Inspiration and info for midlife women who lift—or want to start

A doctor wraps a woman's injured hand with gauze bandage.

Coping with Injury, Illness, and Other Training Setbacks

Typing these words is an act of defiance. 

The last thing I feel like doing right now is writing. Anything. 

Because, as has happened many other times in my lifting life, I find myself held prisoner by an uncooperative body (thanks, Covid). I can’t train, and it’s upsetting and depressing. 

If you’ve experienced this kind of setback—and nearly everyone has at some point–you know how epically it sucks. Everything’s going your way. You’re feeling strong and poised for big things—only to get shot down by illness or injury and having to start (what feels like) all over again. 

No matter how many times I deal with this, I’m somehow still surprised at how much it messes with my head.

If you know, you know

I’m working hard to make myself focus on the positives. It waited until after my trip to Australia and my competition. And heck, I’ve got it easy. I know at least two lifters who just had to drop out of major competitions due to injury or illness. I’m not that sick, I’ve got medication. This should be over soon.

But this seems like a good time to talk about how these setbacks feel, because we all face them from time to time—and they never get easier. They can cause a remarkable amount of mental and emotional suffering.

And here’s the kicker: unless they train too, many of the people around us just don’t understand how much dislocation and frustration—bordering on or even becoming legitimate depression—we experience when we can’t train.

This is one of those IYKYK things. So, when we’re in the middle of the experience, we need understanding and support from our fellow athletes. 

Let’s look at what’s at play in these situations, and how we can cope constructively.

Fear of losing strength

In my experience, the number one problem that plagues lifters when training gets derailed is the fear (usually overblown) that we’ll lose all of our hard-fought gains. 

Yes: if you can’t train compound lifts and/or a specific body part, your strength will almost certainly suffer… in the short term

Of course that’s upsetting. No one wants to go backwards. 

But I’m here to tell you that you WILL get your strength back. And more.  

This is a long game, measured in months and years, not weeks or days.  

In the vast majority of cases, you’ll be able to work your way back. It often feels permanent and hopeless in the moment, but it’s not.

Strength loss is temporary

How do I know? Well, I’m one of those OGs who first got Covid back in March of 2020. I didn’t get terribly sick, but I did have enough trouble with breathing and energy that I was out of the gym for six weeks. 

And I was really out. I got short of breath just taking a gentle walk. When I finally got back in the gym, I felt like a newb all over again. In my last training session before getting sick, I’d done paused high-bar squats at 150lbs/68kg. My first day back six weeks later, I was panting and fighting to get through a set of 80lbs/36kg (my normal bench press weight). 

That was late April. And guess what? In September, I went to Nationals, PR’d my squat and set a Drug-tested IPL World record.

If that example isn’t convincing, just look at these badass broads: 

  • 11x World champion and bench press GOAT Jen Thompson had surgery for a torn labrum in her hip in 2017, then came back and won another World Championship in 2018. (Check out this incredible list of injuries she’s overcome in her lifting career.)
  • Australian powerhouse and 6x World record holder Liz Craven spent 12 months battling a brain tumor, a torn biceps tendon, and Covid—and then surged back this past October to win APU Nationals with numbers approaching some of her career bests.
  • After a forced hiatus from competitive powerlifting due to a spinal fusion surgery in 2018, Chelsea Savit managed to return to the platform late last year. This past summer, she competed in a lower weight class, hit an all-time PR squat, matched her all-time PR bench, and competed at IPF Worlds where she took a gold medal in the bench.

Don’t catastrophize

So: if you find yourself sidelined for a while, the first thing to do is actively work on your self-talk

You may feel tempted to catastrophize and feel despair, especially if you’re an older athlete. We’re acutely aware that we have limited time and that our gains are harder-fought than those of younger lifters. Many of us walk around with a constant feeling of urgency to make progress. 

When those moments come, jump into action and engage your brain.

  • Remind yourself that it took a long time to get as strong as you are now, and it would take a similarly long time to lose that strength even if you did nothing (and you’re not going to do nothing: see next section). 
  • Remember past times when you’ve had a setback, as you almost certainly have. I know they somehow feel freshly painful every time, but remind yourself that you HAVE come back before and you’ll come back again.
  • Go look at the Instagram posts I just shared to give yourself some inspiration and remind yourself that your situation really is temporary. Keep a folder saved of these kinds of posts for future use.

Keep your head on straight. That’s important for your recovery.

Work around it

After half a decade of lifting, I have become firmly convinced that stepping completely away from training is almost never necessary and will almost always prove ultimately detrimental to the athlete.

This is not to say that we should train through an injury on the affected body part, or that we should go all out when we’re ill. Not at all. Injuries need rest to heal, and your body needs rest to fight infection. 

BUT… that doesn’t mean we can’t train the parts of our body that are healthy, or that we can’t engage in light activity when we’re sick. 

I am blessed to have a coach whose motto is “Adapt or die.” Whatever the problem, he finds a way to train around it. When I had biceps tendinitis, for example, he programmed rehab exercises to help me heal, along with SSB squats and other exercises that would allow me to keep training and stay strong without aggravating the injured area.

With illness, read your body and do what you feel you can without feeling compromised. That might be a short walk, or an adapted lighter training session. Depending on what’s wrong and what you plan to do, it may even be possible to do a complete workout  (although obviously stay away from public gyms if you’re sick).

Movement is medicine. It will almost always help your body heal when taken in moderation.

Keep eating—with purpose

Eating and hydration can be a real issue when training gets disrupted. Some people turn to food as solace and throw their entire nutrition plan out the window.

On the flip side, some people worry about the lost energy expenditure and cut calories. But caloric deficit can be problematic if you’re injured or ill. You want to minimize muscle loss as much as possible, and you need food, especially protein, to do that, and to help your body heal.  

Research suggests that in this situation, it’s best to keep your protein intake high and possibly to increase it. If you were in a big cut prior to your illness or injury, it may make sense to suspend it and go to maintenance calories with a focus on high protein for as long as you’re recovering. If you have a nutrition coach, definitely talk to them about your situation.

And of course, don’t forget to hydrate properly. 

Obviously, illness in particular can make eating difficult, so just do the best you can.

Mental health and FOMO

As I mentioned earlier, dealing with an interruption in training can be intensely upsetting and emotionally disruptive. For many of us, the gym is a place of refuge, a stress reliever, a place where we feel a sense of control and accomplishment. We’re losing a lot when we lose our gym time.

Worse, the people around you may not fully understand just how bad you feel about not being able to train. 

There’s also FOMO: that awful feeling of being left out. And along with that comes a big one: a sense of loneliness. For many of us, training is one of the most important things in our lives, and we uniquely share that passion-bordering-on-obsession with our lifting community. So suddenly feeling cut off from it can cause very real feelings of pain and social isolation.

I find that this one of the hardest things to cope with, because something like social media, which normally helps me feel more connected to my lifting community, can be quite painful when everyone else is posting regular training and meet videos. And if I’m actively training but at a reduced capacity, I feel embarrassed posting my tiny weights or rehab-focused content.

Meanwhile, it always seems like everyone else is setting PRs.

Stay connected

The best way to fight this is proactively, with honesty and transparency.

If you have training partners or gym buddies, let them know you’re missing them and training and that it’s hard. 

Better yet (assuming you’re not contagious), go to the gym and hang with them. They can train their normal stuff, you can work on whatever you’re able to do. Yes, it can be difficult to see other people doing things you can’t currently do—but the benefits of the social connection, and putting yourself in the energy of that environment, will almost certainly outweigh the negatives, help your mood and keep you motivated. 

The research literature is clear: social connections and support turn out to be critical to maintaining a healthy state of mind during a training setback/ comeback.

I know a young high-level lifter who miraculously survived a terrible motorcycle crash a few months ago. He’s on a long road to recovery, but he started coming to the gym as soon as he was able, even while still using a walker, to spend time with his training partners. He’s slowly progressing what he can do, which was almost nothing at the beginning. Regardless of what he was able to accomplish physically, he wasn’t alone. He was (and is) with his friends, and they’re laughing and enjoying each others’ company.

If you normally train alone, use whatever connections you have with other lifters, whether in real life or on social media. Try to force yourself out of your shell if you find yourself feeling isolated and depressed.

Even though it may hurt, take the focus off yourself for a bit and focus instead on supporting other lifters you know and follow. Give them real or virtual pats on the back.

Talk (or write) about it

More importantly, share how you’re feeling. If you can, talk to your friends, even if they don’t train. Great friends will know and love you and understand how important your training is to you, even if it’s not part of their lives.

If you have no one else, tell ME! I’m here, I’ll listen, and I’m willing to bet my readers will too.

If you really don’t want to share (even though I strongly encourage you to do so), then get your feelings out in a journal or other outlet. Don’t fall victim to thinking you’re crazy to feel this way, or that you have no right to be going through what may be very analogous to a grief process. Your emotions are valid, and common, and real. It’s ok to own them and share them.

And doing so is actually vital to getting back in the saddle. Again, the research bears out that not expressing frustration and feelings of loss during a training setback actually hinders recovery.

Healthy? Reach out

If YOU are currently fine, but know someone who’s dealing with a gym setback right now, take some time and reach out to them.

Help them continue to feel connected. Ask how they’re doing and let them know you understand. Let them vent. 

If you know them in real life or train with them, invite them to go work out together. People can feel shy or embarrassed about their current limitations, or like they’d be a hindrance to you. Reassure them that’s not the case and you want them around.

Hang in there!

If you’re currently in the boat I’ve described here, I wish you a very fast recovery and return to normalcy. 

In the meantime, remember, whatever else happens, however frustrated or temporarily weak and vulnerable you may feel: 

You’re a badass.

Author’s note: I started writing this about a week before publishing it. I’ve since (mostly) recovered and am about to get back to normal training. Yee-ha!

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2 Comments

  1. Maureen

    Great post👍🏻

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