By Sarah Loheide
As hard as we try to prove otherwise, athletes are not perfect. We break bones, we tear muscles, we ignore health issues until they get worse and we can't do anything... And while we may think that the four to six weeks we spend recovering are bad, the real challenge is trying to come back after all that time off. The obvious difficulty in returning to a sport you've been away from (due to an injury or anything else) is the weakness you feel physically. At this point in my swim season- approaching all my championship meets- I can jump in the water and swim in a way that feels completely effortless. But after a break... Everything feels off. My stroke is disconnected and what seemed easy a month ago is suddenly impossible. Unfortunately, all of this happens without the added effects of an injury. Lots of athletes make the mistake of associating the lack of ease caused by time off with their injury, and make the even worse mistake of assuming it can't be fixed. That's where the physical aspect of an injury combines with the mental aspect. So many people view an injury only from the physical perspective. How soon can they be physically back to where they were beforehand? Unfortunately, there are more struggles that occur mentally between getting an injury and reaching that physical ability again. It's tough to avoid getting the feeling that you'll never be "that good" again, which is why lots of athletes find themselves tempted to give up after a few weeks back. To avoid this, I think one of the most important things to do is go slowly. Even with big races looming in the distance, it will always be better to increase training gradually so you can ease back without getting discouraged. At the same time, don't let yourself fall into the trap of never improving again. If you can set goals for yourself over a period of time (complete a 2 hour workout by now, run this amount of distance by today, etc.) you'll have a harder time convincing yourself that the modified way is the only one you can handle anymore. Injuries don't mean you can no longer improve. In fact, you probably have the most room for improvement. As obvious as it sounds, one of the most important parts of recovering from an injury is remembering that you're recovering from an injury. If you train in a group, you have to recognize that it's okay to be a little behind everyone, and motivate yourself to work harder to catch up. Coming back from having mono, I was so discouraged by the difference between my teammates and myself that I had a hard time seeing the point in showing up to practice. But little by little, I closed the gap between us and got back to where I was before I got sick. Whether or not you've experienced it yet, injuries are a part of being an athlete. But instead of letting them permanently pull you back from your full potential, look at them as an opportunity for a break, to rework technique, and to motivate you to make improvements in your sport. So while I don't recommend seeking them out (or faking them like so many of us did as kids), injuries don't have to be the downfalls of your athletic career.