absorb in the area of physical activity. Contrary to what many are saying, you can’t handle more than 100% of anything. If you are extremely busy at work and it is commandeering more and more of your hours in a day, where are you going to pull those hours from: personal, athletic, sleep, eating, etc.?

Life is all about balance, and if you over-extend yourself, you will find something will start to break down. Unfortunately, it usually is your body – mentally and/or physically!

In the next article, we will do a deep dive on nutrition’s role as it relates to an injury.

Establishing Goals and Objectives

What is a Goal?

Goals are those achievements (personal or athletically) that you find personally important and incredibly satisfying. In the world of psychology, it is frequently mentioned that a goal should produce a sensation that you want to experience over and over. Goals should literally excite you because they are the things that allow you to achieve your highest level of true potential – frequently referred to as self actualization.

As you are establishing your goals, you may feel that committing to significant goals requires taking big risks and you are correct! Individuals that reach their full potential, by their nature, are educated risk takers and are aware of the fact that following a sequence of accomplishments makes the goal a reality within a specific period of time. Ironically, accomplished individuals understand the inherent risk of failure associated with not having a definitive plan which motivates them even more to establish specific goals, objectives and timelines. In a research report published by the International Journal of Sports Psychology, “the clearer and detailed the goal, the greater the individual’s tolerance of fatigue and distractions”.

When you establish you 3, 6 and 12-month goals, you will notice that the number of goals decreases as the duration increases. The reason for this is to eliminate spreading your efforts too thin which will only increase your frustration and failure to obtain your goals. Remember, you want to dedicate your time, energy and resources to tasks that will yield the highest level of your personal improvement and achievement.

What is the Difference Between a Goal & an Objective?

Objectives are the individual tasks that you need to complete to make your goals a reality. In order to be successful, your objectives need to be outlined in a sequential order that builds upon the previous objective. There are two things to keep in mind when you are establishing your objectives. First, establish objectives that are measureable and quantifiable. The goal is to strip the emotions associated with accomplishment. If a client tells me that he or she wants to get faster, there is no way to measure “fast”. However, if you tell me that you have a specific elapsed time for a specific distance, we can retest after six weeks of consistent training to see if your elapsed time has improved. If it has, you know that your nutrition and training is developing positive results. However, if the elapsed time isn’t faster, then you know that something specific has to be adjusted in you nutrition and training protocols. There is no emotion associated with setting objectives – you are either getting fitter and faster or you are not. Second, you don’t have to fill out every objective in the provided outline. You will notice in my example below, goal number three doesn’t have all five objectives filled in. The key is to establish objectives that effective in helping you achieve the goal. The focus needs to be on Working Smart, Not Hard!

There are five easy steps to setting goals and objectives:

Data Dump – Stop and review your biggest frustrations over the last six months. Write all of them down. Don’t organize or rationalize, just get them written down. Note: give yourself a week to finish this first step.

Organize – Take all of your frustrations that you have written down and rank them based on which frustration will provide you the greatest return on the effort that you put in. For example, if you are 25 pounds overweight (specific to your sport or activity level), losing this unwanted weight will immediately improve your strength and endurance. Be careful not to choose task that you would “prefer” to focus on, but rather stay focused on where you can get the biggest return on your investment of time, energy and resources.

Establish Timelines – Establish realistic time lines to accomplish each goal. Using the above example of losing 25 pounds for optimum health and performance, you would want to put the total goal of 25 pounds over the next six months (four pounds a month, one pound a week is realistic). If you were to put this 25-pound goal under the three-month timeline, you are simply setting yourself up for failure.

Prepare for Success – It is imperative that you plan for your success. We say with all of our clients that your success can not be accidental. Success and performance is created by establishing definitive goals and then breaking them down into incremental steps (known as objectives) with each step building on the previous. The key to maximizing this step is to gather all of the resources (tools, equipment, etc.) necessary PRIOR to beginning your achievement journey. For example, if you plan on adding fruit smoothies to your increase your intake of vitamins and minerals, you will need a blender. Though this may sound odd, it is this simple hurdle that will keep you from adding smoothies to your program – you don’t have the necessary “tools”. The same thing happens with the desire to eat real, raw food, it is the lack of purchasing, cleaning, prepping and packing the food items that keeps you from taking them with you when you leave the house. If you don’t have your real food with you and you are hungry, you will pull into a drive through. Planning ahead is the key to accomplishing any and all goals that you have established.

Train with Focus – Before heading out the door to train or race, review your personal goals and objectives; remember that there is a reason why you are not good at something: you don’t like it! However, if you take your daily training protocols and run them through your objectives (what you have to do to make your goals a reality) filter, you will crystal clear focus and a completely new level of motivation. Ironically, when you want to improve on something, all it takes is a dedication to identify what it will take to improve, create the time to train correctly in your personal schedule, collect all of the resources necessary and dedicate all of your energy to making your goals a reality. Once you achieve your three month goals, you can now move onto your six month goals and then onto your 12-month goals. Repeat this process indefinitely with bigger goals and aspirations than you ever thought possible. Over the last 33 years I have seen this process produce results that are literally in the history books of various sports and human accomplishments.

Let’s get focused, organized and start working towards your true potential!

Mental Blueprint of Success

Creating A Championship Mentality

There is no secret that during training your efforts are 90% physical and 10% mental and on race day your results are 90% mental, 10% physical. Ironically, most racers are aware of this; however, in my 34 years of working with athletes, not one has ever presented themselves to my office with a mental program in place. As I frequently say, “Your success up to this point is completely accidental and your future success is not guaranteed”. The reason why I say this is because they don’t know what they did to achieve the success that they have enjoyed, nor do they understand why their performance results have begun to suffer. Let’s take a look at the science of fear and then create some strategies to get you to front of it and stay there.

The Science of Stress on the Brain

The part of your brain that governs your response to anxiety is call the amygdala, or your fear center. This segment of your brain reacts quickly to fear and threats. For example, if your brain perceives that you are going to be attacked by a bear, the amygdala relays a message to your adrenal system to release adrenaline and cortisol. Additionally, more blood and sugar is diverted to your muscles for oxygen and energy. Another by-product of stress is that your amygdala shuts down your immune and digestive systems so your body can focus on running from the bear (this is where your hierarchy of needs come into full swing!). When you stop and review how the body responds to stress, if harnessed properly this can be used to your full advantage on race day meaning more oxygen and sugar to the muscles.

The complex issue within the brain is that the amygdala can also influence another part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of decision making and reins in impulses and emotions, according to Dr. Michael Lardon, M.D. The negative long-term effects of consistent stress levels can result in the form of interrupted digestion (meaning less energy for racing), suppressed immune system (you become sick more frequently) and interrupted sleep patterns (delayed recovery after racing). Having less energy, consistently sick and delayed recovery quickly disrupts your motivation which ultimately leads to mental burnout and frustration.

Identifying and Dealing with Stress & Fear

To prevent stress from having a negative impact on your racing, you need to identify physical responses associated with stress and fear such as an elevated heart rate, upset stomach, irritability, short attention, etc. – and turn them into a positive context and not panic when you experience, them according to Greg Norman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. High levels of excitement indicate that you are fully engaged with racing and the associated challenges.

Using Stress & Fear to Create Great Racing Results

As you get ready to race, stop and think about the amount of time that you have invested into your racing –both sport specific and cross training wise. Think about the self sacrifices that you have endured (eating real, raw food verses junk food, going to bed early, etc.). These thoughts will literally put your brain into a positive environment and you will enjoy the challenges of racing because you know you are prepared and more importantly, you understand how you got there.

According to Norman, putting a positive spin on your racing related mental anguish results in better results at the end of the race. Research indicates that elevated stress hormones can improve performance in the short term or diminish performance (and overall health) in the long term. Which situation will be the result depends on whether you enjoy or dread the activity that is creating your mental stress. Racing in an environment that you enjoy will result in a more enjoyable experience; however, racing in an environment that you don’t enjoy will only lead to more negative thoughts, frustrations and poor race results.

So how do you make your stress hormones benefit your racing? According to Dr. Lardon, you need to strike a balance between your selected race, skill set, energy and focus. If you are doing races that are too easy based on your skill set and speed, you will become bored quickly and left with a feeling of being unfulfilled. However, if your selected races are far above your ability level, skill set and speed, you will become overwhelmed, frustrated and shift into a mode of pain and fear.

The key to preparing your brain for the “stress” of racing is to trigger your body to produce a hormone called dopamine, commonly referred to as a feel-good neurotransmitter that is released when the body experiences something new and/or risky, according to Steven Kotler, a neurobiologist of peak performance. Activating this stress-reward (stress – dopamine release cycle) neuro-chemical system in a positive manner is the key to achieving your full potential. Racing at a new venue, changing up your training efforts, wearing new race kits, or even training with different athletes can all contribute to a “new” experience and positive results.

Mental Tools to Stay Calm and Perform Optimally

Racing & Training with a Strategy: As I mentioned in a previous article What Motivates You – Joy of Victory or the Fear of Failure, the key is to follow what you have proven works in training. By focusing on your strategy of implementation, you override the fear of failure.

Visualization: By following the mental movie that you created from your training notes, you can create an exact strategy from start to finish to literally creating the success that you have worked so diligently to produce. Why would you be surprised to get on the podium when you aspire to be a top profession one day – it is all part of the process.

Environment: You would be surprised how many athletes have people around them on race day but have no idea the negative effect that person is having on the outcome of the race. The same applies to eating the wrong food, listening to the wrong (or old music), etc. All of the elements that create your race day environment either have a positive or negative impact on your results. Identify what works for you and then create that environment every day that you train and race.

Belly Breathing: Another name for belly breathing is diaphragm breathing. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward while the muscles in your chest contract to expand your rib cage. This increases the volume in your chest cavity and draws air into your lungs. Working your diaphragm to its fullest potential allows your lungs to expand to their greatest volume and fill your lungs with the greatest amount of oxygen to fuel you working muscles.

Many racers underuse their diaphragm relying too much on their chest muscles and therefore take in less oxygen. Teaching yourself to rely less on your chest muscles to breathe, and more on your diaphragm requires practice and attention to details. To start the process of learning how to breathe through your belly verses your chest, lay flat on your back and put one hand on your belly and one on your chest. As you inhale, strive to raise your belly button hand first then feel for the fresh air moving up and into your chest. Hold for two seconds and then exhale until you feel your chest completely deflated. Repeat 3-5 times and then relax and focus on your normal breathing except now engage your breathing through you belly and not your chest. Note: because there is a tendency to hyperventilate when you first attempt. Do not attempt this skill unless you are lying down.

As you become more familiar with this breathing technique while lying flat on your back, move to a sitting position and strive to fill up your belly before your chest. To make things a little more difficult, place a straw in your mouth and breathe exclusively in and out of the straw – you will feel the diaphragm doing its job.