Ellen Johnston is a Personal Trainer and Fitness Instructor based in Donegal, Ireland. Ellen, who's life has always been heavily rooted in sports, suffered a serious knee injury at the age of 14, which started the long rehabilitation journey outlined below.
Ultimately, it was this difficult physical and mental experience that inspired her to get qualifications in both Personal Training and Nutrition, in order to help others in their fitness and recovery journeys.
My Injury Recovery Story
I didn’t have a clue what an ACL was until I was 14. I remember the day so well. On the 24th of April 2018, I had jumped up to save a goal like I had done so many times before. Upon landing I went to dummy the player in front of me from the opposition and that’s when I heard it, that distinctive ‘Pop’, followed by intense pain. Originally I was told it was only torn ligaments and that I’d be back on the pitch in 6 weeks. I was seeing little improvement in the knee after 2 weeks, so I took myself off for an MRI and it was confirmed - Grade V ACL tear. Who knew 3 letters could have such a devastating impact? Especially considering I had never heard of an ACL up until then.
Unless you’ve been through it yourself, it’s very hard to understand exactly why it’s known as ‘every athlete’s worst nightmare’ - let’s just say it lives up to its title. I had to wait 4 months for my surgery, so I had ample time to get myself prepared for surgery both physically and mentally. By the time I had done the 12 month recovery, I had been out of action for 16 months in total, which felt like an eternity.
I committed myself fully to the rehab process, rarely missing a session unless I was sick. I was nervous returning to training, especially game-like scenarios where it’s less controlled. I don’t think I had fully regained confidence in the knee, or rather, I didn’t have the opportunity to in the rehab process.
Return to Sport & Re-Injury
I had made a successful return to the pitch following my 16 month stint on the sideline, things had been going pretty well, probably a bit too well looking back. After 2 months back on the pitch, my world came crashing down - little did I know that this time, it would be permanent. A pretty nasty tackle saw my knee go from underneath me, having heard that ‘pop’ before, immediately the alarm bells were ringing. Despite what was going on inside my head, I chose to play on for the remainder of the match. I hobbled off the pitch, not knowing what this meant for me going forward.
An MRI confirmed that the tackle resulted in a significant level of damage to the surrounding structures in the knee. Given that the ACL had been my biggest concern and it was still intact, I chose not to return to my surgeon immediately, as I wanted to take a conservative approach by building up the muscles around the knee in the hope that it would alleviate the pain. Unfortunately, it didn’t go my way. A trip to my surgeon’s office confirmed any athlete’s worst nightmare - my days of football were over. I remember feeling as though my heart had been ripped out. I felt cheated, I was angry at the world, I couldn’t wrap my head around as to why this happened to me after the level of work and commitment I put in with my ACL. It felt like the ultimate betrayal. To make matters worse, I wasn’t offered a solution as the surgeon was reluctant to operate on me for a second time given how young I was. I was sent on my way, with no solution and my heart torn in two.
The Mental Side of Injury Recovery
I let myself go. Up until that point, I didn’t know what physical activity looked like away from the pitch. In my head, I didn’t see the point in training or eating well if I couldn’t play sports. I gained weight, I felt lost, I now had this gap in my day and I didn’t know what to do with it. It got to the point where I was annoyed at myself for being upset, so I decided to explore other avenues of moving my body.
I didn’t think it would be possible for me to find a form of movement that filled the void that was left by Gaelic football, that was until I joined the gym. After the first session, I was hooked. I left feeling more like me than I had in months. And the best part, it didn’t aggravate my knee! After I joined the gym, I decided to delve a little deeper into the realm of nutrition and training. It wasn’t until I had started researching that I realised my one fatal error during my ACL rehab - my nutrition.
The Importance of Understanding the Recovery Process
At that time there had been a lot of talk of the 1200 calorie diet. I was fixated on losing weight, because in my head if I was lighter, it would reduce the chances of me falling victim to the ACL again. But instead of being a victim to the ACL for the 2nd time, I fell victim to the 1200 calorie diet. 1200 calories isn’t enough for an infant, never mind an active athlete who was also recovering from ACL surgery. This energy deficiency meant my body didn’t have enough energy to build muscle and gain strength. It was inevitable the second injury was going to happen at some point as I’m hyper-mobile but this proved to be a catalyst.
Instead of wasting time being angry at my younger self, I chose to take that anger and turn it into passion, this saw me undertake my Personal Training qualification when I was 17. Given my experience with injury, I wanted to help others move their body in a way that they enjoyed, but ultimately empower them to decipher what’s fact or fiction, given the level of misinformation out there today. Due to my extensive experience with injury, I’m in a powerful position to empathise with clients who are fighting a battle of their own. It’s allowed me to add a further dimension to my coaching service, as I understand how our ability to make good decisions can be negatively impacted by things such as injury, illness, tiredness, conflict, etc. I don’t think I’d have the same scope without my experiences.
I had suffered several episodes of patellar instability since 2019, which saw me go under the knife for the 2nd time in October 2022, at the age of 18, this time in the form of a lateral release and a cartilage debridement. Again, much like I did with my ACL rehab, I was committed to it 110%. Although this time around I was better equipped as I understood the importance of nutrition in the recovery process. The idea of the lateral release was to remove the need for a MPFL reconstruction, but unfortunately it wasn’t successful. In February 2023, when I was just under 4 months post-surgery, I dislocated my knee while doing my rehab. An MRI confirmed the need for an orthopaedic referral. After meeting my surgeon (again), it was agreed that I would undergo a MPFL reconstruction in June. Except I’d have 2 legs to rehab, not just 1. I used a hamstring graft for my ACL in 2018, which meant they couldn’t use the hamstring on my right side again, so they had to take the hamstring from my left leg to reconstruct the MPFL.
Advice for the Injury Recovery Process
So here I am, 1 week post MPFL reconstruction - 3rd time lucky! Prior to the surgery, I was expecting it to be a breeze as it’s my 3rd time around the block. But in reality, surgery is an unnatural experience that places a lot of stress on the body. Not to mention the fact that it turns your life on its head as you’re not able to work and you’re forced to rely on others. If you’re currently recovering from surgery, be patient with yourself and allow yourself to feel how you’re feeling. Treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you would show a friend in the same situation. Remember, the comeback is always bigger than the setback.
The biggest learning I’ve taken from my experience with my knee is to not take your health for granted. So often we view exercise as a chore, I was guilty of saying ‘ugh I have training tonight’ when I was playing football but now I would do anything to be able to step foot on the pitch. Instead of moving your body out of hate, move it out of love, move it because you CAN move. And don’t wait until you’re injured or ill to look after your health. It’s been a rough ride, but I’m grateful for it in a way, as it has given me a job I love and I now feel like I have purpose. I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now had I not got injured. Life has a funny way of working sometimes, you really do just have to trust the process.
Thank you Ellen for sharing this honest look at the recovery journey and well done for using your difficult experience to empower others in the process! We wish you the best of luck in the next stage of your recovery. If you'd like to follow Ellen's journey or connect for coaching you'll find more information here.
Want to read important advice to accelerate your recovery journey? Click here to read our Expert Insight with Peter Tierney on Strategies to Support and Accelerate Your Recovery!