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Handling Injuries


Another injury, (insert your favorite curse word). This is so *bleeping* frustrating. I’ve already added several dollars to my anti-cursing fund!

This injury – an ankle strain – was caused by new shoes combined with overuse and tight muscles. My stride this morning is with a distinct limp and running is downright painful. With a full hip replacement in 2011 and another in 2016, injury to rehab to recovery is a very well-known path for me. Yet, it is still incredibly annoying! 

Injuries are a part of any sport and are to some extent, unavoidable. We can work to minimize them, but at some point in agility you will have to deal with an injury to yourself or to your dog. I workout daily, and do my best to strength train for more speed and mobility. My dogs, whose bodies are asked for much more than I am on every course, have a chiropractor, a physical therapist and a full fitness plan. Evenings after hard agility workouts or long trail hikes are spent massaging and lasering them, but injuries can still happen.

They are not necessarily mistakes; sometimes it is just something unforeseeable or silly like falling through a snowbank… which is how I lost a full weekend of trialing with Zabu last month (my anti-cursing fund got a lot of, uh, “donations” that morning too!) Accepting injuries as part of the game and adjusting your goals is a necessary skill. And like all skills, effectively processing and recovering from setbacks can be learned. 

The Acceptance Process

If you are reading this blog post, agility is a big part of your life, whether that is as a hobby or as a career. Being injured may be much more than just a physical setback. It may have financial implications, and it absolutely can affect your mental health. You may have to skip agility class, miss trials or toss out a major goal. Minor injuries can create a severe loss; major injuries or surgeries can be traumatic.

And, as such, agility athletes need to handle injuries like grief. Whether you’re the one with an ouch or your dog is sidelined, your very first step in recovery is letting yourself experience the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You will go through all these stages, so recognizing and experiencing each one will get you to acceptance faster and with less collateral damage. Own the process.  

My ankle injury is hard to deny since it truly hurt to walk. With lots of past and recent practice in dealing with injuries, I moved through being angry quickly, but I spent a whole day bargaining! I tossed out the shoes and ran five more runs in socks with an adjusted stride to minimize more injury to the ankle… this didn’t work, of course.

I was just hoping I could walk it off in between runs at the current trial, while slowly realizing I was going to have to skip the next. Spending a day limping around did help me move past depression fairly quickly (again – sigh – lots of practice at this). So, I hit acceptance with only a bit of extra damage, which was limited to the ankle and not my temper impacting relationships.  

There are key points in the acceptance process that are important. 

 – This is Not Your Fault.

Many injuries happen due to unforeseen circumstances or are hard to detect until cumulative stress takes a toll. Hindsight is great for future prevention plans, but don’t punish yourself. The what-if’s and self-blaming thoughts can be hard to escape. This is particularly true when the injury is to your dog. All of us hurt when it’s our pup that’s injured. Let go of the blame and shame

– Stay positive.

Few injuries are life threatening or career ending. There is always a future. Sure we may have to take some time off or change how we play the game. But, you can find a way to make next week as fun as last week. Keep capturing and redirecting the ANTS – automatic negative thoughts. Mind your thoughts and challenge yourself to stay positive. Negativity leads to inaction and you’ve already got enough of that! Positivity leads to action, and even small steps are critical for recovery 

Live in the present. 

It’s so easy to slip into the past or project the future, but you need to stay grounded in acceptance. The past is gone and the future is often unknown when dealing with recovery. A good way to stay grounded is to ask yourself, “What can I do right now to help the situation?” This question will guide you to an action that is present and positive.  

Adjust Your Goals 

Goal setting is a superb skill and it will serve you well when dealing with injuries. The bottom line is that injuries often require effort and time to heal. Having a solid, new plan offers lots of advantages. 

Start your goal adjustment process by recording the injury details. An outline of what happened and when will give you perspective. This will also help you prevent re-injury. With a bit of distance, you may also be able to identify a cause or contributing factors. With my ankle injury, I realized it had started the week before, and though it didn’t hurt then, it was definitely cumulative and shoe related. This is also the point where you may need more information on the injury and the recovery process. Seek information from qualified professionals. Knowledge is powerful!

Next you have to review your existing goals – short term and, perhaps, long term too. Be realistic. Injuries take time to heal and this is a good time to be conservative rather than aggressive. This is where a professional can help most as they have the experience to give you real timelines.

As you modify your goal, which might be just a couple missed practice sessions all the way to full season lost, build in a few contingencies. Think in terms of “if this, then that”, for us this looks is like flowchart rather than a linear progression. Planning for how you will handle a variety of barriers and possibilities will help keep you grounded.

Write down your revised or new plan. This is where you regain a sense of control. Injuries are unexpected and it is often the loss of control (the immersion into the unknown) that is most distressing. We frequently feel better by simply having an action plan, which might be making doctor/vet appointments, scheduling a series of physical therapy sessions, or just talking to your trainer about some modified exercises or drills to do for the short term.

This is where possibilities appear! In my case, a bum ankle means no running. So, we’ll be doing start line drills, weave entries and distance tunnel sends to stay on top of training goals. Running dog walk drills is postponed to next week, but Zabu and I are still training and making progress. In the past, I’ve had to find possibilities outside of agility training. Hip replacements didn’t allow for as much flexibility, but I could still study courses, learn about dog training or work on my mental game! By redirecting my efforts and energies, I can benefit from other types of training during my recovery process. Grief moved to acceptance, and now, I’m back to happy! 


Debunking Handler Fitness Myths

By Kathleen Oswald MS & Adam Whisler, MS, CSCS, TSAC-F, CISSN, USAW

As an agility handler your job is to run alongside your teammate while using body language and verbal cues to give directions. Being fitter and faster can make it easier to handle your dog on course and increase the number of handling options that are available to you. For this very reason, fitness is becoming a priority for many handlers. But, getting fit for agility isn’t as simple as it sounds. Finding workouts online or even hiring a personal trainer can be a great start to improving your health, but these resources may lack the understanding of dog agility needed to really take your fitness to the next level. In this article, we’re going to break down three myths about fitness for agility to help you better understand exercises that will actually be beneficial for your fitness goals!  

Myth #1: You have to “be a runner” to get faster 

Most people define “being a runner” as doing a 5k or farther. Running a 5k or longer distance doesn’t provide the body with a similar physical stimulus as a handler will find when running an agility course. Running far requires the body to develop slow-twitch aerobic muscle fibers, whereas the speed and change of direction seen when handling in agility requires the development of fast twitch anaerobic muscle fibers.

So, what does this mean?

By running long distances you’re developing the opposite muscle composition of what you need to be quick on course. This is not to say that running would not improve handler speed due to increased lean muscle mass, weight-loss or improved overall health. Running for distance is simply not the best or most necessary exercise to improve your handling abilities. 

Myth #2: Agility ladders increase your speed and agility 

The agility ladder as an athletic training tool does not improve agility or speed. Agility, as an athletic skill, combines your ability to accelerate, decelerate and change direction. Throughout ladder drills both speed and direction are constant; there is no acceleration, deceleration or change of direction. By design this tool does not improve your ability to run fast and change direction quickly; it does improve your ability to learn footwork through a ladder drill. By practicing a variety of ladder drills at increasing speeds you will get faster and increase coordination, but this doesn’t transfer well to dog agility.

Ladder drills simply do not represent the physical components that dog agility requires.

A handler needs to be able to accelerate quickly, decelerate quickly and move through multiple planes of motion – in other words, not just run in a straight line, but move forward, backward and diagonally. Best to leave the ladder out of your workouts if your real fitness goal is to beat your dog down the line for that blind or improve your footwork through front crosses. 

Myth #3 Strength training hurts running performance. 

The common misconception is that strength training will cause you to bulk up and get weighed down by all that extra muscle. This is not the case as weight gain and loss is determined mostly by your caloric intake, not by what exercise you do. Rather, with strength training your body will undergo recomposition where you lose body fat and gain lean muscle mass. Strength training increases your ability to produce force – your ability to produce force in a short period of time is exactly what will make you quicker on course.

It does this by increasing the strength of your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints through loading compound exercises that emphasize full ranges of motion. Handling puts a large strain on our tendons, ligaments and joints due to the quick change of direction, acceleration and deceleration required of handlers. We’ve likely all seen more than one of our fellow agility competitors injured due to the high physical demand of our sport. Strength training can minimize your risk of injury and increase your handling performance on course by enhancing your overall health and ability to change direction and run faster while staying balanced. 

Athlete Habits

Small Habits, Big Change

Your brain is wired to create and use habits. Most of what you do during a day actually qualifies as a mental “habit”. From brushing your teeth to feeding your dogs to driving to work and on through your day, close to fifty percent of your thoughts and actions are routine. They’re habitual.
This is good as it saves you countless minutes of mental processing. Our minds are designed to build unconscious routines, which psychologists call habits, so we can focus on the new and unusual – a definite advantage to our ancient ancestors.

Some habits are useful – tying your shoes, putting on a seat-belt, hand washing, turning off the stove, etc – while others are detrimental or destructive. We’re going to focus on the good habits and use some leading-edge psychology to build even more!

In his New York Times award-winning book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explores the concept of a keystone habit. He recognized that people can make significant changes in their life with minimal effort by consciously developing keystone habits. These are new behaviors or changes in routine that set off a chain reaction of new and improved behaviors without extra willpower or attention. 

Multiple studies have found that exercise is one of the strongest keystone habits. Any exercise – from a walk around the block or ten thousand steps a day or a bike ride around your neighborhood – counts when you’re creating a new habit. Over the long term, the duration or level of effort is not as important as the daily routine of some form of exercise. This is the concept embedded in the current usage of “fitness challenges” by personal trainers. Working the challenge at any level improves your fitness but the true benefits are much, much bigger. Exercise as a keystone habit leads to the progressive development of other good behaviors and thoughts. It works something like this…

After a short workout, you drink more water. You then feel better and make a healthier choice for lunch or skip dessert at dinner. After a few days, a little bit of lost weight energizes you to up your exercise amount so you take a walk after lunch. More exercise then leads to better sleep and a better attitude which makes you more productive at work. More productive means less stress which reduces illnesses and gives you even more energy.

And so it goes – on and on – a cascade of small changes in behavior and attitude lead to positive changes throughout your life. Everyone will have their own stream of changes in behavior but the process of moving toward positive choices and attitudes is the same. And, it all stems from using one small keystone habit.

Other common keystone habits are:

Goal Setting
Time Management
Food Journaling
Eating Family Dinner
Money Management (budgetting)
Consistent Sleep

Do you have a keystone habit that you’re working on?
Or, have a keystone habit that’s changed your life?
Let us know about it in the comments!

Athlete Habits

A Habit I F*ing Failed At

Diane has a goal for 2020 – stop dropping f-bombs. I was mildly intrigued, and then I heard a podcast on living more positively. The podcast interviewee pointed out that curse words by nature are negative; profanities rarely add anything positive to a moment. Since I am big on cultivating positivity, this idea really hit home and I decided to set my own goal to stop using all curse words

I immediately became hyper aware of my cursing. Every piece of colorful language that left my lips was followed by a gut-clench of true frustration. I was constantly muttering “gosh darn it, not again.” I told my friends of my valiant pursuit to clean up my act and began dropping “fudge nuggets” and “dagnabbits” into our conversations. As you can imagine, they were quite amused. I even kept a daily, mental total of cuss words used – probably around five most days (okay, some days more like eleven). 

I gave myself a pass anytime I replayed a conversation I had with my advisor about my thesis. Like, have you ever tried to explain the complexities of agility to non-dog people while editing a 100+ page paper; swearing seems downright necessary to fully express the aggravation. Regardless, I was improving at my goal of cutting back on cussing. 

Well, I thought I was improving. There came a day where my allotted passes blurred together and then I couldn’t really claim that I was on this mission. It dawned on me, I straight up f*ing failed. 

Yet, Diane was succeeding. F-bombs were becoming rare. Why? We basically had the same goal. We should have been equally successful at eliminating this bad habit. By comparing our experiences, I’ve gained a few insights into what made the difference.

1. My goal (stop using all curse words) and Diane’s goal (stop using one curse word) might not sound different, but my goal was too drastic to try all at once.

2. Diane actually penalized herself a dollar for each f-bomb dropped. By counting dollars in the envelope, gave her a clear number how many times she failed. Plus, she plans to buy herself a gift with the “f-bomb fund” when she finally breaks the bad habit for good. Keeping track in my head just wasn’t effective and added to my frustration. 

3. My environment wasn’t ideal. During this process, the people around me brought attention to my substitutions and they continued to curse a “normal” amount. Now, let’s be clear – their actions weren’t an intentional effort to thwart my progress, but going against the status quo is difficult. Being surrounded by your bad habit makes change harder. 

4. I didn’t stay set a firm boundary for consistency. By allowing myself passes when I didn’t “feel like it” or was extremely frustrated, I undermined my own efforts. Diane keeps her envelope with her every day, everywhere she goes – even on vacation – and counted every word, even when cursing silently in her head.

New habits won’t stick if we don’t construct them to be maintainable. I totally f*ing failed at this habit because I didn’t take the time to create a successful system. However, I now know how to adjust my process to reapproach my habit change.