We recently sat down with Lara Michaels to talk about dealing with injuries. Lara has dealt with a number of injuries herself, and this is what she said to us about the healing and recovery process. Lara is a pole and flexibility instructor at Body & Pole. Join her for class at the studio, or follow her adventures via Instagram at @misslaranyc.
For a while I’ve been percolating on what it means to be injured as an aerial athlete or other type of extreme mover. As someone who has been injured, I have a lot of concerns regarding the approach to injury by aerial and extreme movement practitioners.
At the beginning of every pole or flexibility class I teach at Body & Pole, I ask if anyone in the room is injured. More often than not, there’s a usual assortment of shoulders, knees, hips, hamstrings, back, ribs, and wrists. Injuries suck. No one wants to be injured, but we need to look at how to safely address injuries as high-performance athletes. You think you’re not an athlete? Think again! Whether you take class a few times a week and work a desk job, or teach fitness every day and perform every night, you are putting unusual demands on your body when you choose to engage in any type of aerial activity, or extreme movement practice.
I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on television. The information I’m sharing here is not intended to help you diagnose yourself. It’s to give you some ideas of how to handle a suspected injury. I’ve accumulated these thoughts from personal experience and observation of others, NOT four years of medical school.
Step 1 – Admitting you have an injury
I’ll admit, this is the hardest step of all. Let’s use a non-aerial related analogy to make this relatable. Say you wakeup one morning with a cough. You slip a cough drop and go about your life. But 3 days later, you STILL have the cough. This time, you take some cough syrup, go to bed early and hope for the best. A week later, you STILL have the cough.
QUESTION: Why do you still have a cough?
ANSWER: You don’t know *WHY* you have a cough.
In our example, a cough is a symptom. It could be a symptom of allergies, a common cold, bronchitis, pneumonia, or incurable tuberculosis. By taking cough drops, you’re treating the symptoms. Not a bad idea for your immediate comfort, but in no way effective for actually treating the underlying cause. I get it. We’re all scared of the incurable tuberculosis diagnosis. But until you know WHAT your illness/injury is, you can’t possibly expect it to get better, and the longer you wait, the greater chance MORE damage is being done. Which brings us to…
Step 2 – Seek medical advice
And I don’t mean WebMD. I just gave you 5 different reasons why you could have a cough, from completely innocuous to pretty unpleasant. Do you really want to play that game with your body when it could have long-term consequences? Here’s the deal. See a doctor, preferably someone who understands what you do/how you probably injured yourself. Find out WHY you have pain, soreness, or weakness in that area of the body. Sometimes that means expensive tests, which can feel extremely difficult to justify. But if you pay for a class, you need to pay for the upkeep of your body. It’s like buying a car, and driving it every day, and then never changing the oil, checking the tire pressure or fluid levels, or changing the brake pads. Eventually, after enough time, your body/car will have a breakdown. If you catch it early, you have a better chance at repair. And with repair…
Step 3 – Do your time
So I finally convinced you to go see a doctor, and as feared, something is wrong. This is where the crushing reality that your body has failed you closes in, and you are plunged into a deep depression questioning your purpose in life if you can’t use your body the way you want any more.
I’m being overly dramatic, but that’s kind of how it feels. Generally, our bodies do an amazing job of supporting us in a pretty wide variety of activities. When we’re told that our bodies are injured, if feels like failure, and it can leave us asking “how could this happen to me?”
Is it from training incorrectly? Did I overuse something? Could this have been avoided? Will I ever recover my full abilities? Unfortunately, or fortunately, the answers to all these questions are yes AND no. Every person’s injury is unique, because we all have unique contributing factors. Your body dimensions, mobility, strength, weakness, and even your personality, will all be involved in your injury AND your recovery. These emotions can make you ripe for pushing your boundaries as you’re trying to heal. Your doctor likely will recommend rest. Do it. FOR REAL. Then comes recovery, usually via slow retraining of muscles. Do all those physical therapy exercises, FOR REAL.
Step 4 – Continue physical therapy
No really, I know you’re feeling better. It’s because you rested, your body is healing, and you’re retraining muscles. Now is not the time to mess it up. Keep doing what the doctor ordered. Use those Therabands!
Step 5 – Start to get back to what you love
That’s right! You’re finally cleared to go back to pole/silks/contortion/lyra/handstands after a few weeks, or even a few months. Reunited and it feels so good! Except your body feels different. Things are hard again, and ouch! That trick you used to do so effortlessly just made your injury feel not so good. Before the walls of fear and loss close in again… Breathe. This is your first class back after a break; things would feel harder even if you weren’t in recovery. And that move you used to do – should you still do it when it aggravates your injury?
Bad news: probably not right now.
Step 6 – Time heals all wounds (sort of)
You can’t know on day one of recovery where you will be on day 301 or 601 of recovery. I picked those numbers because that might be realistic for your injury. It may take a year or two to regain some of the ease in execution of CERTAIN moves. I say certain because your body may surprise you. Many things will return to you quickly and will not aggravate your injury. Other things will take much more time. Will there be movements you can never do again? Possibly. But I think that the process of recovery will give you a new perspective on training, which brings us to…
Step 7 – R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Respecting your body will mean a lot more to you post-injury than before. Post-injury is the time where you decide how to move forward in your chosen apparatus or movement method. This is where some personal perspectives come into play. I like to take the optimistic view that I will EVENTUALLY be able to do anything I want. It may not happen today, but ultimately with enough time, my body may be prepared to take on ANY flip or switch or bend or twist. If it doesn’t happen today, it’s OK. Depart from the mindset that this is the last class you’ll ever take- there’s always a tomorrow!
With this perspective I also find myself much more conservative with what I “train.” There are movements that I hold the experience and body awareness to perform regularly with almost negligible opportunity for injury. These are what I can safely train in frequent repetition. I know that for my body, the newest, craziest tricks, or even some higher impact tricks that are somewhat familiar to me, still need to be trained in moderation. I try to keep an open mind that even if something irks an injury, it doesn’t mean that it will be out of reach forever. I may just need more time to heal and understand how to support my body in that movement.
There isn’t one thing that causes injury. As I mentioned before, bodies are unique, and our imbalances and patterns of repetition will all contribute to how we perform movements. And the best part about an injury? You’re going to learn a LOT. I wish that we could learn all the things about our bodies free of injury, but sometimes it takes that wakeup call to address the factors that caused our injury.
I’m sitting writing this with an injured wrist, a healing split tear in my ECU tendon. I have a tear in the labrum of my right shoulder, and my SI joint feels slightly out of alignment, causing a muscle bulge in my left low back erectors, and tightness in my left hip flexor and left high hamstring.
I should also mention, I’m currently without any significant discomfort, and don’t “feel” much of any of the above. While it sounds like I’m a wreck, injuries are often like this- they sound a lot worse than they actually are. The longer I live with my injuries, the more aware I am of my body, the more patient I am, and ultimately the better I get at dealing with any issues that may arise in the future. I know that a year and a half later, my shoulder can perform reliably at 90% of the level that I was pre-injury. Could I push for 100%? Sure. But I don’t feel compelled to always go so hard all the time. I’m happy giving my body the space to thrive without fear of further injury. And this time I KNOW what to do if I unintentionally aggravate my old injuries.
I hope that you don’t have to deal with injury as an athlete, regardless of your level of practice. But if you do, please take the time to heal, and give your body the space to recover, so you can continue to lift, flip, bend, and spin for many classes to come!