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Learnings from a lifetime of injuries

A personal chronicle of injuries

To say that I have a history with injuries is to put it simply. I’ve had an ACC claimable injury almost every year since 2007 (and I certainly recall many prior to this, although digital records do not date back so far). According to my ACC records, my worst years were 2008 and 2014, where I had no less than four separate claimable injuries each year. I’ve had all manner of different injuries up and down my body, including broken bones, ligament tears, and tendon damage, with most injuries originating from sports. Sometimes though, I was just an idiot. Here’s the description of an injury that I acquired in 2008 as a foolhardy and fun-seeking 18-year-old, as taken verbatim from the ACC claim: “Sitting on bonnet of slowly moving vehicle and slipped forward when driver applied brakes somehow jamming foot briefly between bumper and ground. Foot painful since.” Who didn’t do a bit of car surfing in their youth?

As I write this, I am working my way through not one, but two wrist injuries – one on each side to maintain balance. The first injury, to my right wrist, originated from Swim4TheGulf, beginning as a sprain and transforming into chronic tendinopathy. As I swam the distance from Great Barrier Island to Auckland in heavy seas and strong winds, I could tell that something was not right with my right wrist. In fairness, most parts of my body were in some level of pain during the latter stages of that swim. I fought through that pain, in knowledge of the likely consequence. Nine months later, I am continuing to deal with the after-effects of that decision.

Sprained wrist in a brace

One of no less than six wrist braces that I now claim ownership over

About a month ago, I was in the gym, doing bodyweight strengthening exercises that I would consider to be very routine and innocuous. Later that evening, it was clear something wasn’t right. What I thought was a case of simple muscle tension leading to pain in my left wrist was later diagnosed as a mild sprain. Just as I was at the tail-end of dealing with one wrist injury, another struck. This was an all too familiar situation, reminiscent of 2014 when a case of patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) in my right knee, gained while training for a marathon, evolved into multiple injuries across both legs over the years that followed.

While physical pain is an obvious side effect of an injury, I have personally found the psychological toll to be far greater than any physical discomfort. Swimming is one of the core expressions of who I am. It has also been, traditionally, an outlet to work through any mental malaise that I am battling. There is nothing quite like the meditative state that hours of lap swimming allows to work through the problems of the world. And so, I feel caged by my injuries; forced away from my love of swimming, and all that this activity brings me, through necessity. The last nine months have been a psychological unwinding of sorts as I battle with the friction brought on through this situation.

But this time in dealing with injury has also given me an opportunity to reflect and, as with any untoward situation, extract the learnings. These are the two key learnings that I have taken away from this time.

Key takeaways from being injured

The first key learning has been the framework of Accept, Adapt, Act. This is not my framework, so I won’t claim to have developed it. However, it has been enormously helpful for me in dealing with my current injury and others.

The first step is to Accept. This has traditionally been my weakest area. I will often battle through an injury for weeks or months on end, hoping that my body will come right through some force of magic. As I age, I find I bounce back slower from injury than I may have in my early twenties. And so, I need to be much more deliberate in my recovery. Accepting that you have an injury is a necessary first step to starting the recovery journey. The sooner that you accept an injury, the sooner that you can also commence healing while the injury is acute, shortening the overall recovery period.

The next step in this framework is to Adapt. If you have an injury, you may not be able to do the activity that would have otherwise been your first choice. Or even your second or third choice. But there’s often something that you can do. While I haven’t been able to swim, I have been able to run and do low-impact machine based cross-training, using the stationary bike, air bike, stair climber and rowing erg to my advantage. These activities aren’t my first choice by any means, but they allow me to continue to move my body, which is critical for my mental and physical health.

The final step is to Act. Come up with a plan that will allow you to maintain your level of fitness through cross-training. Develop a strategy with a health professional that will allow you to recover from your injury. Once you have a plan, execute it. There really is no substitute for action.

This leads on to the second key learning that dealing with injuries has taught me, which is the power of patient and consistent action. It has become clear to me that my mind is stronger than my body. I’m grateful that I have the mental strength that I do, but it can be my undoing at times. I want to push myself, and often this means over-reaching beyond my physical capability. This has become particularly obvious during my injury recovery. During the initial stages, I would often go through a cycle of what my physiotherapist termed “boom and bust”. My wrist would feel good enough that it was worth testing. But every time I tested it, I pushed it too far and ended up doing more harm than good.

After enough of these “boom and bust” phases, I decided to actually listen to my physiotherapist and take the far more boring but effective route of small, consistent steps every single day. It is not sexy, but it works. After months of patient and consistent application, I could feel my wrist getting better. And so, this is a double-edged learning: Avoid the trappings of the “boom and bust” cycle and lean in to a patient and constant approach. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve with consistent effort over a sustained period of time.

Final thoughts

Injuries are really no fun, and they have been a much dearer friend to me than I would have hoped over the last nine or so months. It’s been tough, and there’s no dancing around that. As if I were an outside observer, I have seen my psychological state shift due to the restrictions that have been forced as a result of my physical ailments. But, as with many difficult situations in life, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And in applying the framework of Accept, Adapt, Act and taking patient and consistent action day after day, week after week, that light will come sooner than you think.


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