I'm So Happy I got Hurt at the Gym: How an Injury Taught Me to Slow Down & Learn

I wrote this letter to the proprietor of my gym in November 2015, and invited him to share it with his staff. I didn't intend to publish it, but have been urged to do so after sending it privately to several other workout fiends who are struggling after acute or long-term injuries.

The slower I move, the more I learn. 

This is a lesson I treasure, and I came to it through an unlikely source of pride: an injury.

About a month ago, I tweaked my back swinging a kettle bell. I was devastated. My form had been correct; I was focused; the weight and shape of the bell were familiar; I’d even had a smile on my face as I started the movement. Yet something went wrong. When the spasm ripped through me mid-swing, my lower-back pain was secondary; it was shame that hurt the most. I had failed at something I thought I had down pat. My body had betrayed me. 

I dropped the bell. When I realized that “walking it off” wasn’t going to work this time, I crumbled to my knees. 

It was an old injury that I’d aggravated. I was about to celebrate the 5-year anniversary of a surgery that removed a piece of broken disc from crushing my sciatic nerve. I’d spent the years since then in a complicated relationship with fitness & strength, struggling to re-attain my dedication to the gym as well as the slim figure I’d rocked before the pain restricted my movement. After years, I had finally found a community that brought me strength emotionally and physically; I’d lost weight and gained strength superior to anything I’d known before or after the surgery. I was finally back on the right track, and now… this.

Michael, who was teaching the kettle bell class, along with my classmates and the gym management, could not have done a better job of taking care of me. Right away, Michael was at my side, giving me his full attention. He guided me into a breathing stretch, and gently rubbed my back as I began to cry. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he told me, and obligingly repeated it when I shook my head in disbelief.

Everyone in the clubhouse was generous. They gave me space to cry and feel, while radiating concern and care in my direction at all times. Alison from the front desk lovingly approached with a bottle of water and an ice pack. A classmate brought me tissues so I could stop dabbing my tears with a rough terrycloth towel. And between every set, Michael stood nearby in case I needed anything from him.

After I got to my feet and dressed to head toward home (where I expected to lie on my back for the next several days), Ali reminded me that my strength was not lost; in fact, it would facilitate healing. I smiled and nodded, even though I didn’t really believe her. I walked the mile back to my apartment, feeling ripples of discomfort with every step.

I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you to learn that Ali was right. Over the next week, I moved gingerly, but probably more so than I had to. I could feel my body taking care of itself; the core muscles I’d developed acted as a framework, a sort of cage that held everything in place — the way one might squeeze pieces of a broken object together while the superglue sets. Right away, I could tell I was healing more efficiently than I ever have before.

My decision to come straight back to class was easy, even though I knew I’d have to opt out of a lot of the exercises for a while. I had a deep sense that my healing would be expedited by the energy & support of the community. So, it was only a week before I returned to Michael’s class. 

Knowing I’d be working with a limited curriculum, I took a mat in the corner of the room. To my delight, everyone was excited to see me. I got hugs from staff members and classmates alike. Michael seemed to welcome the chance to help me develop custom movements that felt right. Best of all, I had regained trust in my body to take care of itself.

The first class back was all about experimentation. While the rest of the class did deadlifts, I slowly mimed the movement with no bell. When they did bear crawls, I stayed standing and tried out a cross-crawl. During pushups, I did an 10-second plank on my knees. 

I was gentle with myself, and I made sure to be in tune with my body. Absolutely nothing was by rote. Every movement, be it attempting to pick up the smallest kettle bell or simply reaching up to adjust my ponytail, was deliberate. In fact, I discovered that many simple actions I had always taken for granted — a hinge, for example — were actually made up of a myriad of micro-movements, and I was suddenly aware of all of them. I imagined myself as one of those musculature models in a physical therapist’s office, and in my mind’s eye I could see the muscle groups lighting up as I activated them with the slightest change in posture. This awareness of my own anatomy was a revelation.

It’s been about a month since that day, and I’m back on my schedule of two-to-three classes a week. Each time I enter the gym, I add a little more weight to my exercises; but I have not sped up my motion. On the contrary, I challenge myself to go more slowly every week than I did the week before. While I used to count out my reps, trying to beat a personal push-up record or squeeze in a couple of extra rows before the set was done, now I exult in, for example, achieving only two split-squats per side in the allocated time. Class is now both an ass-kicker and a meditation, and I leave feeling mentally refreshed while my muscles glow with achievement.

The slower I move, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I appreciate what my body can do. The more I appreciate my body’s abilities, the more I appreciate the scope of what I can achieve in every other area of my life. The more I believe in myself, the more I risks I take, and the faster I bounce back when they don’t pan out; I celebrate my efforts and find more successes. I am thriving.

I am so grateful to this injury for teaching me the truth of my own strength.