There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.
Kinesiophobia: Fear of movement induced injury. For a lot of older athletes this overwhelming fear deters them from engaging in the activity they need to stay healthy. For 2001 to 2003 that described me. I was terrified of moving. I wouldn’t even help move furniture around the house without a 30 minute warm up. My life ground to a standstill, my health floundered. I began to obsess about pain. Working through these mental and emotional challenges was a multi-year process.
By the end of my judo career I had 4 bulging and one herniated disc and chronic back pain has haunted me since 1994. Two to three times a year I experience a back tweak, sometimes while training in the gym, sometimes doing dangerous activities like sneezing or opening the fridge door. Every few years I suffer a more serious tweak. My response was always to stop activity for a few weeks until the pain receded and then to return to training very gingerly.
In 2010 my family doc, looking at my scans, suggested that I should stop lifting weights completely. Obviously I ignored him. In CrossFit competitions I am consistently among the top men in BC in my age division when it comes to heavy clean & jerks. But last year my back was acting up again so I went for another scan to discover if by ignoring my doctor’s orders I’d done irreparable harm to my back. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, the disc bulges were actually somewhat less pronounced than in the previous scan. “Backs don’t do that,” chiropractor Carrera said, “I’ve never seen discs heal.” If the past 7 years of lifting hasn’t contributed to further structural damage, then why was the back pain flaring up again?
I continued training always fearing another dreaded back tweak that would mean another set back in my training. Then I watched Alan Thrall’s blog regarding his back tweak. I was shocked that his Starting Strength coach, Austen Baraki, a medical doctor, not only allowed, but encouraged him to keep lifting. Yes, they did reduce the load for a day or two but they kept training through the inevitable stiffness and soreness that follows the back tweak and by the end of the week Alan was lifting personal bests in the squat and deadlift. Could this be true?
Coming off Christmas break and ramping up for this year’s CrossFit Open I suffered another tweak, a training set back or an opportunity to reluctantly test Baraki’s approach to recovery. With some trepidation I continued training with reduced loads and speeds and to my surprise and delight within only a couple days the pain was gone and the stiffness was minimal. Within a week I was right back to lifting regular loads. Come time for the 1 rep max clean event in the Open workout, I was lifting just as well as ever.
My recovery was so much faster it was encouraging. It also did a lot to dispel the fear of a back tweak. Try as I might to avoid them, with the condition of my discs I’ll probably suffer a few more tweaks in my life but it turns out I don’t have to make them into a big deal, I don’t have to let them sideline my training and as my fear dissipates, so too does a lot of the pain. The pain just isn’t as bad when you realize that nothing is wrong!