CrossFit after a Total Hip Replacement: Is it the End of the Road for a Competitor?
Written by: Matt Beals
“Captain America”, 4 x CrossFit Games Athlete and Invictus Masters Program Follower
It’s a sunny, clear blue-sky, crisp, early autumn afternoon on the football field at Husky Stadium on the picturesque campus of St. Cloud University, Minnesota, the kind of setting that brings back the “glory days” of athletic endeavors of a seemingly distant past. Yet here I am, competing at the legendary Granite Games at a level that easily captures those days of ‘Friday Night Lights’ in every bit of the splendor of my sports-filled youth.
I find myself in this moment, among the fittest 50-year-old men on the planet, as the newest “Silverback” to be promoted to that esteemed and well-respected division. Having earned my way into this cadre of incredible athletes, not of a time past gone, but of a future full of competition just as elevated athletically as ever in my blessed life. I am fortunate and proud to be wearing the Shamrock Green Leader’s Jersey on Day 3 of a grueling CrossFit competition, carrying a 150-pound Mil Spec, cylindrical, black sandbag in a tight, but quickly loosening, bearhug grip, across the football field toward the end zone I used to be familiar with (back in the day), and the ultimate finish line of this Event.
70, 80, 90 yards…can I just hold on to the finish…? What? Ron Ortiz is already in the endzone; most everyone else in the heat is tumbling…it is carnage, crash and burns everywhere across the field, the agony of defeat…how did the programmers and organizers know this would be the ultimate fate of us fierce competitors? Suddenly, I’m the next man down, literally 5 yards shy of Nirvana! I quickly compose myself, I look left, I look right, it’s like a battlefield, I grab my oversized ruck and fling my wilted carcass across the finish into the DMZ (de-militarized zone).
As I lay in the standard CrossFit finisher’s fetal position and slowly roll on my back to calm my pulsing heart and take in the beautiful deep blue sky, something is not right. I feel as if a sniper’s rifle hidden in this quaint university stadium has shot me in the left hip. A sharp pain. High fives are exchanged in the Husky painted red endzone as my fellow competitors clear the field in preparation for the next warriors to take the stage. I cannot join them; I cannot get up.
To this day I am not sure if that event and the labral tear associated was the genesis of my left hip developing osteoarthritis, or if it is just a lifetime of sports and athletics that ultimately catches up to us “seasoned” Master’s athletes. I was still well enough to finish the competition standing proud on the podium, and take second place at Wodapalooza a few months later, as well as qualify for the CrossFit Games the following two years, but the path of chronic pain requiring multiple injections and limited joint mobility, along with severe impingement led me to a path seven years later requiring a Total Hip Replacement (THR) as my only option.
Remarkably, I was still relatively ‘fitness functional’ all the way to my ultimate difficult decision for surgery (this was an absolute last option in my mind), but I was not functioning in regular life very well at all. Such a strange dichotomy, but I have a feeling many of you may fully understand this predicament.
Is it the end of the road for a CrossFit competitor?
So, as I write this article, I am only six weeks post operation (post-op) into this journey, and I literally do not have the answer to the question I pose in the Title “Is it the End of the Road for a (CF) Competitor?” There is no roadmap that I can find returning from Total Hip Replacement surgery, so I felt a bit compelled to share mine so far. I have asked around to quite a few people including the coaches at Invictus, gym owners, renowned doctors and physical therapists like Dr. Kelly Starrett in our sport, surgeons, and event organizers, if a (Masters) athlete with a THR has ever made it to the CrossFit Games. I have found none.
There are a few documented cases of Total Knee Replacement (TKR) athletes making that comeback, and plenty of hip labral repairs and other such surgeries ultimately even standing on the podium at the Games, but not joint replacement of the hip. Does this mean it cannot be done? Of course not! There are many top athletes who have gone down this path that I personally know and achieved high athletic success to include Laird Hamilton who is back charging the biggest waves on the planet, and many others who are lifting heavy weights and accomplishing a myriad of great things athletically.
At the end of OPERATION DESERT STORM and our ultimate victory in the skies over Iraq and the personal contribution to that effort of flying combat missions as a young F-15 pilot I was quoted as saying, “Without a battle at hand a true warrior would surely die; therefore she/he must forever find a new war to wage.” It became a mantra of sorts in taking on the next challenge, whatever that may be. Well, the past six-week journey has been my new war I suppose.
The strategic approach or game plan for me obviously started with going into the surgery in absolutely the best possible shape I could get myself in. Once committed to a surgical solution, I literally used and abused my old hip to the very end since I knew they were going to saw off my femoral head and dispose of it as medical waste. The first 10 days post operation (post-op) were quite standard with pain management and protocols that are well documented for all THR patients. I will admit, even for Captain America, days 2-4 sucked!
The follow up from surgery
I had a surgical follow-up at day 10 post-op and was already feeling great, certain aspects of mobility unknown to me for years I could already see happening, I was hardly limping and not using any crutches or a walker. The most remarkable thing in my opinion was that I was medication free at 10 days! Zero, nothing, and I have not taken even an Ibuprofen since that day to the present. Note that I was taking 800mg just to go to the gym to work out for the past couple of years before this surgery.
At this 10-day follow-up the surgeon was extremely pleased with the outcome of his work (and mine) to date and told me I was cleared to start physical therapy. Here is where it gets interesting to all you Invictus and beyond CrossFit beasts reading this account…I specifically asked him if that meant I could possibly get on an Echo Bike as part of my recovery. He said that my hip was virtually “bulletproof” for that type of activity, and although probably beyond the normal PT protocols, to let pain be my guide, to not do anything stupid getting on or off the bike, but YES, cautiously go for it. It should also be noted my surgeon is a competitive athlete himself and ran the Honolulu Marathon the day prior to my surgery.
That was all I needed to hear!
The next battle at hand
My plan at that moment became clear as day, I had my next “battle at hand”. I made a promise to myself that for the next 30 days, no matter what, no excuse, sickness, holiday, travel, work, family event, sleep deprivation, nothing would get in the way of me commencing the journey of doing 100 CALORIES FOR TIME, EVERY SINGLE DAY, ON THE ROGUE ECHO BIKE.
This was my sole mission to start the true recovery in my mind. I also made a pact with myself that I would give my full effort each time trial and attempt to improve every single day (as pain would allow). In this same timeframe I would do as much upper body stuff as I could without compromising my recovery from a major surgery. So, the journey I hope someone reading this will benefit from, began.
Day 1 (Day 10 post-op), I left the surgeon’s office, had my wife put on my sock and shoe on my left foot for me, went to a completely empty CrossFit Honolulu, and cautiously mounted my best friend and worst enemy for the next 30 days, the soul sucking Echo Bike. Keeping my hips completely level, eyes focused in the mirror, I embarked on my 100 calorie effort mostly with two arms and one leg. Achieving a sedentary pedestrian time of 15 minutes.
Not to get too caught up in the details, but gains came quickly each and every day, and the bottom line is that for 29 of the 30 days I improved my time. I met my goal. I just finished my last effort of these 30 days I promised solely to myself, starting at 10 days post-op, with a time of 5:15 (at age 57). I figure that this is probably close to my preoperative full effort time – only six weeks after major surgery. Sub five minutes is just on the horizon. If I had to put a number scale to the effort this required to push to the limit to even go one second faster than the day prior, I would say physically it was a SIX, it hurt, it sucked, but was relatively short duration. Mentally, as you all can relate to this, it was a tall task and probably on a scale of NINE to stick this out, especially at the end when there was very little “meat on the bone” for improvement with each full effort.
What did I ultimately gain with this challenge? In the big picture, TBD I suppose. To be determined, focused, intentional and see something through to fruition, seems to be a pretty big victory in the moment, simply put. Setting a high, but achievable goal I feel is how we grow not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and more. Continuous growth, isn’t that life itself in a way?
If I am cleared for more activity by my surgeon at my upcoming six-week post-op appointment, I know that I am way beyond most who follow the normal protocols, by that I mean I have protected my investment in the surgery by not doing anything stupid, and I am starting what I consider Phase 2 of this healing process in outstanding cardiovascular shape. Way better than if I had just worked out my upper body and done “normal” PT, I am starting back into functional fitness with a significant lung capacity advantage over many who only sit around to heal. I am not for an instant promoting anyone to disregard what the post THR recovery blueprint is, but I have found a way in this process to see light at the end of the tunnel and kept myself actively challenged in the process.
I hope anyone going through any adversity can benefit from a potentially like-minded individual’s approach that I took on my latest journey I am embarking on. I will be sitting out the 2024 CrossFit Open for the first time in 13 years. Who knows what 2025 will hold.
Aloha, go crush it!