The Reality of False Dawns: Injury Recovery Is Not a Linear Process

By Heidi Armstrong – August 1, 2013

When you were 20 and sprained your ankle, a bit of rest, ice, and ibuprofen usually did the trick. You were back up and going in short order. As you age, your body responds differently to injury, usually by healing at a seemingly glacial speed.

Did you think you’d be better by now? Did you believe you’d be back to racing weeks ago? Do you find yourself unwillingly strapped into the injury roller coaster?

See if this sounds familiar: You've had an injury and expect your body to heal quickly. You made three solid weeks of progress and decided to go for a run and end up hurting just as much as ever. The frustration returns—you’re pissed. Now you are recovering from the emotional whiplash of endless setbacks as well as your original injury.

You’re not alone.

Injury recovery is not a linear journey, as much as we all wish it was. It’s nothing like dropping your car off at the shop and picking it up when it’s fixed. It might have been that easy when you were 18, but your car has more miles on it now.

You know when you feel like you’ve almost reached the top of the recovery mountain? You’re so convinced you’ve healed enough that you sign up for your favorite race. Then a setback ambushes you. I call this experience a "false dawn." The recovery process seems to be a series of false dawns. Don’t worry—it’s totally normal. Frustrating, but normal.

What can you do to shore yourself up from the inevitable false dawns?

Understand that false dawns and setbacks are a normal part of injury

Some recoveries miraculously follow a linear progression; most do not. Most recoveries look more like a sine wave, with one important difference. Know that as time passes, your setbacks won’t be as precipitous a fall, and the frequency will decrease.

Keep two important things in mind when a setback creeps up out of nowhere

First, pretend you are holding a nail with one hand and a hammer with another. Now pretend you are going to hammer the nail into a piece of wood. Stop and notice your very first motion; your hand holding the hammer backs up so you can gain enough momentum to forcefully hit the nail. You might think a setback is backing up, but backing up in this context means your body needs time to recover before the next series of improvements. Listen to your body. Rest. You aren’t going back to square one.

Also take note:  When you’re headed down the roller coaster, you are still moving forward.

Rely on your creativity

In an earlier blog, I talked about the importance of creativity as an alternative coping strategy. Dedicate time every day to giving your mind a sweaty workout. In the middle of a setback you’ll be glad you did. Focusing your energy on creativity will keep you from obsessing over setbacks and making them worse. Meeting a false dawn with your creativity toolbox will help you regroup and move forward.

Beware the trap. When things are heading in the right direction, you’ll be tempted to let your daily creative practice slide. You may even wish it good riddance. Remember, just like you train for your sport, you need to train for setbacks. You wouldn’t suffer embarrassment by showing up for a race without training; don’t thrash and flail through injury recovery because you didn’t maintain your alternative coping strategies.

Sleep and more sleep

Pretend you are out to win a gold medal in the sleeping Olympics. Sleep, and, if necessary, ask for help with daily life so you can sleep more. To rebuild and recover from a setback you need sleep—a lot of sleep. Sleep more than you normally would. Ask your friends to help with things like meals or errands. If you spread your requests out among several friends, you won’t burden anyone too much.

Finding your physical edge and meeting it with grace will avert some setbacks; others will bushwhack you seemingly out of nowhere. A setback feels like getting annihilated by a massive wave. Once gone, you’ll discern that the wave served a vital purpose—revealing layers of strength and resilience you never realized. Don’t fight setbacks. Grab your surf board and go for a ride, understanding it’ll be a bumpy, unpredictable sea. Work with setbacks, not against them. After all, setbacks lead to breakthroughs, both physical and mental.


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