Adapt Workout Goals to Chronic Pain and Injury


There’s no way around it: chronic pain, whether due to an illness, persistent injury, or an acute incident, sucks.

If you’re an active or competitive person and you’ve ever been seriously injured or dealt with significant pain, you know that it can be devastating. If you’re a coach or a trainer, you know that keeping a client motivated and even compliant in this scenario is incredibly difficult, to put it mildly.

Why is it that a seemingly superficial issue, like an injury, can inspire such a potent grief response?

Humans, especially those being drawn to competitive or challenging physical activities, generally will have a why, which is our ultimate end goal, and the how, which is how we plan to get there, that motivates us in our training.

When we find the how that aligns with our goals and makes us feel productive, we often begin to identify with how it will conflate the ultimate end goal with our ways to achieve it.

If someone’s goal is to get stronger, and their way of achieving that goal is to adhere to a powerlifting program, it’s not uncommon for that person to identify as someone who deadlifts, benches, and squats, as opposed to identifying as a person generally wanting to be stronger.

Pain and injury are uniquely potent in their ability to keep us from those hows that form fundamental pieces of our identities.

If I identify as a powerlifter and I sustain a back injury that keeps me from deadlifting and squatting for an extended period, during that time of extreme limitation, it feels like a large part of me is gone. That feeling sucks.

When or if the issue becomes chronic, another set of challenges presents itself. Many times, we can salvage our motivation by relying on the idea that our pain or injury is only temporary.

When that stops being the case, we lose hope and can act in ways that are detrimental to our health, such as stopping physical activity altogether.

There is a typical mourning process that happens around injuries that I think is normal and sometimes unavoidable. Still, there are specific measures we can take as athletes and as coaches to circumvent some of the harmful effects of this process.

1. Develop a Symbiotic, Proactive Relationship With Pain

Develop a symbiotic yet proactive relationship with your pain or injury. Irrational behavior around the damage and the pain is often due to the mindset that the pain is an opponent or doesn’t belong.

When we sustain a severe injury or have chronic pain, our perception of that pain must change for us to maintain our mental well-being and to act in ways that support our end goals.

The first step is to consider the possibility that this limitation is not going to go away for a while. Some may call this idea radical acceptance; no matter where you were or where you want to be, accept where your body is now.

At the same time, take daily action to ensure you are doing something to address the pain. Work with a qualified practitioner on the proactive piece.

Bottom line: Accept your current circumstances, but take daily steps to do something to change them.

2. Think Objectively About Why and How

Think more objectively about your why, and subsequently find other hows. One of the exercises I do with my clients involves delving into the root of their primary goals (AKA, their why).

When we lose our preferred method, we must figure out different ways to get to the why. Sometimes the why isn’t as clear as it may seem.

For example, if someone says that their end goal is to do a pullup, their real goal might be:

  • To develop more upper body strength
  • To become more effective at a particular activity
  • To achieve something physically novel

Bottom line: Get to the root of your why. Then start thinking about alternative hows.

3. Develop and Hone Your Movement Toolbox

Develop and hone your movement toolbox. One of the most powerful realizations I see in clients is that when it comes to movement, there are always other options.

These options are dynamic and may change from day to day, and almost always will change as our bodies adjust and compensate for new circumstances.

However, over time we learn that if a specific tool (AKA a particular how) is not available to us, there is always another tool we can use.

In extreme circumstances like the case of a systemic flare-up or something similar, it may be that the tool isn’t physical, but it still helps move us closer to one of our actual end goals. This principle is what allows us to keep productive and to move despite our acute or chronic limitations.

Bottom line: Always have a plan B (and C) ready to go.

The Bottom Line of the Bottom Lines

While injury and pain can steal the spotlight and appear to keep us from our goals, if we change our perception, identify what we need, and get a little creative with our solutions, we can still make progress.

Identify, adapt, and move.

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