The Paradox of Pushing Yourself Slowly

Rehab after an injury is no one’s idea of fun. When I got injured, some people outside of my team said how nice it would be to have time off, to not have to work so hard, and to just “sit around and watch Netflix.” While this was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do, it also turned out to be a wholly inaccurate picture of life during recovery. Taking a back seat and slowing down when I was used to pushing myself all the time felt strangely jolting, rather than the smooth, somewhat boring ride some people had told me to anticipate. I was scared of getting out of shape, shifting my routine, and losing my drive to be better. These were aspects of myself as an athlete I didn’t want to lose, but as I soon discovered, what I wanted wasn’t always what my body needed.

The first day I went to my trainer after surgery, my one exercise was simply to flex my quad. I tried and when I looked down, nothing happened. This very odd disconnect between my mind and my body happened everyday after that, and still happens today. While the exercise itself wasn’t hard, it was challenging to wrap my head around what I could and couldn’t do physically. To cope with this, my focus had to shift from the end goal to the process. Successfully doing the exercise wasn’t what mattered, what was important was that I was telling my muscles to move every day and attempting to train them back to normal again. That’s the weird thing about recovery as an athlete: pushing yourself doesn’t mean the same thing it used to.

Maybe a month or so after surgery, my new exercise of the day was to squat against the wall with an exercise ball in between my back and the wall. I immediately threw my guard up and told my trainer I didn’t think I could do it. My entire lower body would shake after walking half a block and five half squats felt like enough of a workout for one day. She told me she thought I could and encouraged me to try. I reluctantly made my attempt, slid down against the wall, and slammed on the ground almost immediately. I’m not going to tell you that it was my attitude that prevented me from doing the squat like many inspirational sports stories do; my leg just wasn’t ready yet. Though I was so upset at the exercise, my trainer, and the injury itself, I realized (much later) that moments like this were where the struggle in recovery comes in. It wasn’t hard because I had to do it over and over again until it was perfect, like I would to improve as a healthy athlete. It was hard because I only got to do it once, and then sit with the fact that I couldn’t try again until the next week.

I missed almost an entire year of my sport. I wasn’t able to have the same summer as all of my friends. I started to dream about going on runs a couple weeks into my injury. But now, a year and a half later, I don’t wish that it hadn’t happened. Not that I will an ACL tear or any other injury on someone else (or myself, knock on wood), but I know I learned so much in the process. I love running maybe three, four, five times as much as I did before even though I can’t go as far as I used to. I have started to go on super long walks just because I can, and being kind and listening to my body feels so good.

If you are facing a surgery or a long stretch of recovery ahead, know it’s going to be pretty awful. It’s not as fun to watch Netflix all day as some people may say, but every step of the process is a testament to why we play sports. As competitive athletes we’re not just here to have a good time – we’re here push ourselves, to see how good we can be. I believe it’s that tension, whether felt in the last 10 meters of sprints or slow motion rehab exercises, that makes us better.

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About the Author

Jules Wheaton

Jules studies art history and government at Dartmouth and is interested in learning more about how people communicate and regulate society. As a member of the women’s rugby team, she’s spent her time on the pitch as well as on the sideline – both of which have taught her so much about herself and the game.