The older I get, the more important it is to me to stay injury free.
Not to say that when I was younger I didn’t care about my personal safety, or health, it just wasn’t something I thought about because, should anything happen, I was able to spring back in almost no time.
Now? Not so much.
Whether you are an avid gym-goer of advanced years, creeping up on middle-age, or you are a beginner trying to put your couch-potato ways behind you, there are few things you need to know about how to stay injury free during your fitness journey.
So let’s dive in, shall we?
First things first, let’s get something out of the way.
Being sore and being injured are two completely different things!
We want to take care to avoid being injured (and be able to recover quickly if we fail in that) but in a lot of cases muscle soreness actually means you are doing things right!
That being said, let’s talk about basic workout recovery first.
Workout Recovery 101
Before we go any further we need to discuss why you get sore after workouts.
This graph shows how the adaptation principle works; it really doesn’t matter what type of exercise we are talking about. Substitute “race” with any type of performance – running, weight lifting, cycling, parkour, etc… whatever.
The first thing I want you to remember is that no amount of adjustments to your workouts, no amount of variety, no amount of preparation will work if you don’t allow yourself time in between workout to recover!
Without proper recovery, you can’t adapt and get stronger or faster.
It isn’t during your workout that you make gains, it’s in the recovery period. That’s when your muscles rebuild; becoming faster and stronger.
If you workout every day, don’t eat enough calories, or only sleep four hours a night, you’re never going to see any real progress!
To make sure you are recovering as best you can, you need to focus on a few basic things:
1) Proper Training – Gains and a short, manageable recovery time is only going to happen if your workout is appropriate. New to exercise? Maybe start with some body weight exercises. New to weight lifting? Maybe start with a simple program using light weights. New to running? Maybe do a couch-to-5k program?
Start small, and gradually (and continually) build them up. Resist the urge to get all beast-mode too soon. Okay?
2) Proper Diet – How are your muscles going to rebuild themselves after hard workouts if you aren’t feeding them enough nutrients? You need to be eating a relatively clean diet, and making sure you eat enough on a daily basis.
Oh, and please… for the love of all that is holy… no following fad diets!
3) Proper Rest – Finally there is sleep. Giving your body enough rest is, without a doubt, the most important thing you can do to recover in between your workouts. Your body repairs the muscle damage that you incurred during your workout while you sleep.
In addition to poor recovery, not getting enough sleep not only sucks but it can have other negative physical side effects as well; things like decreased muscle mass, lower testosterone, higher blood pressure, and more.
And remember, if you’re exercising a lot, you might need more than usual. Experiment with what works best for you… (Yes, I just gave you permission to get your sleep on. Thank me later.)
Now that I have fixed all your training, eating, and sleeping issues in less than 400 words, let’s talk about how to avoid injuries!
What Exactly is an “Overuse” Injury?
It doesn’t matter what your activity of choice is, be it weight lifting, running, gymnastics, or LARPing, overuse injuries (otherwise known as repetitive stress injuries) can happen if you go all out without letting your body recover. And if you make this a habit, not only can they happen but they probably will!
Not all injuries are repetitive stress injuries; I mean if you are Wolverine and Magneto uses his power to strip all the metal from your body, or you anger the Hulk and he double-fist Captain Kirk slams you, that’s not an overuse injury… well, that’s actually a
@#&%ing horrible serious injury and you probably should seek medical attention immediately.
But random Magneto ambushes and Hulk punches aside, here are some of the most common repetitive stress injuries:
- Tennis Elbow (tennis players, weight lifters)
- SLAP Tear (weight lifters, pitchers)
- IT Band Syndrome (cyclists, hikers, and runners)
- Achilles Tendinopathy (runners and hikers)
- Plantar Fasciitis (runners, hikers, and those who spend a lot of time on their feet)
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (nerds)
While it might look like these sorts of injuries plague endurance focused people the most, the truth is they can happen to anyone.
Overuse injuries are common among any type of athlete!
Since these types of injuries are the result of repetitive motions; those who specialize in a single sport, or activity, are at higher risk unfortunately. When our resident running contributor, Brian Kehs, is training for races it is going to be harder for him to stay injury free than someone who just runs casually a few times a week. If you play tennis, or racquetball, a couple of times a month with a friend you are going to be less likely to develop an overuse injury than someone who trains, and plays, competitively.
Please note, I said “less likely.”
Look, even super heroes can be at a higher risk for repetitive stress injuries! If Captain America keeps throwing his shield around all day, he could develop tennis elbow or a SLAP tear. If the Flash doesn’t make sure to stretch, and to wear his awesome yellow boots, achilles tendinopathy or IT band syndrome might be the next villains he has to face. Those risks are just part of the job!
Now that we know what an “overuse” injury is, how do you use that knowledge to stay injury free?
How To Stay Injury Free
Until there is a procedure to fuse our bones with a virtually indestructible metal alloy, and activate our mutant genes that allow us to heal at obscenely fast rates, we are just going to have to be smart about how we treat our bodies.
I know, I know… where’s the fun in that? But you gotta do what you gotta do!
If you aren’t careful, those overuse injuries we were talking about can really derail you. It’s an unfortunate reality that you are going to need to plan for… because no matter what form of exercise you are doing, over the course of your training, you are bound to hurt yourself a few times.
For example, I have seen reports that state that the annual injury rate for triathletes is over 40%!
Obviously we aren’t going to stop exercising out of fear of injury, so what can you do?
You change how you approach exercise, that’s what!
Just like law #6 of the Jerd Herd states, “We train smarter, not harder.” With a bit of planning, and smart training, you can lower your injury risk so you can get the most out of your running, lifting, jumping, etc… all without Wolverine’s unparalleled regenerative capabilities.
These repetitive stress injuries we are talking about happen for a lot of reasons; most commonly because of poor form, lack of strength, and little variety.
As you improve each of these aspects of your workout routine, your risk of injury will drastically decline.
1) Proper Form
I don’t care what you are doing. Lifting weights, running, cycling, swimming, parkouring (is that a word?), etc… The wrong movements repeated hundreds of times, over and over, is an injury in the making.
- Weight lifter? Learn how to properly do every exercise you do in the gym before piling on the weights.
- Cyclist? Get a professional bike fitting.
- Runner? Buy a proper pair of running shoes and take it slow at first.
I cringe almost every time I step into the gym. The things I see in the weight room make me want to cry, and the improper lifting form I see often makes my back twinge in sympathy pain!
I am fully aware that “proper form” is about as exciting as a thesis on the migratory habits of Atlantic salmon (no offense to any ichthyologists out there), but it is basic, required knowledge. Without it you are bound to have problems; with it, you will hopefully be able to stay injury free.
2) Get Strong!
No. Seriously. Get in the gym and get really, really strong. Being strong prevents a lot of injuries… no matter what your activity, or sport of choice, is.
- Martial artists won’t be susceptible to muscle strains when moving quickly.
- Gymnasts won’t fatigue as quickly and will have the strength to avoid any clumsy falls.
- Runners who lift weights are less likely to suffer an overuse injury.
I recommend you start doing body weight exercises yesterday, and lifting weights as soon as you are ready! Just remember to use good form, and start slowly. You have to build that foundation carefully!
Form then progression. This is all intertwined!
Once you start following this method you’ll be far less likely to get injured.
3) Mix It Up
Not only is doing the same thing over and over and over again pretty darned boring, it is also the recipe for developing a repetitive stress injury.
Changing things up is not only good for your body, but also your sanity, and I recommend a change in routine every 6-8 weeks to keep things fresh.
You would think it would be pretty common, but instead you see people stuck in the same rut for loooooong stretches. You see:
- Weight lifters going through the exact same cycle of exercises, in the same order, ad nauseam for months and months on end.
- Runners doing the same distance, at the same pace and in the same shoes, on the treadmill every day.
- Cyclists taking the same route, with the same hills, over and over and over again.
Remember – every change you implement, no matter how subtle, is a different sort of stress that’s applied to your body!
Since repetitive stress injuries are by definition… well… repetitive; variety is a way to reduce these sorts of overuse injuries.
- Vary up your weight training exercises and the intensity of your sets.
- Vary up the running shoes you wear, and the inclines you run.
- Vary up the route you cycle, the gear you are in, and the hills you bike.
One more time for those in the nose-bleed seats. Variety. Okay?
So that about sums it up. My tips for staying healthy and injury free. Did I miss anything? Have any tips of your own? Can you tell me where I can buy an adamantium skeleton?
Let me know in the comments below!
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