Injury & Healing: A Mental Approach

In 2014, at just over 200 miles into our southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, injury ensued. And not in some badass way that I can turn into a riveting story either. The knot I tied for one end of my hammock was loose and the toggle slipped out. The result? I landed straight on my tailbone. Oops! Crippled over in immediate pain, I knew it was bad. I could not fathom the thought of dropping off trail — it was not an option to me. So we took 5 days off in Gorham, NH where I laid motionless for the first 2 days, slowly walked around the 3rd day, slowly walked around with an empty pack on the 4th day, and repeated with a half-full pack the 5th day. It didn’t help that we were just getting into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, arguably one of the toughest sections of the AT.

You can see the crushed vertebra outlined in pencil.

You can see the crushed vertebra outlined in pencil. Yowza!

I went on to complete the remaining 2,000-some-odd miles of the AT with what I later found out to be an irreversible compression fracture to one of my vertebrae. And that wasn’t my only injury on the trail, as I was plagued by a few insistent overuse injuries (tendonitis in my ankles; pulled glute and groin muscles). This was my first long hike, and it didn’t help that we barely walked for the several months prior to starting as we were completing a transcontinental bicycle tour across the States (a physically tough feat, sure, but a different set of muscles than hiking!).

The journey to recovery has not been easy, but I have learned a lot about mental grit and determination as well as physical healing and prevention. I’ll mention a few techniques that have helped me not only through injuries, but through life in general. And yes, they’re mostly mental skills. When dealing with some injuries, I quickly learned that all of the Ibuprofen, sports tape, and limping in the world isn’t always enough.

Some people seem to be impervious to injuries (ahem, David). It is important to not compare yourself to these superhuman folks, because the last thing you want is to feel pity for li’l’ ol’ you. You are strong, capable, and you will reach your goal, dammit! Which brings me to my first point: The way you talk to yourself is one of the most important factors to healing. That little voice inside your head that may feel like a child –scared, uncertain, weak, angry– definitely has a say, but shouldn’t be the leader of your thoughts. Even if you have to ‘fake it till you make it,’ make sure your internal and external speech is positive and confident. This kind of speech has the power to heal on a deeper, cellular level if you let it.

A lot of tissues, cells, and even a few organs in the human body are capable of regeneration to varying extents. There’s much research about this topic, but for the sake of this post, it is not my intent to discuss the science behind it all; instead, let’s use the notion of regeneration as a subject for healing injuries. Any one can do this. On the trail, I found that the best times were first thing in the morning before I got out of bed, and last thing at night before I went to sleep. Close your eyes and focus only on your breath, allowing each inhale to fully expand your diaphragm and each exhale to empty it. This focus on breathing fully in and out becomes the baseline for meditation. Now let’s go back to the trail. Every morning and every evening, I would start with a basic meditation to sharpen my focus. From there, I would visualize the injured cells in my body being replaced by normal, healthy ones; each inhale would bring an influx of strong cells and each exhale would slough away the wounded ones. Another visualization is to see yourself successfully completing your goal. Imagine it vividly! If you’re having a hard time seeing that far into the future, then imagine yourself reaching the goal you have set for the present day; do this every day, at any time of the day! Meditating on a mantra or a quote, deeply and calmly repeating it with each inhale, is another way to convince your mind and body that you wilsucceed. Get creative with it and always remember, as George Lucas said: “Your focus determines your reality.”

It’s not always easy to visualize and meditate while you’re physically hiking, bicycling, or what ever, so I utilized another mental technique during these times. When you’re in pain, focus on a part of your body that feels great instead of giving attention to your discomfort. This takes constant reaffirmation to do, but it gets easier the more you shift your focal point. Along those same lines, move the spotlight off of the injury-itself and onto the muscles supporting it; see how those supporting muscles are allowing the injury space to heal. Though it may not seem like much, sometimes all it takes is a little push in the right direction to get through what feels like a never-ending moment of pain. On the other hand, don’t overdo it by paying too much attention to yourself. Look around, step outside of your mind, help someone else, take photos, live!

Ouch, my IT Band hurts! But wait. What's this? My love and I on the Sierra High Route, ensconced by mountains? Yes, please!

Ouch, my IT Band hurts! But wait. What’s this? Me and my love, on the Sierra High Route, ensconced by mountains?! Yes, please!

There is much to be said about both of these things, and I highly recommend reading about self-massage as well as dynamic and static stretching. I will mention though that I find massage to be particularly effective before any sort of activity and before stretching. In this way, stiffness is reduced and movement is increased which allows for more effective stretches. There are some great warm ups you can do for your body using tai chi to increase the energy flow to a particular area, as well. And when you have a partner, your self-massage transforms into something much more amazing. Thank you, David, for the heaps of massages you’ve given my ailing injuries!

This goes for the mental and the physical. That is, don’t let your mind get too far ahead of itself, because incessant projections into the future can be a grand source of dismay and doubt. Be here, now, and focus only on thriving in the present day. As for the physical, take it slow. Decrease your miles, be gentle with your body so it doesn’t hurt more, and don’t try to keep up with others. That’s it, really. Just slow your roll!

Some things you can prevent; others, not so much. Insofar as overuse injuries, ‘too much too soon’  as well as repetitive movements are the driving force, so take it slow and allow your body time to transition to the sport. Also, cross-training can help reduce the stress of repetitive motions and gain balance in your body; e.g., if you’re training for a thru-hike, then throw in a few days each week of bicycling or swimming to off-set any overused muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints and allow the underused ones a chance to become strong and supportive. (Even if you’re already injured, you can use cross-training to actively recover!) Yoga is definitely my favorite way to create strength and balance in my body and my mind, as well as increase my flexibility–a key to injury prevention. And as always, lighten your load. Minimizing your gear and carrying less weight decreases the force your body has the absorb.

Post-injury, my back has regained flexibility!

Post-injury, my back has regained flexibility!

Regarding the myriad of other ways to help yourself through an injury, I don’t intend to mention it all. Though an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen or Naproxen Sodium is helpful, as well as learning specific tape-wrapping techniques, and perhaps even using a topical application like magnesium oil or arnica cream. These things can all be read about further to your heart’s desire, but it all comes down to this: “Where the mind goes, the body follows.”

Happy healing!





6 thoughts on “Injury & Healing: A Mental Approach

  1. Pingback: We’re not dead! | unbound routes

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