In August of this past year, I hurt myself while performing with my band. The injury was an obscure one: a sports hernia, so called because it’s rarely seen outside the world of athletics. ‘Sports hernia’ is a catchall term; in my case, it meant muscle damage and a bulge-shaped defect in my abdominal wall. The deformed muscle pressed against a nerve in my hip, causing pain to radiate up the right side of my body.
About a month later, in September, I went for a run outside. I normally run six to eight miles, but this outing would prove much shorter. My left knee, which had felt strange that morning, began hurting significantly after the first minute of running. I tried to fight through it. Bad idea; moving it became so painful that I could barely walk. I had contracted iliotibial band syndrome, a common runner’s injury.
The sports hernia required surgery. I was able to home-doctor the IT band syndrome with stretching, Aleve, and patience, but it still took time to heal. Between them, I was unable to pursue my normal range of physical activities (strength training, cardio conditioning, and singing for my band) for almost three months.
It was a long three months. I’ve been exercising on a regular basis via organized sports since I was in elementary school, and I’ve been training on my own for close to ten years. I’ve also been in an active or semi-active band for nearly as long. Like most fitness junkies, I feel slimy and gross after a week or two without exercise. By the end of those three months, I was hallucinating swole-up babies crawling across the ceiling towards my bed. Bad withdrawal.
Virtually every athlete endures this withdrawal at some point. Exercise taxes the body, and driven people tend to push harder than they ought. Athletic injury avoidance sustains a cottage industry in the sports-apparel world; athletic injury recovery sustains another in the medical world.
Metal musicians suffer performance-related injuries in huge numbers and for similar reasons. I’m not thinking of Dave Mustaine drunkenly smothering his own arm, but of the endless cases of carpal tunnel, Achilles bursitis, and core-muscle strain that afflict dedicated players. If your instrument doesn’t get you, your stage presence might; Tom Araya has surgically fused vertebrae and can no longer headbang. Even fans are at risk of moshpit wounds and thrashin’-induced whiplash.
Few styles of metal are easy to perform in a physical sense, so most metal musicians effectively are athletes. (This goes for the guys with Guinness guts, too. Nick Barker and Matt Pike probably can’t run half a mile, but their fingers and wrists are still freakishly nimble.) Practicing is training, gigs are gamedays, and technique is technique. You want to play faster and hit harder than the next guy. You push harder than you should.
Metal musicians and athletes share values as well as risks. Metal is the music of power, and athletic feats are physical expressions of power. They are ways of expanding ourselves, of becoming stronger in body and spirit. The disciplines of physical fitness and musical mastery give you goals to strive for. The more you improve yourself, the loftier your goals become; the tantalizing possibility of legendary performance lies at the end of the rainbow. The buzz you get from engaging in either is basically the same: you feel more vivid, more in touch with the world, more alive.
It’s painful to lose access to this buzz. When your body fails, even temporarily, it does more than halt your pursuit of perfection for a bit. It forcefully reminds you of your mortality—that your skills will eventually fade for good, that your muscles will atrophy to nothing, that slowly you rot.
Obituary – Slowly We Rot
Fortunately, my mandatory training holiday ended several weeks ago, and I was allowed to return to my normal program of beating myself to a pulp.
I couldn’t jump back in at full power—months of contemplating the transience of life while eating Muddy Buddies on the couch will blunt your abilities. Instead, I’ve been faced with a new task: retraining myself without reinjuring myself.
This is harder than it sounds. It requires a mental and physical balancing act: you must complete the painful and humiliating work of re-climbing the fitness ladder, pushing hard enough to gain altitude but not so hard that you damage the healing tissue. You must listen carefully to your body and be highly mindful of your limits. A split second of impatience can cause weeks of pain and regret.
“Mindful of limits” is not a characteristic that I associate with athletes or with metal musicians. The music of power knows no restraint. In both realms, the brutal application of iron resolve often goes just as far as brains or technique. That’s why Suffocation is the ultimate weightlifting band: they are pure force. When you’re recuperating from injury, though, a more nuanced approach will better serve you.
Some observations about the process of retraining after an injury:
-Unless you are a professional athlete, patience comes first. You have all the time you need; do not rush.
-Don’t ramp up too quickly. When you reintroduce an exercise, practice it at a low intensity for at least a week. Increase incrementally every week, not every day.
-Pay attention to nutrition, especially if you normally don’t. (I normally sustain myself on a diet of coffee, cardboard pizza boxes, and Campbell’s Chunky.) Your body is literally rebuilding itself. Some lean protein after your workout will bring you better results even at low intensities.
-Pain is not weakness. It is, as the latest Today is the Day record would have it, a warning.
-Regularity of exercise matters more for mood regulation than intensity of exercise does. You’ll still feel better after a light workout.
-Find an additional outlet for your energies. I started practicing guitar much more often during my recovery; it improved my chops and helped me stay sane.
-Change up your regular workout music.
On this last point: the music I typically listen to at the gym is geared for maximum intensity: towering riffs, massive aggression. But massive aggression is not conducive to the caution I needed, so I adjusted my listening habits. Two decidedly patient death metal albums have coached me through the recuperation so far:
1. Bolt Thrower – Those Once Loyal
Both their swan song and their Swansong, though it’s actually good. Those Once Loyal is unusually deliberate and unusually catchy, even for a Bolt Thrower album. Like most straightforward death metal bands, Bolt Thrower usually gets associated with crude violence. But their sense of tension and restraint makes this album; mid-paced death metal only works for those with genuine control over the song.
Bolt Thrower – The Killchain
2. Death – The Sound of Perseverance
Death was a powerhouse at the core; they could lacerate you with serrated speedpicking whenever they felt like it. But on this album, they worked smarter instead of harder. The title itself is totemic for me. When I listen, it says: “Don’t give up. Your body will prevail. Behold the flesh and the power it holds.”
Death – The Flesh And The Power It Holds