Comparison–the inevitable pitfall of injury recovery. Comparison–not to someone else, but to your old, “perfect,” pre-injury self. In part 1 of this blog we reflected on comparison and discussed emotional breakdowns, scraping knobs off mountain bike tires, and tapestries. Further discussion about comparison of your post-injury self to your pre-injury self ranks up there with running on a treadmill on a beautiful day. I get it, but if you’re an athlete comparison will bushwhack you someday, so why not face it head on? In part two, we’ll address comparison practically with insight, guidance, and advice.

disparity in technical skill

A clear disparity in technical skill: Photo on the left was taken pre-injury during the Mellow Johnny’s 6-hour race (photo credit: Kreutz Photography)…photo on the right was taken post-injury at Slaughter Creek Trail

Why comparison catches you completely off-guard

Close your eyes and think of the place where your pre-injury self felt best–your most competent, your sharpest, most graceful, most ON. Maybe it’s a gnarly mountain trail, or maybe it’s a steep powder-covered backcountry run, or maybe it’s a 5k loop out your door that fits like your favorite kicks. Keep that place in mind as I describe why it matters.

Now you’re injured, maybe freshly post-op, maybe living off of vitamin I (ibuprofen), maybe both. As you limp back to your bike, you’ll probably steer toward Shoal Creek (the quintessential boring board-flat road in Austin). This ride never meant so much to you, and you’re honestly joyous to be out on a bike again. After a few months, your face glows and the days of pasty white skin and muscle atrophy become a memory. Your strength increases while you gain confidence. You’ve graduated from Shoal Creek purgatory and even mastered some more adventurous roads, so you decide to head to that place where you feel best–the place I told you to keep in mind. It’s an otherwise perfect day. You lace up and head out, then you’re bowled over by the comparison voice. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve improved since your setback. You could be 90% of what you used to be, but it doesn’t matter. You still feel like you suck.

Maybe months or years have passed since day zero of injury, but until you’re back walking, running, skiing, or mountain biking in the very terrain where you used to feel most competent, it’s easy to dodge comparison. On the day you journey back to the trail you used to master, comparison bears down with the weight of a sumo wrestler. Like large men wearing loincloths suddenly appearing out of nowhere, comparison will shock you.

As you recover and re-experience old adventures, comparison is inevitable. Keep the following concepts in mind to limit sadness and frustration.

Slow down to speed up

As you rebuild and recover, slow down. It sounds backward, but slowing down actually catalyzes more progress. Slowly increasing exercise duration and intensity promotes returning to activities sooner. I’ve had clients say, “My doctor said he’s never seen anyone get off crutches so fast. Isn’t that awesome?” Well, no, not really. Recovery is not a race, and you risk re-injury by deciding you’re healed before you actually are.

Build slowly back into your sport, allowing your waxing confidence to create positive experiences. Asking your body to perform too far above your current ability opens the door to comparison. And that’s not a productive door to open.

Some soul-crushing words to never say

Comparison ambushes you with the words “That was a great run, but I used to have a 16-minute split on this section.” Or, “*&$%! I used to be able to ride up this ledge.” STOP!! Do not ever think or say, “…but, I used to be able to…” Just. Don’t. Go. There. Stop beating yourself up.

And if you do…

You just couldn’t resist. You came back too fast. The words “but, I used to be able to…” fell out of your mouth, and you have witnesses! You’re beating yourself up. You’re pissed and frustrated. Now what?

Stop. Stop what you’re doing. Literally stop moving. Look around you. What do you see, hear, and smell? Take ten long, deep breaths. This will restrain your mind from running away at a hundred miles an hour.

Now, give thanks for where you are today–right now. Maybe you’re outside playing and walking instead of being trapped inside.

Reaction to my first steps off crutches in two years with my PT in Vail, Luke

Think of every person who helped you recover enough to play outside again. Maybe you’ll look like a fool talking to yourself in public, but thank them! Perhaps you’ll even pick up a pen and write them a note.

Then, be grateful. Be grateful that you had the opportunity to be fast, to be in the zone. Some people never get there! Hopefully you’ll have an opportunity to return to your previous ability.

Next, stop looking backward. Mountain biking serves as my favorite metaphor for life. Want to know the fastest way to crash on a mountain bike? Look behind you. Flowing through life’s sinuous trail demands that you must look where you want to go. Your peripheral vision processes and helps you avoid nearby obstacles. Looking further down the trail creates balance necessary to say upright. Your body follows your mind, so look ahead, not behind or down.

Finally, talking or writing about your experience gives it less power over your mind, kind of like shining light in a dark corner. It’s only dark if you remain silent. Make sure you choose the right friend, pick up the phone, and talk about it. Choose someone who will offer a helping hand; don’t choose a friend who is going be dismissive or go linebacker on you.

If you process by writing, set a timer for 20 minutes and get it all out of your head and onto paper–you’ll feel much better once you have.

Look at injury this way…

Maybe it’s not what you want to hear, but it’s important to embrace injury as a chance to rebuild, as I discussed in part one. This concept is one of your gateways to moving forward. Your primary sport has probably left you with strength imbalances. Now is a good time to smooth them out. Think about finding a pilates or yoga instructor who can work with you one on one while being respectful of your limitations.

My friend, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Ride to Cure Coach, and Injury Jedi, John Dallman (notorious for his off-key renditions of 99 Bottles of Beer On the Wall during long climbs), hit the nail on the head when I asked him if he had any thoughts on the topic of comparison.

“Maybe the trick that I’ve yet to learn or master is to not think in terms of duality–my old self vs. my new self–but to think of ourselves in terms of a continually evolving work of art. I’ve often wondered what it might be like to be 3 years into the carving of a sculpture such as ‘David’ only to experience a mistake that is irreversible. Do you finish the piece knowing that it is not ‘perfect’ as you intended it to be or do you rededicate yourself to presenting the best piece that you were able to produce at that time, flaws and all?”

Comparison will tempt, but how you react is your choice.


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