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How do we deal with injury?

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

I imagine that everyone reading this has been injured in that life at some point or other. If you haven’t been injured in your life ever, that probably means one of two things: either you’re superman, and you’re made of indestructible stuff, or you never push yourself physically and live your life in a safe bubble in which no accidents can happen. Generally speaking (severe medical conditions aside), this isn’t a great idea: the human body benefits from stressors, and you’ll live a longer, happier and healthier life if you are exposed to physical stresses like exercise nutritional stresses like fasting and mental stressors such as work and education - all in moderation of course!

Of course you should do what you can to avoid getting injured - I am in no way advocating that getting injured intentionally is a good idea. But the truth of the matter is that if you’re pushing yourself in your practice, you are likely to get injured at some point.

So what can you do when you do get injured?

• The most common reaction is probably to stop exercising altogether while you wait to recover. This is the typical message that we receive from average doctors who tell you to go home and rest. And in some cases this may be necessary. Often this leads to people going home, becoming sedentary and feeling depressed because they are losing all the progress they had made. Humans are, after all, made to move.

• Another very common reaction, especially among exercise enthusiasts, is to ignore the injury completely - pretend that it hasn’t happened and keep exercising exactly as before. This usually leads to a worsening of the original injury or to developing some overcompensation. I don’t really recommend this either!

• With the majority of injuries, there is usually something that you can still do to keep moving that won’t aggravate the injury. Personally I recommend thinking about this before injuries occur!

Rather than seeing the injury as a set back, it can just be an opportunity to shift the focus onto something that has been in the background until now. The way I recommend dividing up your practice is to devote most of your training time to some intense full body activity (this should usually be the main focus of your practice) alongside an upper body focused training session and a lower body focussed training session (when you are healthy I recommend that these should be a small part of your training rather than the main part). Finally, I think it’s important to have some kind of low impact, low intensity movement practice, that you can use as a recovery session when you’re feeling particularly low on energy, tired, or mentally depleted.

To make all this more concrete, here are some examples.

It’s important to note that the intensity of these different types of training will be different for people with different fitness levels and experience: one person’s low intensity recovery training might be another person’s high intensity practice.

  • Full body training: parkour, dancing, acrobatics/gymnastics, climbing, bouldering, locomotion, animal flow, Acroyoga, etc.

  • Upper Body Focus: push-ups, gymnastic rings, handstands, parallel bars/high bars, etc.

  • Lower body focus: running, jump practice/plyometrics, squat, lunge or single leg strength work, balance training, slack line, rail work, etc.

  • Recovery training: walking, hiking, jogging, cycling, juggling, skipping, rope rolling, swimming, yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, mind-body centring, etc.

Equally, depending on your current level of experience in a given discipline, it might be an opportunity to explore your discipline from a new angle. This is not something I would recommend to beginners in the study of movement, but it can have great value for more experienced practitioners. In “The Art of Learning”, Josh Waitzkin writes about the time he injured his wrist while training for the tai chi push hands world championship. Instead of this being a setback, it was a valuable tool through which he was able to analyse his game from a whole other level and develop new tactics. Once his hand was healed again he was better than he had been before, having practiced with a ‘handicap’. This is similar to the experience gamers have when they go back to playing a game from the beginning: after playing the hard levels, the first ones (that they may have struggled with originally) now feel easy! This could be for example, climbing or martial arts without using one of your limbs.

The final element I would like to highlight, when it comes to dealing with prolonged injury, is the importance of visualisation. There is increasing evidence in the literature that through using visualisation we can maintain skill levels and significantly reduce muscle atrophy. Simply by taking time each day to sit and really feel yourself going through the motions of the movement, can be enough to maintain muscle and skill levels so that when the injury is over, you can be just as proficient as before, potentially more so, due to the other practice you’ve been able to do.

Whether you’re injured now, or want to prepare yourself in case you get injured these are a few things I personally have found helpful in my practice. I hope that they help you. Remember to be kind and gently on yourself - dealing with injury isn’t always easy, and remember that you’re doing the best you can.

Stay happy!

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