Injury Volume 3: Listen to your body

This post is Part 3 of a three-part series on coping with injury.  Whether you’re in top physical condition or sidelined with injury it’s always important to listen to your body.

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My friend Steph Allen is a determined woman who pushes herself to the limit.  Last year, her determination in the pursuit of a personal record at the American Taekwondo Association World Championship, resulted in a serious injury that left her unable to compete for over a year.  During this time, she learned to listen to her body and appreciate stillness until she could return to her sport.

What was the nature of your injury?

I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and experienced a slight meniscus tear at the American Taekwondo Association World Championship. I was competing in combat sparring, I went for a jump/headstrike (it’s worth 4 points), as I landed I heard an audible pop! I knew immediately that it was ACL related, so much so that I scheduled an appointment with my orthopedic specialist the next morning.  (Note: After lying on the ground, trying not to cry because I knew my competition season was over, I got up and finished the match, adrenaline anyone?)

Normal-ACL

How did your injury impact your typical fitness or exercise routine?

I tore the ACL on July 13, 2014 and had reconstruction on August 12th.  The recovery process was traumatic.  I found myself having a complete identity crisis.  I didn’t know who I was without physical activity. I was extremely dedicated to practicing taekwondo, not to mention that I am obsessed with cardio. As a result of ACL surgery I wasn’t allowed any physical activity for 8 weeks.  My muscles in the repaired leg completely atrophied in a period of less than two weeks.  When you have ACL surgery, the quad muscles don’t “talk” to the rest of the leg.

I had no “release” because exercise was my “release.” After my 8 week visit, my doctor allowed me to return to Bikram yoga.  I remember standing in the hot room and just crying because my muscles didn’t work like they once did.  Thankfully, it’s so hot in Bikram that no one notices that you’re crying because sweat is running down your face.   I considered myself an active, physical, energetic person.  ACL surgery was like a death of all the things that I previously believed defined me.

bikram

How long did it take for you to make a full recovery?

It’s been approximately 18 months and I still have not made a full recovery.  My ACL leg is still distinguishably different from my old leg.  ACL reconstruction is a process.  It is imperative that you not compare yourself to professional athletes who experience the same injuries. NFL players often tear their ACL’s and are back full force within 6 months.  This is not feasible for everyday people, largely because no one pays me to workout, no one does deep tissue massages to ensure blood flow, etc.

Were you able to work around the injury by changing up your fitness routine or did you just have to wait it out until you fully recovered?

I was allowed to do Bikram after 8 weeks, but cardio was still out of the question.  I was allowed to straight line jog after 4 months, but was encouraged not to do lateral movements or pivot until almost a year later.  After six months, I received my bionic knee, i.e. my donjoy brace.  It allows me to do more and have more faith in my knee, but because I received my brace so late, I learned to compensate with the other knee. I still don’t fully trust the repaired knee.  The compensation with my left knee has created imbalances and further aggravated my torn anterior hip labrum. I returned to cardio (my favorite is the arc trainer) after the fourth month, but my legs weren’t what they used to be.

Did you learn any lessons or experience any personal growth as a result of having to cope with your injury?

I experienced tons of personal growth and found one of my favorite quotes, “All events are lessons that God would have us learn.”  From my traumatic event, I learned balance.  Prior to ACL reconstruction it was nothing for me to obsessively practice hours on end, doing the same kick over and over and over. Despite it looking perfect to others I would find something wrong with it and keep going.

ACL surgery was a blessing — it brought me closer to my Creator because I had to depend on Him to see me through some very dark times during which I was trying to figure out who I was without taekwondo.  Ironically, the day prior to my tear, I complained to my dad about being tired and he encouraged me not to compete and to take a season off.  But I was disappointed in world’s top ten result, only earning 2nd place in weapons and 2nd place in form among 2nd-3rd degree female black belts age 30-39.  I wanted 1st.  I wanted the title of “World Champion.”  I should have listened to my daddy!  I also should’ve listened to my body.

I have learned to listen to my body. I have learned to be kinder.  I try not to push through injuries. I try to understand the difference between “pain is weakness leaving the body” and pain is just pain that is going to leave you more prone to injury as opposed to making you stronger. That was probably the first time I heard God say “Be Still.”  I ignored it then and, in retrospect, I continued to ignore even after surgery.  Looking back on journal entries during this trying process, I found myself writing “stillness”.

ACL surgery forced me to be still.  But perhaps most importantly, I learned patience.