Trying to make it through the season and don’t want to stop despite an injury?

Procrastination comes easily to humans, I think. We have to try to overcome our desire to procrastinate. No one wants to take the time necessary to heal. We tend to tell ourselves that delaying the gratification of doing what we love is “not an option” no matter the cost. The costs of delaying healing always appear so far away into the future. But when we are confronted with the costs at that later date, we stand in surprise wondering, “How did this happen?! Why is my pain so bad? Why can’t I still run, swim, etc. (insert your favorite verb here)?”

The answer is that we cope:  we make due and compensate to “just get through” until that future time when we will have all the time in the world to heal (sarcasm intended). Sometimes we do have to cope, though, and just get by until we reach that future date. (I intend to let you know what happens while you are coping and when you should definitely stop and get help.)

Coping is compensating (as I explained in Why We Don’t Heal On Our Own). If you have a thorn in your foot, you are going to limp until you get that thorn out; you compensate so you can still walk/run. You are able to do this because the controlling center of your body, your brain, is telling your body, “It’s ok to deal with the pain a little longer because you do NOT have time to stop! The bear chasing us won’t wait for you to take out a thorn! Just go!”

So compensating and coping are great in the short term because they enable us to get through situations that demand function regardless of pain or limitations. The problem comes as athletes try not to get through just one performance, but an entire season– through every, single performance. Instead of recovering from an injury, they continue to “play on it”–tape it, shoot it up, numb it, take pain killers…anything to let them continue to perform without stopping mid-season.

The truth and bad news:  there is no way around it. When you are injured, you move differently. You have to in order to get by, the same way someone with a thorn in their foot has an altered walking pattern. The muscles in your body are making automatic changes. You don’t control this; it just happens. The longer it goes on, the more it develops into a habit. Just like athletes practice to develop positive habits and perfect performance, the longer you perform injured, you are creating bad habits.

Not only are you developing improper habits, you are putting demands on different tissues as well. These stresses are not efficient and not optimal for performance. Over time, they create new injuries from improper wear and tear.

Alright already, so how long is too long? When do you need to stop coping with an injury and get help? Use this rule of thumb:  cope solely to get away from a bear/lion (insert most feared predator here), and once you get away, stop coping and fix the problem. Coping is a short term mechanism for a single performance, not a long term solution. You can either get help and fix it, or if you want to put it off even longer you can accept the fact that you will just have to stop doing the activity until it is fixed.

In simpler terms, you roll your ankle while out running. Right after you get home you start treating it and get help. When it is better, you go back to running. If you don’t want to fix it, stop running until you do.

This council is often not well received, but stop and think about it. All that time you spend working on your running form and maintaining your health while still running on that ankle (because you can “tough it out”), you are just injuring your knees, hips, and back (everything is connected) and ingraining bad habits. Not to mention that you are doing continual harm to that ankle. Generalize this situation to any injury.

Also, the longer you wait to address an injury, the more likely it will develop into a chronic issue.  The more you put off fixing it, the longer it will take to fix, and the harder it will be. It pays to take care of it sooner rather than later in the long term.  It’s like making the choice between forfeiting part of your season up front (maybe a couple of weeks or so) compared to being out an entire season next year because you waited so long to make it right.

A physical therapist can assess the issue and teach you what is necessary to improve it. A physical therapist can also give you a prognosis on what you might expect for your healing time or if you need to follow up with a doctor due to the severity of the injury.