The energy in the room was electric as I stared down at the barbell surrounded by 20-or-so onlookers, a PR on my mind. But as soon as I got the weight overhead, I knew that my sixth round of overhead squat snatches would be my last. Persistent like an ex who “needs” their stuff back, the sharp pain in my lower back came on hard and fast. As the sweat dripped down my chest, I dropped the barbell and took a step back, upset.
It wasn’t the first time I’d tweaked my back in a CrossFit workout. A little over a year ago, I felt the same sensation. The sporadic pain that I was left with was localized, didn’t directly impact my day-to-day, and really only amped up if I did an activity that involved arching my back or intensely bracing my core. After getting a once-over by a sports medicine doctor, I was prescribed some high-strength anti-inflammatories which alleviated the issue completely in about a 30 days.
That month, though. That month felt like an eternity. To say that I’m super active is a wild understatement. Some days, it’s running to a WOD or a spin class (literally); hot yoga before the sun’s up and then a lifting session at night. Other days I’m tackling a mid-afternoon HIIT workout or a sporadic Saturday 10-miler. Still, despite my habit for two-a-days, I’m pretty good about mixing up my workouts and not totally beating up my body.
This time things were different. On the heels of last year’s injury success of sorts, I decided to give the whole self-medicating thing a whirl before going back to my doctor. As I anxiously hoped I would wakeup one morning without any pain, I proceeded to find ways to get in workouts that didn’t bother my back. For me, that meant most forms of upright fitness, as I’ve deemed them, were key. On the “good” list: spinning, running, leg workouts. On the “don’t even think about it” list: pressing more than 8-pound dumbbells overhead and activities that involved me heavily bracing my core. Pretty upsetting for a CrossFitter who craves the feeling of stringing 95-pound push-presses together. Like, Falcons-losing-the-2017-Super-Bowl-level, upset.
Still, as frustrating as the last several weeks have been, I’ve managed to learn some critical lessons along the way. I’d even dare to say my fitness routine has benefited from my back injury.
Despite a wonky back, I still have some traditions that I was too selfish to let go of. First and foremost: My Sunday 5-miles to hot power yoga. The thing about hot yoga is that it involves a lot of ow-worthy back arching. Upward Dog, Wheel, Dancer, you name it. (Not up on your yoga-cabulary? Check out the 10 Best Yoga Poses for Guys.) Stubborn as hell, I refused to skip the one weekly tradition I have that makes me feel like my week starts fresh. So, I modified it. Instead of hitting Upward Dog during my Vinyasa flow, I did the upward phase of a modified push-up, keeping my knees on the ground and maintaining a flat back. I made sure to stick to bridge instead of wheel. I found that with the right modifications, I was still working on essential strength without giving my backside the big ef you.
And that was just in yoga. Around week three, I was suckered into a workout at ToneHouse, known to be one of the most difficult studios in New York City. Inspired by functional athletic training (think high school football drills), every part of me knew this was the wrong call. Putting aside my pride, the first thing I did was walk across the dimly lit turf to chat up the instructor, letting her know my situation. I realized, as I stood there talking about my back, that this is what a good coach is supposed to do. A good coach should be able to offer modifications for any injury that turns up. Did I feel some kind of way about doing banded runs while the rest of the class hit an ab dolly? Yeah, I did. But owning up to my injury enabled me to still participate, and probably helped that coach learn a thing or two, too. Emily 1, Back injury 0.
Rest days were something I knew I needed to integrate more into my routine now that I was on the injured list. This was difficult, since taking a day off really just make me feel like one giant blob. Instead of allowing that subpar feeling to creep into my subconscious, I made sure to do something that would help rather than hinder the progress of my injury. Book a massage. Netflix and heating pad (it’s as cool as it sounds). Hit sore muscles with a lacrosse ball or a foam roller (this one, available on Amazon for less than $20 is a great option!).
Not exactly a 500-calorie torching workout situation, but still—essential. I’ve been a hardcore exercise enthusiast for the past four or so years, and to say that this back injury has taught me to embrace rest days instead of dread them is an understatement. Low on cash? You don’t have to spend money on your day off to treat yourself. Allow yourself an hour to read from a good book or permission to sleep in the extra hour. Soon, you’ll come to cherish the chance to breathe.
When you’re a journalist in the wellness space, workout invitations fly swiftly like Bud Lights at happy hour. As invites would hit my inbox, I became more conscious of not only what was worth my time, but also what was OK for my body. Prior to this stint, I’d just say yes to it all. Nothing going on Thursday? Sure, I’ll tackle a double and then run home. Oh, you’ve never tried SLT? I’ll be there with bells on. It felt like my obligation to go with every person to every workout they’d never tried, guiding them through the ins and outs.
But I learned, fast. After that ToneHouse workout, I knew things needed to change. The next conflicting opportunity, a Barry’s Bootcamp class on abs day. Instead of feeling guilty, I outright said “this isn’t a good call for me.” Instead of my sweat partner saying “you’re a total lush,” we picked a different class that wouldn’t compromise my back but still offer a solid calorie burn. Instead of feeling guilty, I felt proud. Proud enough to know my limits, and mature enough to stick to them.
All of this working out has made me one of those people who eats whatever they want, within reason. If I’m going to get up at 5:08 a.m. to hit power cleans by 6:30 a.m., then I’m going to skip over the guilt that could be associated with post-work margaritas.
A bummed back made me think twice about the margaritas, though. Without strength training the same, I became quickly aware that I’d need to monitor my eating habits if I didn’t want to lose all of my gains. Surprisingly, upping my protein intake and cutting down on sugar made me feel like my modified workout structure wasn’t ridding me of progress. In the mornings, I’d opt for a shake loaded with protein, greens, and BCAAs. In the afternoon, I’d snack on grilled veggies instead of frozen yogurt (most days). Instead of feeling soft, I feel stronger. And when my patience and diligence was rewarded with compliments from good friends? I started to feel grateful for being an active person in the first place, back injury or not.