Getting Through Pain and Injuries as an Outdoor Adventurer

Snow-covered Teton mountains rise behind a wooden fence

Chronic pain and injuries are common among those who adventure outdoors. Some activities like skiing and rock climbing are simply higher risk sports, but even a short hike can end with a rolled ankle if you’re unlucky enough. In the past couple of years, I’ve had friends tear their ACLs while skiing, break bones while mountain biking, and struggle with chronic foot and back pain.

My own experience with injury and chronic pain began about two years ago, with pain in my neck and upper back that has kept returning despite any specific diagnosis. Every time it flares up, most activities other than walking go out of the window. Last spring, I ended up with inflammation in my knee that took months to subside, keeping me from hiking and running as the weather turned warm and the snow melted from higher elevation trails.

For the past two weeks, pain in my foot has kept me sedentary as I wait for a return to normalcy. I’m trying to remind myself that this is a temporary state, but I’m not going to lie: being injured sucks. Over the past two years, there have been tears, frustration, and a whole lot of tunnel vision where I convince myself I’m going to be injured forever.

I know I’m not alone in this. For those who find peace and quiet in the outdoors, or who manage depression and anxiety through movement among the rocks and trees, any kind of injury feels like a catastrophe. So how do we handle the lack of endorphins that we’ve become accustomed to when we’re sidelined? How do we maintain our connection to the outdoors?

I can’t claim to be an expert on this topic, and as far as injuries go, I’m certainly not the worst off. Still, over the past year, I’ve been working on answering these questions for my own mental and physical well-being. Some strategies I’ve found to be helpful are fairly common knowledge, while others have been unexpected. In any case, I hope one or more can be helpful when you’re involuntarily sitting out a weekend in the mountains.

Get Started on an Old Goal
There’s probably something that you’ve been telling yourself you should work on for ages, but a good weather day usually gets in the way of any progress, right? Well, now’s the time to sit down and actually get some work done. In my case, I’ve been learning how to design and build a website, a side project that’s interested me lately. (You can see the finished results at alisatank.com!)

Bonus: I just finished reading a book called Make Time, which provides readers with strategies to make time to accomplish their goals. If you’re like me, and you have a long to do list but feel like nothing ever gets done, this book has a great method to get you started.

Meditate
This strategy is fairly new to me, and I can’t say for certain how effective it’ll be for others. I’ve been meditating for about 10 minutes a day for the past month, skipping only a few days here and there. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a general decrease in my chronic neck pain, but it seems to return on the days I forget to meditate. Coincidence? Maybe. However, I looked into it and early studies do indicate that meditation can help with chronic pain management. You can read more in The Atlantic and Psychology Today.

I started out using Headspace and then moved on to the Waking Up app, but there are many meditation apps out there. Most will give you a few sessions for free before having to pay for a subscription, so I recommend trying out a couple to see which resonates with you best. Other apps I’ve checked out are: 10% Happier, Calm, and Buddhify.

Explore a New Hobby
Admittedly, I haven’t explored this strategy much, but it’s been successful for a friend who’s had an unlucky streak of multiple injuries over the past two years. She’s taught herself how to play guitar, rebuilt a wooden deck, and learned woodworking while healing. Even though many of us have goals that primarily pertain to the outdoors, finding new hobbies that don’t require any kind of physical fitness can be a great way to keep your brain active and give you a big sense of accomplishment.

Exercise Anyway
Depending on your injury, you may be able to train other parts of your body that’ll help you come back stronger once you’re healed up. (Be sure to get approval from your doctor!) With my current injury, I’m still able to do upper body training as well as some cycling, which provides me with the exercise-induced endorphin rush to which I’ve become accustomed.

Take Care of Your Space
Perhaps this is because I’ve recently been watching the Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo”, but being injured seems like the perfect opportunity to improve your living space. Identify a room or area that you’ve been meaning to organize and then make it happen! This weekend I gathered up nearly 80 books and a big bag of clothes to donate, making more space in my bookcase and giving me a mental boost every time I walk past its (now organized) shelves.

Plan for the Future
When you’re stuck on the couch, it’s easy to count all the ways you’re missing out. So why not plan for a future trip? Look up hikes in a region you’ve been wanting to visit, plan an itinerary for a weekend trip you can take when you’re all healed up, or just spend the afternoon adding locations to your travel bucket list. There’s a reason I’ve been stocking up on hiking guides for the Southwest; they’re not only useful during trips, they’re also great reading material when you’re homebound.

And don’t forget to get outside despite not being able to do your activity of choice! Even a short walk through the park can help reduce stress and increase sleep duration; both necessary ingredients to helping you heal faster.

If you’ve been injured, how have you dealt with it? Do you have any tips or tricks for others to help them get through these difficult times? Share in the comments!

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