The sport of competitive bodybuilding is growing and, let’s face it; athletes are getting bigger, better, faster, and stronger. They are training harder and longer which can lead to a greater risk of injury. For many athletes, time spent injured can be pretty stressful. Take it from me, I’m one of them. Just over a year and a half ago, I was lying in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to repair an epigastric hernia. I tore through my abdominal wall. I can assure you at the time, the burning questions in the back of my brain were, “when can I get back to the gym” and “when will I be able to compete again”?
STAYING POSITIVE WITH AN INJURY
Consider the situation at hand. Athletes are committed, determined, and passionate. An athlete’s sport can dictate much of their life and play a huge role in their personal identity. It should come as no surprise there is documented and specific emotional response to injury. It can be pretty traumatic as if you’ve lost a significant part of yourself. Injury means stopping abruptly those activities that are a part of your everyday life along with people and places too. Losing those things can prompt a sense of loss or even cause you to question your identity (Klenk, 2006).
Avoid the downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions and focus on healing and getting better. Continually ask yourself what things you can do now to help you recover?
SEEING IS BELIEVING & BELIEVING MEANS HEALING
The practice of mental imagery or visualization is not new; though it’s gaining popularity among elite athletes across the globe (Clarey, 2014).
Did you know the United States brought nine sports psychologists to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi? That’s nine mental health doctors to accompany 93 athletes. Why? Arguably for the most vital piece of the athlete’s training regimen – visualization.
VISUALIZING TO HEAL FROM AN INJURY
Visualization offers a virtual training environment that you can control. It involves recreating the experience of training or competing by using visual imagery within the mind. What does this mean for an injured athlete? It can improve self-confidence and provide a more positive outlook on the current situation.
If you’re a competitive bodybuilder, visualization is likely something already in your current routine. After all, the mind/muscle connection is a form of visualization. It wasn’t until I fully understood and developed this concept myself that I experienced greater growth and more intensity in my training.
HOW DOES IT WORK
For example. I had 4-6 weeks post-surgery before I could perform any push or pull movements. During that time, I took to mentally rehearsing my training and posing. If you’re a competitor, visualization in posing is also critical. You really have to feel a pose. Memorize and understand how it feels because take the mirror away and you’re naked, practically speaking. You can’t see the pose you have to feel it. I used visualization to fine-tune my posing. Where were my shoulders in comparison to my waist; and what about my hand placement and so on.
Believe it or not, the 6 weeks of visualization helped me pull in the reins on my posing. I have a much better stage presence because of this practice.
During your visualization, mimic the appropriate conditions and style of sport in your mind without exaggerating. Look at it this way… why would you visualize yourself on Venice Beach if your gym is in a garage in Milwaukee, WI…in the middle of winter?
USE THE DOWN-TIME WISELY
If you aren’t incorporating visualization into your training routine, you’re not doing everything you can to achieve your athletic goals. Using your recovery time to practice and fine-tune will not only spare you mental anguish and distract you from not being in the gym; it’ll also help you hone in on your craft. The mind is a muscle you cannot afford to ignore.
Check out Emily Cook’s visualization practice leading into her training for the 2014 Winter Olympics:
ADJUSTING YOUR TIMELINE & GOALS WITH AN INJURY
While recovering from an injury, there will be things or events you’re going to have to put off. Rather than get down on yourself for missing a competition or event, focus on new goal setting and target a new timeline.
Work towards tangible goals such as returning to training in two months or whatever your timeline is. Assess your physical progress every week and set micro-goals along your timeline from simple things such as raising your arms to put your hair in a ponytail (I’m serious), to carrying your own groceries.
“Goal setting in general gives the injured athlete commitment and direction in recovery, which assists and promotes motivation to get back into sport.”
According to Goldberg (2013)
STAYING FOCUSED ON THE THINGS YOU CAN DO
Furthermore, a lot of us turn to physical activity to cope with stress. So when you lose the ability to “blow off steam”, where do you turn? Focus your energy on those things you enjoy outside the gym. I can guarantee that if you don’t already have one or more, you will find new hobbies quickly. Be it spending time with friends or family, cooking, writing, volunteering (if you can), reading, walking outdoors (again, if you can); something new – and no doubt awesome – will come from your time off.
Read and research.
Brush up on your fitness acumen or learn a new program. I studied Jim Stoppani’s “Shortcut to Size” and helped a friend implement it. It was rewarding learning something new and helping someone at the same time.
Extends the practice of visualization and meditate to use the mind to heal the body. Meditation is ultimately a form of focus. Focus on your breath, focus on a new skill set, focus on a calm setting to help center your mind; but ultimately, focus your mind on your healing.
Journaling can help you digest your current situation. By writing things down, it’s almost as if you’re logging it and filing it away – it can serve as a means of purging the experience or any negative feelings that might creep up on you, but also help you keep tabs on your recovery.
Talk about it.
Avoid becoming complacent or going stir-crazy by including your family, close friends and others you know that share a similar experience.
Your support system is critical. Assemble it early and reach out often because you’re going to need them for motivation and self-esteem.
An NCAA study showed that, “…[athletes] reported the need for strong social support from family, friends, trainers, coaches, and teammates…” and that “talking to other athletes who had successfully recovered from their injuries helped keep them positive throughout recovery” (Klenk, 2006).
REST & SAVE THE BEST FOR LAST
Take advantage of your time off and truly rest. You can look at it as a blessing in disguise, but the rest you’ll get while recovering will allow you to return feeling rejuvenated – like a new person!
Also, when you think about time off from work – your day job, per se – double it. Yes, you’re going to recover quicker than the average person, but trust me; not as quick as you think. My surgery was on a Wednesday, and my surgeon looked at me like I was nuts when I said I was considering coming back to work that week. He quickly advised me against it…and he was right. As athletes, we tend to have this outlook like nothing can get us down. Believe me, injury CAN and will. You’re best off to accept it now and move along vs fighting it.
In short, focus on what you CAN do and not what your limitations are. Visualize your routine; build mental strength. Assemble your support system and don’t apologize to your mom or your best friend when you call them 5 times a day, and finally indulge yourself in rest. Follow these steps and you will come back more than ready for the gym or whatever lies ahead.
About the author
Christine is a Women’s Physique Competitor of 6 years. She lives in Colorado and works in the Orthopedics Department at UCHealth.
Christine is an avid “14er” summiting the peaks of the Southern Rocky Mountain Front Range in her spare time. A strong advocate for women’s health, she is also a personal trainer with a special interest in pediatric and women’s fitness, nutrition, and bodybuilding.
Christine loves participating in the success of others and does everything she can to help them smash their goals!
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Clarey, C. (2014). Olympians use Imagery as Mental Training. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html?_r=0
Goldberg, A. (2013). The Mental Side of Athletic Injuries: A Coach’s and Athlete’s Guide to Psychologically Rebounding from Injury. Retrieved from: https://www.competitivedge.com/rebounding-injuries-0
Klenk, Courtney A. (2006). Psychological Response to Injury, Recovery, and Social Support: A Survey of Athletes at an NCAA Division I University. Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/srhonorsprog/9
Taylor, J. (2012) Sports Imagery: Athletes’ Most Powerful Mental Tool. Are you using mental imagery to maximize your sports performances? Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201211/sport-imagery-athletes-most-powerful-mental-tool
Vealey, R., & Greenleaf, C. (2010). Seeing is believing: Understanding and using imagery in sports. In J. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., 267-304), New York: McGraw-Hill.