Load Management for Life

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A fews weeks back, I tweaked my calf on a deep pendulum squat. I proceeded to have a brief conversation with a physical therapist who trains at my gym. He recommended two rehabilitation exercises. I thanked him and, without really thinking, added, “I’ll do these exercises and otherwise rest it for a bit.”

He almost immediately corrected me: “No, you’ll do these exercises and appropriately load your calf otherwise.”

Over the last decade, there’s been a shift in sports medicine away from straight rest and toward appropriate loading. The gist is that when you experience an injury, instead of shutting things down completely, you want to continue to use that body part to the extent you can, even if it causes some acute discomfort. So long as the pain doesn’t increase the next day, you’re on the right track.

Appropriate loading does two important things: the first is that instead of creating a mindset of fragility and fear (e.g., I need to protect this body part or else) it creates a mindset of strength and progress (e.g., I am strong and resilient and can continue to use this body part, albeit with adjustments.) It’s a significant shift, especially since we know that pain is not just in the bones and tissues but also in the brain and central nervous system. If you completely shut down an injury, you are telling the brain and central nervous system to turn the alarm system on high, predict pain with any usage, and immediately label that pain as bad. This often leads to increased pain once you finally resume using the affected body part, even if the injury is “healed.” By continuing to load the injured area, however, you are preventing the alarm system from becoming overly sensitive.

The second benefit of appropriate loading is that it gives the affected tissue or bone a stimulus to respond to. Instead of letting an injured body part sit there and atrophy, you are maintaining at least some strength and helping to promote the recovery process by increasing blood flow.

To be clear, if you’ve suffered a major injury and are experiencing uncontrolled inflammation, you may very well want to shut things down completely for a period of time. But even then, current best practices would likely have you begin loading the injury sooner than you may think.

Appropriate loading is a useful concept beyond tissue and bone. It’s core tenets apply to all the injuries we face in life—from the psychological to the relational to the cognitive.

Whether it’s a failure in the workplace, a fight with a friend or a significant other, or an experience that triggers anxiety and subsequent avoidance, we can ask ourselves: How might I appropriately load this situation?

Shutting things down completely, repressing, or ignoring a problem often makes it worse. Much like the body has an alarm system for physical pain, the mind has an alarm system for psychosocial pain. When you try to come back and confront whatever the situation is, the longer and more fervently you’ve avoided it, the harder it becomes. This can lead to a cycle of avoidance and repression that festers and becomes chronic, no different than physical pain.

But it’s equally true that pushing too hard, pretending that nothing is wrong, or trying to plow through a legitimately challenging or painful situation is also detrimental.

Appropriate loading asks you to take stock of the situation and reflect on the right amount of stimulus to promote progress, even if applying that stimulus is uncomfortable in the moment.

Here are a few examples of how appropriate loading may play out in common life challenges:

  • Confronting the other party following a serious argument, acknowledging the hurt, and discussing how best to move forward instead of retreating behind a wall of silence in which resentments and anger fester.
  • Getting back to work on the next project within a day or two of a disappointing failure or defeat instead of wallowing in sadness and giving it a chance to turn into despair.
  • Facing the causes of your anxieties instead of avoiding them and thus feeding into a cycle of avoidant fear.

No different than a physical injury, the amount of load (and its timing) will differ based on the situation. In some instances, you may need a brief period of complete rest (e.g., a cooldown period to let the equivalent of acute inflammation—perhaps anger, fear or frustration—reside). But what matters is that you start loading the affected area of your life as soon as you can. It’s not blind loading or reckless loading—it’s appropriate loading.

Brad

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