I’m no stranger to surgery.
Whether you’re a competitive athlete or work out to stay in shape and prevent disease, injuries are a part of the game. Injury recovery is a skill which can be sharpened and improved, if you take the right approach.
I’ve had two major surgeries in the past four years, both of which had a huge impact on my life – including my training and nutrition.
This post details the different approaches I took, pre- and post-surgery, and the differences in my recovery, mental state of mind, and my body.
2012 – Shoulder Labrum Tear
Early in 2012, I tore the labrum in my left shoulder doing guillotine presses. This is a story of multiple injury recovery mistakes, which cumulatively led to me being out of the gym longer than necessary, gaining fat, and feeling my mood go down the toilet.
Mistake #1 – Not listening to my body.
I noticed a slight discomfort each time I did the lift, but chalked it up to the nuances of a new movement. This discomfort slowly turned to pain, and, one day in March, I felt a “pop” in the shoulder, felt a dull pain, and knew something was wrong.
There is a difference in feeling sore and feeling pain. The first time I felt discomfort, I should have stopped. Instead, I let my ego get the best of me. I kept adding weight until my shoulder broke under the pressure. Listen to your body.
Mistake #2 – Waiting too long to get care.
The discomfort started in January. The “pop” happened in March. I didn’t see a physician until May.
Part of it was denial. I knew I was hurt, but didn’t want to face reality. I knew I’d need surgery. I knew I’d be out of the gym for awhile. I knew I’d be in a cast during pool season. I avoided reality and lived in a fake world I created for myself, where my injury would magically heal itself.
When your body goes away from baseline, its time to take things out of your hands, and into those of a trained medical professional. Injury recovery is much easier when you trust it to a trained professional.
Mistake #3 – Letting nutrition go to shit post-surgery.
When we face a long period away from exercise, we have two options regarding nutrition. We can continue to eat food that is good for us – maybe even double down on good eating habits – or, we can say “fuck it”, throw inhibition to the wind, and unleash our inner glutton.
Unfortunately, I chose the latter.
I went out 3-4 nights a week (it was my last summer before pharmacy school – “why not enjoy your last go around?”, I told myself). I consistently hit up Tolly Ho and Qdoba at 4am. I ate Dairy Queen, by myself, for lunch on the reg.
This completely violated many of the nutrition principles I swear by. I couldn’t train, and I let my nutrition slide as well.
The End Result – Bad mood, bad attitude, bad body.
The cumulative effect of these key three mistakes was a negative impact on my body, and a negative impact on my mind.
My mood and attitude are easily affected by the image I hold of my physical self. My body is important to me, and it’s important to me that it looks good. The combination of 1) not working out and 2) eating like shit resulted in 3) me feeling like shit.
Let’s compare my 2012 experience with my most recent injury, and my improved approach to injury recovery.
2016 – Inguinal Hernia
Admittedly, this injury was much easier to notice – and much harder to ignore – than a labrum tear. A torn labrum hurts, but you can’t see it – an inguinal hernia stares you straight in the face. You see it every time you piss. You feel it every step you take.
Still, I had plenty of lessons to prove I had learned nothing.
#1 – I listened to my body.
This time, there were no denials. I knew something was up. I immediately ceased doing anything that aggravated my pain. I applied ice around the clock. I rested.
#2 – I did not delay seeking (and getting) care
An hour after noticing the lump in my groin, I was inside an urgent care facility. Two weeks later, I was in the surgeon’s office. 19 days after first noticing symptoms, I was going under the knife.
This didn’t just “happen”. You know the saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”? Unfortunately, the American health care system tends to work the same way (trust me, I work in it).
I called two urgent treatment clinics. I filled out numerous forms requesting an appointment with a surgeon. I did not exaggerate my condition, but I made sure they were aware of the physical pain, as well as the negative mental and emotional drain this had on my life. When I saw the surgeon, I kept pushing for the soonest available appointment. I assertively made it known I needed this fixed fast. The original plan was surgery four weeks after the appointment, but, the surgeon was able to find an opening 7 days away. I was warned I may get “bumped” off if other surgeries went over time, but it was a risk I was willing to take.
#3 – I doubled down on nutrition after surgery.
Surgery causes pain. A LOT of physical pain, and the mental pain that comes from being bedridden, unable to do, well, basically anything.
The last thing I wanted to do was make this pain worse. I knew I had to avoid my previous mistake of eating like shit.
Instead of using surgery as an excuse to go lax on nutrition, I got more focused. I paid attention to my body.
I stuck almost exclusively to lean meat (lower calorie content versus fattier cuts of beef), eggs, and vegetables. Since I wasn’t exercising, my caloric and carbohydrate needs were drastically reduced compared to normal. This disciplined approach to eating paid off in a big way.
The end result: I lost 10 pounds in four weeks without exercising.
There’s no way around it: surgery sucks. Being unable to exercise sucks. It’s easy to fall into the “why me?” mentality, to feel sorry for yourself. It’s easy to throw your hands up in the air, scream “FORGET IT!”, and stop taking care of yourself, because you’re so frustrated with a setback.
Trust me, I know. I’ve been there. And I’m writing today in hopes that I can help you avoid the mistakes I made.
Listen to your body. Get care as soon as you notice something is off. In the unfortunate case that you’ll be sidelined for a bit, use the opportunity to be more disciplined with your nutrition. You’ll recover faster, look better, and feel happier.