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Training After Surgery or Injury

While I am generally fit and healthy now I spent a long time without exercise or diet of any kind other than soft drink and fast food. I spent decades with poor diet and it remains a struggle to eat right. Through all this I created several issues for myself, two of which required surgery. The one that took me out of training the longest was when my stomach wall was rebuilt. Many of my muscular issues were the result of being extremely overweight. The fat got behind my muscles and pushed them out of the correct alignment. This caused them to not work correctly if at all. I had small stabilising muscles doing the work of large power muscles and vice versa. Countless injuries ensued and I had many trips to the physio even though the weight was dropped. Having the surgery saved a lot of trouble, but there were some issues I wish I could have planned for better and asked more questions about at the start.

The first thing you should know about most doctors, surgeons or health professionals is that if they don’t train in your sport they can’t inform you about realistic recovery times. They cater to the average person that sits at a work desk all day and may go for a run in the morning. Training to hold an opponent still, while trying to choke them out is far more vigorous. It requires dedication, and I was training six days a week.

I specifically asked how long I would be out of training for, adding it was for wrestling in particular. I've found that if you say “martial arts”, doctors assume The Karate Kid. “Wrestling” either brings to mind the Olympics or WWE, both of which better illustrate the effort required. I was told 6 to 8 weeks of zero training followed by another 4 or so weeks of light work getting back into it. I was off for almost 8 months before slowly being able to participate in class.
The martial arts involve all aspects of movement in very specific situations. Often these require strength in positions that the average person wouldn't dream of reaching. It can be like playing Twister in hand cuffs with a snake coiled around your neck. So while after a couple of months I was capable of a light jog or a few minutes on an exercise bike, I was in no shape to partake in the basic warm up yet alone the class. A lot of people would've taken this as an opportunity to rest up and fully heal before getting back into training. 

This is a mistake.

The best thing I did was not fill the time I normally spent training with other tasks such as watching TV or playing cards with the family. If I had done so, TV and cards would be my new normal. Getting back into training after an 8 month break of doing nothing is hard. Getting back when you have a new activity in place of your training time is next to impossible. Sure you will try to make it, but then excuses crop up and you miss a lesson or two. Then you go in once a week or once a month and quit altogether. Don’t let this happen to you. 
I have seen this too many times at my gym. Someone gets injured and we don’t see or hear from them for 6 weeks. They are back for a month and then gone forever. However, everyone that comes into the gym while injured to simply watch returns without skipping a beat.

There is plenty to do when watching from the sidelines and slowly rebuilding your body. The most important thing is to keep your mind focussed on your sport. I wasn't able to participate but I could watch classes and still ask questions of my coach. I remained among my training friends. Even though I couldn't participate I was engulfed in the sport.
I have the benefit of being a senior student at my gym. I regularly teach others and I'm approached with at least ten questions per class. I was fully capable of answering those questions while sitting on my butt. I was able to walk around the training mat and assist the head coach with picking up faults. When not assisting I took advantage of free space to do light stretching and get my body moving again. I had exercises from my physio to slowly build up strength. As I was already at the gym it was no extra effort to fit in my rehab.
It was frustrating being unable to train, especially when new techniques were being taught. I had to drag myself into the car, as it was emotionally exhausting to go from intensive training every day to being unable to even get into a push-up position. This mental barrier was a giant hurdle but one you can attack systematically.


The first step began at home. After work I changed into clothes that would be conducive to training. Wearing jeans puts a halt on body movement. Even if I wore track pants, I was still able to move freely. Wearing clothes you don’t mind sweating in helps set your focus onto what you are trying to achieve. I next prepared a drink and light snack to take with me. Thirst and hunger while sitting on the sidelines will force you to leave early. This will eventually see you arriving late and leaving part way, making it easier to justify not coming in at all. I may not have eaten the snack, usually a banana or muesli bar, but it was there when required.

With my training clothes, drink and food sorted, getting into the car was easier. I hate wasting time, and the time spent preparing to go would be wasted if I didn't actually drive there. I planned it so I would arrive just as the warm up was finishing. I did this for a few reasons. First, it gave me extra time for preparation at home. Second, I could sit right down and watch the class, getting my mind engaged from the moment I stepped inside. Third, I wasn't interrupting my training partners with talk about my recovery. They could remain focussed on their pre-warm up and training. We could socialise after class.

My entire crew helped me through this without even knowing. My training partners enquired about my healing progress and genuinely listened. They all expressed the desire for me to return to the mat and train with them again. They asked me questions and kept me involved in their training. My coach John supported me by allowing me to assist in his classes. He gave me material to read or watch tobetter understand techniques. He trained me on how to improve my coaching. Any time I was feeling low and thought about not turning up to a single class, I instead thought of how that would let John down. That was always enough extra push to get me into the gym.

You have to surround yourself with a solid training crew. If your gym doesn't support each other through adversity then find a new gym. A toxic environment will kill your inspiration quicker than anything else. If I didn't have the complete support from those that understand my training mindset, I would have quit jiu jitsu and that would be a personal travesty.
I returned to actual training 8 months later and spent another 4 months rebuilding my fighting strength and flexibility. My training partners can attest that I lost practically nothing in ability due to my time off. In fact I was performing better as my body was rebuilt and working correctly. This is all because I immersed myself in my sport for the duration.

So in brief:

  • Get back to your training centre ASAP after injury or surgery, even just to watch
  • Don’t push yourself, but lightly ease back into it
  • Listen to your doctors but understand they are generally not athletes
  • Go see a physio to get rehab exercises to do while watching the class
  • Ensure you get support from those you trust
  • Remove toxic people from your life
  • Plan your trips into the gym and bring everything you may need to avoid making excuses
  • Don’t overdo it as you'll likely hurt yourself again
  • Return with a vengeance once healed

If you have any questions or wish to share your own training down time experience, please jump into the comments.

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© AJ Watson