Injuries are the all-but-inevitable side effect of a physically active lifestyle. It doesn’t matter how limber and fit you may be or how much experience you have; on a long enough timeline everyone eventually gets hurt. This is why it’s so important to properly manage the rehab process; that way you can get back to doing the things you love to do as soon as possible.
Training injuries can usually be classified in one of two categories. Acute injuries happen suddenly, such as an ankle sprain while jogging or jamming a finger during a game of one-on-one. Chronic injuries occur over time, typically as a result of overuse of a particular movement pattern or from faulty biomechanics. Tennis elbow and plantar fasciitis are two of the most common examples from the fitness world.
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(Of course it should go without saying that you can hurt yourself outside the context of an active environment. One of the most debilitating injuries I’ve suffered resulted from towel-drying my hair too vigorously after a shower. First I felt a pop in my neck, then an immediate stiffness settled in straight through my spine. It took weeks before I was able to move with any semblance of grace.)
Understanding the nature of an injury matters because acute injuries can easily become chronic unless the underlying cause is addressed. Oftentimes the fix is simply a matter of tweaking your technique. Once that’s taken care of, these next tips will ensure your road to recovery is as smooth as a freshly paved blacktop.
Take your time
We’ve all heard the stories of pro athletes bouncing back after catastrophic injuries, defying all medical opinions in the process. These cases can inspire, no doubt, but it’s important to remember that you’re not an NBA superstar with access to the best treatments and therapies money can buy. You, mere mortal, are operating on a much different timeline.
As with life itself, when rehabbing an injury patience is a virtue. The urge to get back to the gym can be tough to resist, especially if your training is the foundation that your days are built upon. But return too soon and you run a real risk of aggravating the injury, resulting in even more time out of action.
Ironically, it’s the seemingly minor injuries that often cause more of a problem because they tend not to get the respect they deserve. People will treat a broken leg with more care and deference than a broken toe, even though that busted digit will have a profound effect on your performance.
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Reduce the intensity
Taking your time doesn’t just mean holding off on training. It can also mean dialling down the intensity of your approach to training.
When planning your comeback after an injury, you’re best advised to act like a beginner all over again, at least for a few weeks. Sure, that broken bone may have healed, but what about the tendons and ligaments that keep everything connected? Allow your body the opportunity to get reacquainted with focused, low-intensity movement before upping the ante.
An example: Many moons ago, back when I still harboured some fleeting ambitions of becoming a professional fighter, I tore a calf muscle while kicking a heavy bag. I knew that even after being given the go-ahead by my doctor, I couldn’t just start running and skipping rope like nothing ever happened. Instead, I used walking and cycling to get my cardio back to a respectable level. Same form of exercise, different levels of intensity, different levels of effect on the body.
One of the most helpful forms of training for injury management are isometric exercises. According to Brad Thorpe, one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject (and the inventor of the Isophit training system), isometrics are the perfect tool for not only rehabbing injuries, but for working around injuries as well.
“When returning to sports or training after an injury, isometrics are the first thing that should be recommended because they’re safe, effective and they target the specific tissues we’re trying to address,” said Mr. Thorpe during a phone interview.
Have you ever done a plank? How about a wall sit? If so, you’re already acquainted with some basic forms of isometrics. However, there’s a whole lot more to this under-appreciated protocol than just holding a pose. In order to reap the full rewards, there needs to be a degree of muscular tension.
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Think of yourself trying to push a stuck pick-up truck from a pool of mud. That truck isn’t going to move, and neither will you, but those muscles in your legs, your arms and pretty much everywhere else will be firing at their maximum capacity and you will soon become exhausted. That is isometric training, albeit an extreme example of.
Ultimately, the most valuable asset when working your way back from an injury is common sense. If something feels wrong, stop. If your intuition is telling you to back off or take a rest day, listen. Chances are your ego got you into this situation in the first place. Don’t let it dictate the terms of your recovery too.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.