When physical challenges become a mental game there isn’t an easy way out. An anti inflammatory diet helps with the former but what can we do to defeat the anxiety and negative self-talk triggered by the injury? Last March I embarked on a expedition trip around the Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. It was three weeks of non-stopping outdoor adventures including kayaking, hiking and glacier approaching. I knew it was going to be physically challenging but little I knew at that time that the mental challenge would be even greater.
I started conditioning several months before. At the peak of my training, just over a month from the start of my trip, I had a bad fall at the gym and sprained my right ankle.
As it usually happens with injures, it occurred when I was performing a movement I had done so many other times before, a simple skater jump, just that this time I lost my balance and landed poorly rolling my ankle inwards and falling to the floor.
Whilst I was falling the only thing I could think about was my trip, for which I was working so hard and had been planning and saving money for so many months. As soon as I hit the floor I knew it was bad. The pain was so acute I could not even get back up, not to mention walking.
The gym called the physio next door to have a quick look. I patiently waited for him to finish the examination before I said: “I’ve got a hiking trip in 5 weeks, will I be ok?”. His face said it all.
I cried. A lot. But not from pain. I was crying because I had slim chances to recover before my trip and the thought of having it ruined was devastating. He estimated it would take at least 6 weeks to get my ankle to 80%, and 8 to 12 weeks to go back to normal life. I only had 5, and I had to make it work.
Speeding up injury recovery
I followed all his indications and also read everything I could find about how to recover from injuries faster, putting a lot of emphasis on my diet. I already knew and experienced how important what we eat is for our overall health, and I suspected that in a situation like this would be instrumental if I wanted a miraculously speed recovery.
But I forgot one thing, taking care of the mental baggage this injury had imprinted on me.
I paid all the attention to my diet, making sure I was eating all the anti-inflammatory foods whilst resting and icing my foot. For the first week my breakfasts looked like a gut healing anti-inflamatory cocktail of bone broth blended with turmeric and coconut oil, with some eggs and sauerkraut on the side. My lunches and dinner had wild salmon and grass fed beef, with more turmeric and coconut oil added somewhere. I added more fat and reduced my carb intake a bit, as I was not exercising or burning muscle glycogen. And I also added plenty of antioxidants like berries, leafy greens and very dark chocolate, on a daily basis.
As the inflammation and bruising were going down I started to “walk”. That was week -4 (minus four) and I had to re-learn how to walk and focus on avoiding limping to force my foot to do its natural movement pattern to re-grain strength as soon as possible.
On week -3 I started rehab and continued to support my recovery in the best way possible. At that point I incorporated plenty of protein for muscle recovery and collagen for fibre elasticity, as well as continuing with the anti inflammatory diet. I had 3 sessions of physical physiotherapy including ultrasound and acupuncture, and I did all the exercises I was given to recover range of motion, strength and flexibility.
As of week -2 before leaving for Patagonia I was able to walk on a flat surface without pain and no limping, but hills, uneven surfaces and step up/downs were a whole different story…. and if there is something in Patagonia, it’s mountains, and rocks, and more mountains.
Putting my injury to test
Week -1 was the acclimatisation week. I was already in Argentina and our guide had planned a quick test for us. As we hiked to the top of Circuito Chico (near Bariloche) to see the view over the lake district I couldn’t hide the obvious.
Climbing up was fine but coming back down was clearly not. My legs were very weak after having barely moved them for the previous 5 weeks, so my steps were small and my confidence almost non-existing.
I’ve had always had a small fear of heights (more like being-next-to-the-edge fear), which obviously didn’t help… and if you add that to my weak legs and sore ankle the outcome was not very good. I could see myself falling over and over again, and that made me even more prone to make a mistake. I had fallen in the gym and got injured doing the easiest exercise ever, how could I be safe hiking through the highest mountains in South America? I had fear of falling again, fear of getting injured especially knowing that I was going to be away from civilization and telephone signal, away from hospitals and doctos, carrying my backpack and camping every night.
The anxiety eventually kicked in
If paying attention to my diet was crucial in my speedy recovery, focusing on my inner strength and overcoming the mental challenge of hiking with an injury were key to survive through the next few days.
I had a few days to work on that before we moved down to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Once there I knew I had 4 days of intense hiking through Torres del Paine National Park followed by a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier and two more days of hiking in El Chaltén to see Mt Fitzroy and the Tres Lagunas. Around 100km in total. The distance was not what worried me, I knew I could walk, nor was the weather, although fearful; but the difficulty of the terrain and the ups and downs in elevation were the problem. I knew my physical condition was sub par.
That acclimatisation week was not fun, I was worried about what was to come and how I was going to do it. I questioned my motivation and wondered why I was there. The anxiety was affecting my sleep and mood, as I could not rest knowing that I was not as prepared for the challenge as I had planned. I felt weak and a burden to the group. I knew I had to believe in myself but every time I thought about what I had to go through over the next few days the anxiety would kick in.
I am very grateful I had the support of my boyfriend, who had gone through the entire process with me and was part of the trip too, as well as our tour guide and a the rest of the group, who were aware of my injury and were very supportive and gave me lots of wise advice. With their help I managed to find a mental place where I was ready to take up on the challenge.
The big hike came. For Day 1 of our W trek we had a 20km total route (10km each way) to the Base Las Torres with 1000m ascend, from which almost haft were spread just over the last 1km.
I knew that if I could do the first day I could do the rest.
I did the first 9km with trouble, still feeling very unsafe and lacking self-confidence but with very little to no pain. When we got to the last kilometre of the ascend and saw the rocky terrain and how steep and exposed it was, I freaked out. It had also started raining as we were so high that we were literally in a cloud. But I had made it that far and it was not the time to give up. My hiking poles were not going to be very useful on that section, so I used my arms to climb through the rocks. It took me 45 minutes to do approximately 90% percent of that last one kilometre when the exhaustion and anticipation creeped up on me. I started thinking “I can’t do this”. I knew I was so close to the top but at the same time it felt so far that I couldn’t help but wanting to give up. Every step I took I knew it was one more step I had to take back down.
At that point the mental challenge was worse than the physical.
My fear of falling and all the negative self-talk made me freak out. Why on earth had I decided to do this trip and why did I go ahead with it despite my injury? I had a proper melt down and had to stop and sit down. I tried convincing myself that everything was fine and did some deep breathing, but my body did not react. I couldn’t move any further. I was terrified, terrified of seeing myself in that situation and knowing that I still had to go back down and that the rain would have made the terrain even more slippery. I stayed there with my eyes closed trying to calm down.
After 10 minutes, our tour guide, who had been covering our backs for the entire route, got to where I was and saw me there, sitting in the rain, just a few metres away from the top. I must admit that he believed in me more than I did at that time. I didn’t trust my body. I was tired, in pain and anxious about the way back, but that was not the worse: I felt defeated.
He told me to get up and walk with him. I told him I couldn’t do it (I really believed so) and he insisted I could. He gave me his hand and made me stand up. Then he marked the route and made me follow his steps one by one to put the feet on the right places and before I realised… I was there at the Base de Las Torres. It was just 100 metres away from where I had stopped, and even under the rain it was breathtaking.
I was speechless and absolutely exhausted, and the thought of having to go back down through those rocks again was frightening, but I knew I had to start my descend soon to not get caught in the mountain when the night came so I got my hiking poles and started to walk back down.
I didn’t trust my legs, they were sore and shaking from the effort on the way up, so I used my hiking poles, I could not have done it without them. I used them almost like crotches to jump down the rocks, and then they prevented me from slipping or going too fast on the biggest inclines, bearing my weight when my legs were completely wrecked and giving me enough time to make sure I was placing my feet the right way. It took me several hours and a lot of anxiety to get back down. But I did it, and every day after that.
If there is one thing I learnt is that injuries are as much of a physical as a mental challenge, but going through them makes you not only stronger but also damn proud of yourself.