So these past ten days have been interesting in that I’ve been dealing with my very first injury as it relates to CrossFit. I’ll preface by saying that it’s totally minor and physically not a big deal at all—I’m posting more to relate the unexpected mental effects than to complain about anything physical.
I was practicing my clean in Olympic lifting class last week and made a 51kg lift (previous best was 50). The coach said teasingly, “You don’t look super happy about that PR!”
“It just felt sloppy,” I said with a shrug.
“It wasn’t sloppy; it was just a little slow. Try 52.”
So I tried 52, and that one actually went a lot better.
“That looked easy! Do you want to call it here?”
The hour was drawing to an end, and I should have said yes, but the false sense of bravado brought on by a good lift led me to hesitate. My face must have looked indecisive, because she held up two hands – a five on one, a three on the other – meaning I should go to 53kg, or 116 pounds.
I loaded the bar, stepped up to it. I felt myself take an extra minute to contemplate, a bit longer than I usually do – a pause that I knew in the moment probably didn’t bode well – but then cleared my mind, grabbed the bar, and went for it anyway.
For me as a relative beginner, there’s often an instant in the middle of a heavy clean where I’m just not sure I’m going to get my elbows around in time, and it requires a leap of faith to keep on pushing them through when your instinct tells you to just let that great big heavy thing fall before you hurt yourself. But, as with the 51 and 52, I did get them around, and suddenly I was in my squat at the bottom of the clean, with the bar essentially racked, if somewhat awkwardly, against my chest. I had an instant to think, oh wow, I did it; the toughest part is over; now all I have to do is stand up.
The next second, my fragile rack position broke—my left wrist torqued to the side, and the barbell started to fall forward. I was still in go-against-the-instinct mode, so instead of just accepting defeat and letting the bar go, I tried to hang onto it and save the lift (word to the wise: NEVER DO THIS). In the moment, it didn’t hurt, but there was a sensation of, hmm, that’s interesting, my arm doesn’t usually twist in that direction…?
And, of course, the next second, the bar was on the ground anyway.
“Call it,” the coach said immediately. “You’re done.” I nodded.
At this point, I didn’t really realize that I’d hurt myself – there was no true pain, just a sensation of having ‘overstretched’ – so I went to the regular session after Oly as I’d planned to. We did overhead squats and burpees (both of which, in hindsight, require a great deal of wrist hyperextension and push-off). I wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was more of a generalized, all-over body weakness than anything localized to the wrist, so I assumed it was normal post-Oly beat-up feeling.
And then I woke up the next morning, casually stretched—and felt a sharp zing! shoot from my left wrist into the tips of my fingers. I yelped, clutched my hand, and inspected. Bruising over the base of the thumb. Pain where the fifth metatarsal met the wrist. More pain over one of the distal carpal bones. And perhaps just the slightest bit of swelling when compared to the right side.
It was 5am, and I had to make a decision whether or not to even go in to CF that morning. I had a feeling I was going to be pretty useless—but then checked the website and saw that the metcon that morning was “Grace” (a lot of the standardized CrossFit workouts are named after women), which consists of thirty clean-and-jerks for time. The clean is the part of the lift I’d been practicing the day before, where the weight comes from the floor to shoulder height; the jerk is the next step, where it goes from shoulder height to overhead. I’d seen our male Olympic lifting coach do this workout (with an insane amount of weight) one day, and had been wanting to try it myself ever since. And it was peak week, where we try to max everything out. Maybe things would loosen up after I’d been awake for a while. Pain or no pain, I decided to go in to class.
Only problem was, I simply couldn’t do it. Just the warmup stretches, requiring hands on the floor, were painful, and as we started reviewing the jerk, even my tiny 15-lb training bar was placing too much torque on my wrist in the rack position against my shoulders. It hurt, a lot, and there was absolutely no way I could compensate or reposition things to make it any better. It was the right way or not at all. Along with the physical pain, I was beginning to feel an unpleasant emotional sensation of building panic that I couldn’t quite explain.
As we went around the room figuring out who would work together and which weights we’d be using for the strength portion of the session, I walked up to one of the coaches and explained what had happened the day before. I kept my voice steady as I spoke, but was startled and dismayed by the internal upwelling of emotion I felt. I had to concentrate hard not to cry, and couldn’t figure out why I should be feeling so vulnerable and ridiculous. CrossFit folks are injured all the time. People do modified workouts and strength training during our sessions all the time. So it was finally my turn. Big deal. Why was it hitting me like this?
As with all the coaches, this one was phenomenal; he asked me a couple of questions, then immediately came up with a modification; instead of jerks, I was going to work on strict presses (simply pressing a weight from shoulder level up to overhead, without using any momentum from the legs). It’s not possible to lift nearly as much weight without the whole-body force that the jerk provides, but the strict press is a similar movement, training similar muscles, with the difference that it doesn’t require a bent wrist.
And on the face of it, everything seemed fine. Granted, it was difficult to even unclip the barbell and change weights without pain, and my left arm felt stiff and was difficult to bring into the proper alignment without feeling twinges, but I soon figured out the position I needed to maintain in order to be both comfortable and efficient. One of the coaches stayed near me and offered a lot of encouragement; I think he could tell I was bummed about having to do boring, light strict presses while everyone else went for one-rep personal records on the jerk. Oddly, I actually ended up setting a personal best myself (60 pounds for 2 reps), and even found the wherewithal to smile about it. Then, while everyone else did “Grace” (thirty clean-and-jerks), I was instructed to do six rounds of five box jumps and five dumbbell push presses (20 pounds in each hand), a sequence that utilizes the same muscles at the same intensity without requiring me to do anything that hurt. Someone asked the coach how fast we ‘should’ be for that metcon; the reply was that ‘the fastest of the fast’ can do “Grace” in about three minutes.
As it happens, I completed my modified version in 3:35, and was actually the second finisher in my class. It felt unexpectedly easy; we all remember the drama around my box jumps, and I can definitely also remember a time, not so long ago, when 20 pounds in each hand for a dumbbell push press felt impossible to repeat for more than a few repetitions (I’ve bashed the dumbbell into my ear on more than one occasion due to fatigue). I was actually really not excited about those presses when they were suggested as a modification, so was pleasantly surprised by how comparatively easy it all felt. As he was writing my score up on the board, the coach nodded in approval and said, “I’m happy with that. That was the right stimulus for you.” My overwhelming emotion was still annoyance and disappointment at not having been able to do a workout that I had really wanted to try, but even so, I felt a wash of gratitude in that moment to have such expert coaches, who know the workout goals and targeted muscles so well that they can immediately modify or scale everything appropriately. That is not an easy thing to do, and definitely not something I could have figured out on my own. I am really a very fortunate individual.
Objectively, we can probably all agree that this sounds like a pretty good morning under the circumstances. However, as I left, I was still angry and feeling that sensation of simmering, untapped rage. On top of this was a layer of surprise and confusion at why I should be feeling this way when, after all, things had actually gone really well—I set a personal best for strength and completed an appropriately hard workout, all without pain. Why was I still feeling so unsettled? What I really wanted to do was go for a long run and shake it all out – after all, my legs still worked fine – but I couldn’t; I had to go to work.
I was working at a satellite clinic that day with a late start, so I was able to go home, clean up, change, and drive to work (not my usual pattern of whirlwind shower at the gym and then biking crosstown to the main hospital). As I was getting dressed, glancing in the mirror renewed my sense of panic. There are multiple scientific studies documenting the correlation between exercise and body perception, particularly in women—if we rate our appearance in the mirror, then complete a good workout, then look again, we truly believe that we are thinner, stronger, more attractive—even if our objective measurements haven’t changed a bit. It’s a powerful phenomenon, much like my earlier comment about the 20” box for box jumps now literally appearing physically shorter to me than it used to—and even knowing about its existence doesn’t stop the perceptions from happening, for better or for worse. Not even 12 hours before, my favorite coach had given me about a dozen compliments on how my body composition was changing. (I’d worn a tank top to the gym for the first time ever, and it did not go unnoticed.) After that, I had been feeling on top of the world—and objectively, absolutely nothing had changed in the past twelve hours. Except now I was looking at my belly in the mirror and was absolutely convinced that I had somehow gained twenty pounds overnight. It felt horrible.
The hour-long drive to work gave me a little time to compose myself and try to shake it off. My head felt like a ping-pong match. One minute, I’d be telling myself that this was no big deal. So I didn’t get to do “Grace” this time. I’ll do it next time. Everything comes back around. This won’t be the last chance I ever have to practice a jerk or do a clean. Just because something isn’t a good idea for my body today doesn’t mean I’m any less of an athlete. Then the ball would zip back in the other direction— the Open starts next week; what if there’s a movement I can’t do? I was finally starting to be a little happier with how I looked physically—what if I plateau, or, worse, start gaining again?
Then the mature, reasonable Jess would come back and remember that there is a lot of stuff I still can do. I can do back squats (in which I PRed on Monday by back-squatting my own bodyweight). I can do double-unders (getting better all the time). I can go for runs (which I haven’t done in forever and which, honestly, would probably be a good idea to get back into, given that the Tar Heel 10 Miler [link] is in six weeks). And I have amazing, knowledgeable coaches who can modify or scale anything as needed to make it work for me. This silly wrist is nothing, literally nothing, compared to the injuries some other athletes have. A couple of weeks, maybe a month tops, and I’ll be healed. And it’s not as if my time at CrossFit is finite. I’m going to be around here for a long, long time. No need to push too hard and turn this into something that really does linger for months or years.
And then, after about five minutes of mental peace, the doubts would creep back in. But I was just starting to get halfway decent at Olympic lifting—what if I have to miss weeks and weeks of it and I lose all my progress?
The lesson here is that I honestly didn’t realize how much of my self-worth was tied up in CrossFit these days—not necessarily in being the best, which I pretty much never am, but simply in being able to hang in there and complete a workout. In my former life as an endurance athlete, I never needed to be the fastest, as long as I finished in the end—and (with a couple notable exceptions) I almost always did. Suddenly, here I was requiring special treatment in order to be able to even finish. My self-esteem interpreted that as a serious backslide in terms of my abilities and, yeah, my worth as a human being. Whether or not this ‘should’ be the case, at this stage of my life, with so many other new stresses to contend with, CrossFit is the one thing that gives me confidence, lets me experience a sense of community, and makes me feel that I am worthy of respect. Anything that threatens that, even for just a few days, is bound to seriously mess with my head.
The second day post-injury was better. The metcon was ridiculously hard – “Kelly,” a.k.a. five rounds of a 400-meter run, 30 box jumps, and 30 wall balls, with a 30-minute cap. Almost nobody in my class finished (I got 4 complete rounds plus most of the fifth 400 meter run), but that was okay; every once in a while, it’s nice to complete a longer workout. Anyway, I discussed modifications with the coach beforehand—I knew running and box jumps would be okay, but wasn’t quite sure about throwing and catching a 14-pound ball 150 times—and he recommended modifying the wall balls to ball squats. I stubbornly started out with wall balls, just to see how it would feel, but defaulted to squats after the 13th toss – the pain wasn’t excruciating, but I reminded myself that there was really no reason to feel any pain at all—and the substitution felt approximately eight million times less humiliating than it had the day before. Apparently, I had just needed a day to make the necessary mental adjustment. I needed a little longer to convince myself to take some time off from Oly lifting—I went to class one week post-injury with a taped wrist, and did fine until we got to 50kg (3kg under the lift that caused all this in the first place)—then failed the lift spectacularly, twisting my whole left arm in such a way that I felt it through my wrist all the way up to my deltoid. That was a wakeup call (though I did, at least, have the presence of mind this time to simply let the bar go). The message was clear: threat of further injury. This is what you might do to yourself if you keep pushing when you shouldn’t. I took a moment to control myself, then did a drop set at 45kg and then 40kg, then called it a day. I walked away with the understanding that I was going to take at least a couple of weeks off from Oly–and being okay with that.
The bottom line is that I’ll heal. I’m already healing; there’s only one small painful area left, and although that one area actually is still exquisitely tender to touch (I think it’s the point of a ligamentous attachment to a carpal bone, probably strained), and a front rack position with any significant weight on it still doesn’t feel good, just plain bending the wrist feels essentially normal now, which is encouraging. I definitely didn’t write this post to garner sympathy; it was meant to explore one small facet of the interesting emotional attachments—healthy and otherwise—that athletes can form to their sports. I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t dealt with too many injuries—standard shoulder stuff during my swimming years, and chronic plantar fasciitis in my right foot for over a decade, but that’s about it. This whole dynamic was new to me, and coming at a vulnerable emotional time, and while it wasn’t pleasant (AT ALL), it was also intriguing on an objective level. I do learn so much from CrossFit… :)
Anyway, apart from the above, things are going well. In a nutshell: I’m having fun getting to know some of the other CFCCers better (we’ve been out for various activities for the past two Friday nights), I recently discovered Conditioning class (all endurance—today was kettlebells, rowing, and double-unders, all of which I love), the weather in Philly was GORGEOUS today (61 and sunny—I was seriously delirious with joy to be outside), and my parents are coming to visit on Tuesday and staying for a week (yay!). I’ll update again soon (probably not until after they leave), and talk about the CrossFit Open, which started this week, among a few other things.
Stay well, y’all.