How to Deal with Injury as a High-Performance Athlete

Guest Post by Noam Argov

I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve been a serious athlete since I was 5. A gymnast from a family of gymnasts, I was practicing 6 days a week for 5 hours a day at the peak of my ten-year practice. Gymnastics was everything: a lifestyle, friendships, self-worth and more. I didn’t know how to live without it, but then the unthinkable happened… I got injured and had to quit the very thing that encompassed my entire life. That experience taught me more about who I really was and how to keep moving my life forward.

Leaving gymnastics taught me how to transition my life when something out of my control forces a change. I’ve carried this lesson with me as injuries have caused me to take breaks from sports or quit them entirely. As a  high-performance athlete being injured can be psychologically debilitating. It can feel like your life is being taken away from you. For many athletes, our source of happiness and self-worth comes from the activities we do. We dedicate hundreds of hours to it, structure our lives around it and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on it.

When all of that is taken away due to injury, how do you deal? And I don’t mean “Do you do physical therapy or acupuncture or get a cortisone shot?” I mean “How do you mentally deal? How do you keep yourself sane when your goals and plans and dreams change, when you can’t do what makes you happy?”

I’ve found from quitting gymnastics the key is to be able to transition – To dig out the multitudes within yourself and access other elements of who you are and who you could be beyond that singular sport and lifestyle. These are my five ways of treating injury as a process, not a setback.

1. Keep Finding Other Sports to Do

These are a few of my favorite things

In college, after gymnastics, I picked up running and within a year completed my first half marathon, a 200-mile relay race and a triathlon. Then I badly injured my IT band on a backpacking trip. So, I put running and backpacking on pause and picked up climbing. What started out as a half-hearted attempt to stay active (read: sane) while rehabbing my leg, grew into a deep love affair with a new sport that now takes up most of my time.

Climbing not only allowed me to rest my IT band, but also built my endurance so within a year I was back into running. I even eventually worked my way up to trail ultramarathons. But then I was doomed to suffer another foot injury last December that put me out of the game for 6 months – this time it was tendonitis and some tendon tears in my foot. So, I returned to more serious climbing, leveling up more than ever before while pushing into leading and trad climbing.

In true form, I again went too hard and suffered a shoulder injury a few months ago, which left me with a messed up shoulder, messed up foot and a feeling of complete hopelessness. Clearly, I was overdoing it. So I decided to rest…and take up surfing! What can I say? I’m a glutton for movement. No new injuries to report as of late and now that my shoulder is healed and my foot is not far behind, I’m back to running, climbing AND surfing. This approach to injury by switching sports is a little crazy, I’ll admit, but it has served me well over the last few years. More deeply, these various sports taught me how to use my body in different ways which are just an amazing thing to learn about yourself. The magic of cross training!

2. Take a real vacation

Summiting a peak in China in peak monsoon season…minutes before realizing I wrecked my IT band – Yellow Mountains (Huangshan), Anhui Province.

While the above strategy served me well for a while. As you can tell, I was still consistently getting injured because I wasn’t letting my body just rest. If you’re like me you find it hard to sit still and your definition of “vacation” is getting rained on while backpacking in Alaska, hanging off of a rock face in Yosemite, or navigating your way through the back alleys of Kathmandu. However, there’s a very large portion of the population that defines vacation very differently: Lounging on a beach, sitting outside a cafe and people watching, or exploring restaurants and art galleries in a new city.

Picking dinner with some locals in the village of Shaxi (Yunnan Province, China)

When I got my IT band injury in 2015 I was in the middle of a trip in China that I had planned entirely around mountaineering and backpacking. While I spent a good day sulking in my hostel, I rallied and changed my trip’s focus to experiencing Chinese culture, food, religion, and village life in its various forms – which let’s be honest, should have been a focal point in the first place.

Bailing on the mountains for some lounging in Dali (Yunnan Province, China)

Giving myself the space to change my plans made me realize how much I was missing by focusing only on the athletic sides of my personality. I was mistaking the trees for the forest by traveling to all of these incredible places for their natural wonders but not taking the time to engage with their people. Plus, if you can swing it, resting on a beach and eating great food is not a bad way to spend time.

3. Pick up a non-athletic hobby (GASP I know)

Me, my shattered foot and an emergency room

I am about to say something controversial: Life isn’t just your sport or what you can do with your body. We also have really amazing brains and souls. I once shattered my foot and then got a weird bacterial infection in it that left me bedridden for a month (strange, I know). It’s a long story…but being bedridden meant options 1 and 2 above were unavailable.

Trying to channel Frida

The solution? I remembered that once upon a time I had these lovely passions for reading, drawing and photography that were totally malnourished from years of athletic ambitions. Frida Kahlo (link) after all learned how to paint after suffering a horrible injury in a bus accident. I’m no Frida but being bedridden did help me rediscover my artistic side and helped me finish a bunch of classic novels I was putting off for years. Oh ya, and I made it through the entire first season of West World in a day. Win.

4. Learn to move on

Hey it’s me just owning my awesome

Most injuries are not forever. Most of them heal and you’ll be able to do your passion again. But sometimes our bodies have had enough and our sport isn’t available to us anymore. My good friend used to be an incredible climber until she tore her hip. After two surgeries it was clear she would never climb again. While to many of us (myself now included) this sounds like death, she’s alive and happy and well. She’s still the most badass skier I know and now also an amazing yogi.

More importantly, though, she is obviously still a brilliantly creative human and all around amazing friend. Even if your sport feels like your whole being, I promise you are so much more than what takes up your time at any given moment. Here’s the key: something that takes up a lot of your time does not determine your self-worth. I’d say the same thing to a friend who got fired from work or broken up with by their partner. Who knows what avenues of your talents are unexplored because you put so much time into one thing?

5. Remember to stop and smell the roses

Every time I’m injured I say to myself, “Damn I wish I had appreciated how good I felt when I wasn’t injured.” Now whenever my body is moving well and especially at the hardest moments of whatever I’m doing, I think to myself, “Damn I am so lucky to have a body that can do this.” Even if it hurts, even if it’s scary, even if I’m miserable and I’m tired and it’s raining on me in Alaska, I feel so incredibly beautiful in my body and I am so privileged to be able to test it in all the ways it can move.

So what’s the bottom line for all of this? Being injured always opens new doors for me, but that’s because I train myself to take that perspective. Our bodies are super resilient and most injuries heal. The mental game is the one we need to strengthen.