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Staying healthy enough to get healthy: Your guide to injury prevention

Stretching to prevent injury.
Christopher Haugh via Flickr

Have you ever found yourself in this scenario? You finally make up your mind to get healthy. Your goals are in place, you’re eating clean, and working out regularly. Everything seems to be on track for success…until you sustain an injury! All of the sudden your fitness goals go back on the shelf and you are left to deal with the pain and the disappointment of not being able to continue on with your new healthy lifestyle.

Whether your injury occurs as soon as you begin your fitness transformation, or after years of regular workouts, the result is always the same; it is discouraging, painful and downright depressing.

Since studies suggest that up to 38% of all exercisers suffer from injuries each year, it is a subject worth exploring.

There are 2 main types of sports injuries that will keep you sidelined and far from reaching your fitness goals: Acute and overuse injuries.

Acute Injuries - An acute injury is a sudden, traumatic event that results from a specific incident during your activity. During workouts and exercise, acute injuries most often arrive in three forms:

1. Strain / Pulled Muscle: occurs when a tendon (connects muscle to bone) or muscle is stretched or torn. If you suffer from a strain you will feel pain and swelling in the muscle belly, or loss of function if the strain occurred in a tendon. Many strains occur as the result of an improper warm-up and/or insufficient stretching.

2. Sprain: occurs when a ligament (connects bone to bone) is stretched or torn. While this can happen to any ligament in your body, the most common placements of sprains are in the ankle, wrist and knee. Often this injury will happen suddenly during a fall, awkward landing, or other acute stress as the ligament is stretched beyond its normal limit.

3. Low Back Pain: it is said that 80% of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives—and the list of causes is as diverse as the sufferers themselves. Here are the main reasons for workout related back pain:

  • Improper form: Similar to bad posture, using improper form while performing weight bearing exercises will leave your back sore and aching. The good news is that once your form is corrected this pain should subside after a healing period.
  • Weak muscles: If you have a desk job then chances are your deep back muscles, glutes, and core are inactive and unconditioned. When you start an exercise program and try to lift too much weight before properly strengthening these muscles, the result is often an aching back.
  • Strained muscles: Not to pick on that desk job, but another result of sitting all day is tight back muscles and hip flexors (2 of which attach to your spine). When these muscles are not properly warmed up and stretched before exercise begins, muscle strains occur in your lower back.

Overuse Injuries – An overuse injury occurs over an extended period of time from the continued and repetitive use of tissues with improper form or movement patters. They can also be caused through training errors, attempting to improve weight or distances too soon, or from inadequate recovery.

Common overuse injuries from workouts and in athletes include:

  1. Shoulder Pain - This is the most versatile and complex joint in the body, as it moves in all planes of motion. When strength training the shoulders, make sure to focus on all the muscles in the shoulder, especially the stabilizing muscles, instead of only working out the big mover muscles that are easily seen. Also, make sure to gradually increase any repetitive shoulder motion like swimming or throwing to allow the muscles and tendons time to acclimate to the movement. Incorporating rotator cuff exercises at least twice a week will strengthen those stabilizing muscles and ensure healthy shoulders.
  2. ITB Syndrome - People often end up with ITB Syndrome from overdoing lower body activities, such as walking, running or cycling with improper form and/or recovery. Trying to push a workout too far or fast, too soon, is another sure way add more stress than the body can handle. The repeated strain causes the bursa on the side of the knee to become inflamed. Increase workouts gradually and stretch well to prevent ITB Syndrome.
  3. Patellar Tendinitis – Placing repeated stress on the patellar tendon is one of the main causes of patellar tendonitis. Doing too many squats, lunges, jumps, or by trying to run or cycle too many miles before your body is ready can create that stress. Make sure to properly stretch your quads for prevention.
  4. Plantar Fasciitis Caused by repeated small tears in the fascia on the bottom of the foot due to prolonged standing/walking, improper footwear, or being overweight, plantar fasciitis causes pain in the bottom of the foot and makes it difficult to stick to any workout regimen. Prevent plantar fasciitis by maintaining a healthy weight, warming up before participating in sports and by wearing shoes that properly support the arch and cushion the heel.

Your 5-Step Injury Prevention Plan
Injuries don't have to slow you from meeting your fitness goals. The following 5 steps will dramatically reduce the chance of injury. However, if you do happen to get injured, but have been following these 5 steps, your recovery will be quick and efficient.

Step 1: Warm up and stretch
Preparing for your workout should not begin and end with putting on workout clothes. Your muscles need to be coaxed into motion by way of a 10-15 minute warm up in order to prepare them for injury-free use. Cold muscles are less elastic and are therefore more prone to tears. Start with 5-10 minutes of easy jogging/fast walking or a slow spin on a bike to get the blood flowing and your muscles moving. Then spend another 5-10 of dynamic stretching, which actively moves your muscles in a similar pattern and range of motion that you will be using for your workout.

Step 2: Proper form and gear
Proper form is everything! Proper movement patterns will help prevent overuse injuries. If you don’t know what proper form or movement patters are, seek out a qualified professional to check for you. For most fitness enthusiasts, proper gear has everything to do with their shoes. Don't be fooled—not just any shoe will do. Find shoes that offer support and traction for the exercise of choice, and make sure that they aren't too tight or too loose. If you are cycling, make sure to get properly fitted to your bike, as this will prevent lower back stress, as well as knee and foot issues.

Step 3: Gradually increase activity
One of the easiest ways to injure yourself is trying to do too much, too quickly. If you are just getting back into an exercise routine, make sure to start slowly. It’s tempting to go all out in order to get your results faster. But by doing so, you are putting an enormous amount of stress on a body that is used to doing nothing. Gradually increase the amount of exercise and the weight to allow your muscles, tendons and ligaments time to adapt to the new exercises and remain healthy. A good rule of thumb is the 10% rule: don’t increase your activities by more than 10% from any session to the next.

Step 4: Change it up
Try to incorporate many different kinds of exercises into your routine. Getting stuck in a habit of only one type of exercise, or having only one workout to do greatly increases the chances for overuse injuries. Mix up the workouts, and move in as many different directions as you can. Adding workouts that move forward like running, as well as adding those that move in different directions, like soccer or basketball, forces your body to move in all planes of direction, recruiting a larger number of muscles, which, in turn, helps keep your body stronger overall, preventing injuries.

Step 5: Lifestyle
Stop for a moment and think about your car—if you don't maintain it with regular tune ups, oil changes and quality fuel then you can't expect it to perform well on the road. The same applies to your body. Getting healthy amounts of sleep, eating well-balanced meals and staying properly hydrated will all contribute to your performance during exercise. The healthier your lifestyle is, the less likely you are to suffer an injury.

The ultimate injury prevention plan? Workout with your local, qualified fitness expert!

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