• Ash Radford

5 ways to prevent injury curtailing your fitness progress

Whether you love exercise or keen to get on with your new routine, there’s nothing more frustrating than injury.

Injuries cost time and money. They hinder progress and break momentum.

There’s no denying injury is a risk factor with exercise. That’s why there’s a big industry around it.

Here’s some simple, easy to apply ways to slash injury risk. Not only that, they’ll help your performance.

1. Cross train


Cross training is like diversifying your investments. You reduce risk while still getting plenty of benefit.

It’s largely about avoiding too much strain on 1 muscle group or joint. If you’ve an old ankle problem for example, it may flare up after 15 minutes of running. Lets’ say, however, you’re keen to do a solid 30 minutes of cardio training in your gym workouts. Cross training could be the answer- 10 minutes each of treadmill running, stationary cycling and rowing will burn plenty of calories, match the intensity of continuous running and prevent the pain in the ankle from coming on.

Like all forms of exercise stationary cycling and rowing have downsides as well. As both are seated, the muscles around the hips tend to shorten. Neither position lends itself to good posture, disc pressure in the lower spine is higher than ideal. By moderating how much you do the risk of injuries to those areas drops too.

Options are endless with cross training; lifting weights, yoga, swimming, boxing and more could be used, either within a workout or across your weekly program.

A benefit of that variety is the range of muscles you’ll use. Resulting in a balanced overall fitness.

Added to that, cross training is a great way of keeping it varied and interesting. A real plus for motivation.


2. Stop or modify your workout if something doesn't feel right

Man grabbing neck injury
Photo by Afif Kusuma @javaistan on Unsplash

If you feel a small pain or twinge but aren’t sure if it’s a normal response to exercise- assume it’s NOT. It’s often a case of ‘from little things big things grow.’ Ignore something minor and it can soon become something major.

If you err on the safe side you can save yourself a lot of heart ache (and body ache!).

Stopping if you feel anything within a joint is another useful guide. You want to feel it primarily in muscles.

If you do stop, it doesn’t have to mean workout over. You could switch focus to other parts of the body. If for instance you’re unsure about the sensation in your shoulder, give any upper body work a miss and get on with leg weights, cycling, running, walking etc. If you sense though you have injured yourself, finishing up and applying ice is your best bet.

It takes time to get the knack of discerning good exercise pain from bad exercise pain (injury). Till you develop that, take the conservative approach.

The glory from conquering a tough workout pales in comparison to the frustration and inconvenience of injury.

Don’t get sucked into the toughen up mentality. It’s over-rated. Choose to smarten up instead.


3. Increase exercise intensity and duration slowly


It’s the type of sensible advice your grandparents would give. You might think it’s just common sense but it’s a reminder many of us need. There’s no shortage of schemes that promise rapid transformation, this tends to cloud thinking about suitable rate to progress.

Take big leaps in how hard or how long you go and you’re asking for trouble. The human body is amazing at adapting but it’s a process. You don’t know exactly how muscles, connective tissue and bones will respond to big changes in intensity and duration.

If you monitor how your body responds to starting exercise and any increases you make, you can react if niggles come up. Try giant steps forward and you risk by-passing a niggle and landing yourself a full- blown injury.

Fitness is not something you can fast track. Plenty try, most fail.

Plus, small but regular increases in intensity or duration are a great motivator. If you’re constantly making progress you’ll always feel the effort’s worth it.


4. Stretch at the end of the workout


There’s a trend to criticise stretching. People cite a lack of evidence that it prevents injury. The trouble is it’s difficult to measure because any injury prevention effect happens over the medium to long term.

Many of the studies, and much of the thinking, is based on direct short term injury reduction. The main benefits from stretching though are from more permanent changes to muscles length. That takes time and repetition.

Tight muscles are more prone to strain or tear than those of lower tension and better length (although there are other factors with muscles tears). Tightness also negatively affects the way joints align and function.

For instance knee pain (Patellofemoral pain) can in part be caused by tight outer quadriceps (front thigh muscles) and stretching will help address that. Likewise, tight hamstrings and hip flexor muscles increase pressure on the discs in lumber vertebrae (lower spine) commonly causing lower back pain. Stretching can help with that too.

I’ll bet if you’ve had several sports or exercise injuries that tight muscles would’ve contributed to some of them. Stretching is often part of the rehab. It’s not the only method for freeing up tightness- massage and tools such as foam rollers sure do work. Stretching can be more effective once those methods have broken up the tension.

Stretching after a workout will certainly do little, if anything, to prevent injury in the short term. I’m not even going to suggest that it will aid recovery or reduce next day soreness. (In my view both of those are possible but not probable). That doesn’t make it a waste of time though.

Post exercise is an ideal time to stretch because muscles are very warm. This makes them pliable i.e. nice and stretchy! This creates an opportunity for real flexibility gains, as the best way to improve is stretch far (without tearing), often. If you’ve done Bikram Yoga in a steaming hot room for a couple of months you’ll know how potent the effect of heat on muscle length is.

Not all adults have a lot of tight muscles but I can assure you from experience that most do. It’s a good bet that stretching will be of benefit. It’s free and pretty time effective and when you’re warm is a great chance to do it.


5. Ensure you’re well hydrated


Imagine folding and twisting a moist green leaf. It’ll most likely cope with some contortion and return to its original shape and condition. Try the same thing with a brown dry leaf and you’ll get a different result- probably a crack or a snap.

Think of your muscles and connective tissue in the same way. When hydrated they’re more supple, malleable and adaptable.

Keep your fluids up and injury risk goes down. You can add this to the list of reasons to stay hydrated when exercising i.e. less next day muscle soreness, faster recovery, increased performance through sustaining strength and steadier heart rate.


Something else to keep in mind


As you fatigue your risk of injury goes up. Placing big demands on your body at the end of an exercise session isn’t a good idea. Re-consider that sprint finish at the end of your jog. Plan the more intense aspects of your workout for mid-way through i.e. once you’re warm but before exhaustion.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort (or money!) to reduce your injury risk. Giving a little more thought to how you exercise helps. As does controlling your enthusiasm- resist trying to fast track the process. Paying attention to any pain that crops up and reacting to it cautiously goes a long way as well.

What are some changes you could easily make to slash injury risk? Are there easy ways of adjusting your approach that’ll reduce the need to see your doctor or physiotherapist?

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