SURVIVING SEALFIT: How Not to Hurt Yourself (Like I Did)

After weeks of making training gains, the author managed to 'mess himself up royally.' Here's how to avoid a similar fate.

Keen-eyed readers of this blog series have pointed out that a few weeks back, I concluded a post with a hanging ending, stating that after some progress, I "screwed things up." But then I didn't deliver on it.

The following week's story, on The World's Hardest Workout, referenced no such up-screwing. Neither did the post the week after that.

It's time to come clean, dear readers. Just a few weeks into my training for a SEALFIT 20X Challenge in June, I managed to mess myself up royally. By "mess myself up," I mean "put myself out of commission through a series of dumb mistakes and unfortunate events."

I haven't wanted to write about it because, again, dumb mistakes. But I feel that I must—to tie up that hanger back in blog No. 2, and to help you avoid the errors I made. So here goes.

It started on a Friday. Following SEALFIT's plan, I had a killer workout session—two hours of muscle-pumping awesomeness. In a short time, I had progressed from feel-like-I'm-gonna-die panic during those demanding workouts to feeling strong and confident. The training sessions were still (very) challenging, but they were becoming more manageable.

The next day, I put in some extra work in the pool, doing a long swim workout. In addition to the upcoming 20X Challenge, I aspire to knock out my first triathlon this year, so I've been making an effort to fit in swimming—my Achilles' heel, the thing that has so far limited me to landlocked endurance events—wherever I can.

On Sunday, my friend and training partner Damion was in town, and we took on The World's Hardest Workout—the one I wrote about a few posts back. By what I named it, you can tell it was demanding. I was beginning to feel some aches here and there, but following that session I mostly felt energized by the fact that we'd done the workout—and by the insight I gained from doing it.

When Monday rolled around, I hopped out of bed when my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., ignoring the increasing soreness and stiffness I felt. That day's OPWOD (the SEALFIT term for its most-intense series of workouts) called for lots more work, including a bunch of exercises targeting the legs and back. Bring it on, I thought. Let's get it done.

I had a lot to do that day, not just during the workout but in the office afterward, and I tried to save some time by cutting my warm-up a little short. I'll loosen up as I get into the session, I thought. But as I progressed through the workout, I didn't really feel any improvement. In fact, when I started performing Romanian Deadlifts, I felt a noticeable tightening. It's probably nothing, I told myself.

Maybe it was nothing, or maybe it was a huge flashing "warning!" sign that I should stop or at least make an adjustment. But I soldiered on, following the day's plan as written. This could have been a mistake, but I don't know for sure because what happened later that day made everything uncertain.

What happened? One of those "unfortunate events" I referenced earlier. During the late afternoon, while I was at work, my stomach turned sour on me. By the time I got home, I was ready to upchuck, which I soon did. The stomach bug that had been crawling through the kids in the neighborhood had bitten me, too.

I spent the rest of that night and most of the two following days lying in bed, too sick to move. When the illness finally began to abate, and I felt well enough to eat some saltine crackers, I still had a hard time getting up—not because of the bug, but because during those two days of inactivity, the stiffness in my back had progressed into full-on spasms.

There's no faster way to go from feeling like a relatively strong, young athlete to a hunchbacked old man than having back spasms. They totally incapacitate you.

In my case, the spasms were so strong that I couldn't stand up straight. When I finally kicked the bug and returned to work, I resembled a lowercase "r," leaning forward at the torso and slumped over at the shoulders.

Not a good look. But that's how I looked the rest of that week.

Eventually, with the help of a great PT/massage therapist and a Tens Unit (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation), which I had running 24/7, the spasms subsided. By then I had spoken with Coach Will Talbott, my guide through SEALFIT training, who recommended that I stop following the intense OPWOD training schedule and switch to the group's line of workouts that consist mostly of bodyweight exercises.

The change was good in that I've been able to perform the workouts without reigniting my back spasms. Bodyweight moves can still be plenty hard,  especially if you raise the challenge with the Devil's Backpack. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a tinge of disappointment over having to make the adjustment—as well as some embarrassment for the mistakes I made to create the situation.

To help you avoid falling into same traps I did, here are five lessons you can learn about what to do—and what not to do.

Lesson 1: Rest, Dumb*ss

Just because you feel like you can take on the world doesn't mean that you should. Piling up hard workout after hard workout after hard workout is a recipe for overtraining, which can lead to injury, illness or worse. (Look up what happens to someone who trains himself into rhabdomyolysis. It's not pretty.) Although the line between "productive" and "overdoing it" is different for everybody, a good rule of thumb is to rest or at least scale back your workload every two to three days.

Lesson 2: Cut Anything But Your Warm-up

A good dynamic warm-up is a big deal. Want proof? Some of the smartest names in athlete training—people like Mike Boyle and Mark Verstegen—advocate warm-ups lasting 20 minutes or more. If you think about it, the rationale is obvious: Warm up properly, but fail to complete your workout, and the worst thing that happens is that you feel freer and more mobile the rest of the day. Try to complete your workout by skipping your warm-up and you put cold muscles against heavy loads—a recipe for tears (or spasms, or any number of other bad outcomes.)

Lesson 3: Have a Coach, or at Least a Training Partner

Perhaps the worst thing about my inflicting this injury on myself is that while I was doing those Romanian Deadlifts, I could tell that my form was a little wonky. Something just felt off. But instead of stopping, I tried to muscle through it. If I'd been training alongside someone, my partner could have told me, Dude, you're using your back waaaay too much, and you're going to mess yourself up.

(FYI: In case you want to see the correct way to hit RDLs, learn the lesson from STACK Performance Director Andy Haley in the video at the top of this post.)

Lesson 4: If a Move Doesn't Feel Right, Do Something Else

No, wait, this is the worst part about my RDL downfall: I knew a good alternative. Single-Arm, Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts would have hit most of the same muscle groups that the prescribed move was meant to work. I'm much more comfortable with that alternative move, and I should have switched to it as soon as I felt something off.

For virtually every exercise, modifications exist that work nearly as well. If a move feels wrong, find another option that can deliver the same benefits.

Lesson 5: Maintain Perspective

When you're following a workout plan designed by extremely fit people, it's easy to forget that the plan creators are in all likelihood much stronger than you, and that they therefore have a different perspective on the meaning of "difficult."

One of the great lessons I've learned through SEALFIT training is that I can do a lot more than I thought I could. But it's helpful to keep in mind that most SEALFIT trainers are freaks of physical strength and mental toughness.

Commander Mark Divine, who founded the program, once did 1,000 8-Count Bodybuilders (essentially a harder version of a Burpee) in a row during Navy SEALs Hell Week. Then he looked the drill instructor in the eye and told him it was fun. More recently, in what some people would consider "middle age," he finished a 1,000-Push-Up Challenge nearly as fast as the (much younger) winner.

Derek Price, the bigger of the two instructors seen chewing out trainees in this video, used to play in the NFL. Then he started doing triathlons before he discovered SEALFIT. The other coach in the video is Brad McLeod, an asthmatic who wanted to be a SEAL so badly that he went through Hell Week twice. The list goes on. The point is: These are not typical people.

In the coming weeks, I will tell you more about these and other exceptional folks. A few have agreed to be interviewed for this blog, and from the info I've already received, I can tell you that their stories are inspiring. Meantime, I'm trying to keep in mind that, although it's fine to be inspired by people who can do incredible things, I shouldn't try to do what they can do—at least not overnight. Self-improvement is a long process, and this is no exception.

Related Posts: 

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 1: What Happened When a Regular Guy Tried to Train Like a Navy SEAL

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 2: 3 Ways SEAL-Style Workouts Change Your Life

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 3: The World's Hardest Workout Has a Ridiculous Name

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 4: Inside the Devil's Backpack: The Only 5 Things You Need to Get A Hellishly Hard Workout Anywhere

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 5: How Not to Hurt Yourself (Like I Did)

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 6: Finding the Silver Lining

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 7: The Question That Tells You Whether You'll Succeed

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 8: Meet 3 Guys Who Might Kill Me

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 9: The Dress Rehearsal

SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 10: What a SEALFIT 20X Challenge is REALLY Like



STACK Executive Editor Brian Sabin is glad to be back up and around, and not looking like a lowercase "r" while writing this, the fifth installment of SURVIVING SEALFIT, the blog series recounting his quest to reach elite military grade fitness, take on a SEALFIT 20X Challenge and (hopefully) live to tell about it. He's publishing weekly accounts of his ups and downs here at You can also find daily updates on Twitter and Google Plus

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock