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Working Out With An Injury – Challenging But Possible

Working out with an injury can be a challenging task, but it is not impossible. Since the large majority of our clients are athletes and active individuals who are injured, we’re well-versed in helping navigate our clients through these bumpy waters. We can empathize, as athletes ourselves, with the desire to keep exercising despite injury. We’ve had our own fair share of them and have continued to stay active throughout the recovery process!

The following are a few of the injuries that I, Dr. Sarah, have encountered over the years. Despite the difficulty they caused, these setbacks have proven to be widely helpful in my career in performance physical therapy!

I’ve had a plethora of injuries including back pain, concussions, IT-band syndrome, shin splints, and more. While all these injuries are unfortunate, my clients have benefited immensely from some of the more creative strategies I’ve used to stay active while injured. (However, I don’t recommend replicating the time I completed a triathlon with two arms and one leg due to a hamstring strain. That might have been a bit too creative)!

Our personal injuries and our professional knowledge have helped us develop a series of tips and tricks that we share with those who want to stay active while recovering from an injury. These are the key points we’ve picked up along the way!


Injury Tip #1 – Ignore Those Who Tell You to “Just Rest”

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. Anyone who knows anything about how the body works knows that complete rest is the last thing that is good for it. Taking time off (in moderation) and respecting the injured tissue is smart, but completely ceasing exercise only backfires. Continuing to exercise with an injury doesn’t mean you continue to do exactly what you did before; you will be modifying for the injury which means cross training, decreasing weights or repetitions, swapping out movements, and more.

Those who take an extended period of complete rest while injured encounter more injuries when re-entering exercise than those who never took time off. Also, complete rest decreases the blood flow to the injured tissue, which makes it take longer to heal. So, if exercise helps you heal faster and makes you less likely to get injured after you’re recovered from your injury, why not do it?

A lot of the time the advice to rest completely (read: INACTIVE) comes from medical professionals who aren’t well-versed in exercise (or those who haven’t exercised a day in their life). Unfortunately this is a fairly common sentiment, which is why we placed it first. (So if you don’t read anything else in this blog post, read this part – exercise while you are injured!) While those who recommend complete rest mean well, this advice is inaccurate and unhelpful – both during the injury and afterwards.

Injury Tip #2 – Consult a Medical Professional

We just told you not to listen to medical professionals regarding injuries. Now, we’re flipping the script and telling you to listen to them! In truth, we do want you to listen to the ones who know what they are talking about.

One common mistake people make is that injured individuals choose “to go it alone.” Not surprisingly, we suggest consulting with a medical professional such as a physical therapist or chiropractor (Not Instagram!) who is familiar with helping injured individuals stay active. Oftentimes, a couple small suggestions about what you should and shouldn’t do can make a world of difference in how active you can be and how little your injury flares up along the way. Additionally, they will be able to provide you with exercises that can help the recovery process go faster. In short, make direct contact with trained professionals that can provide sound advice for the athlete and active individual recovering from injury.

Injury Tip #3 – Listen to Your Body

Here’s the deal – listening to your body is hard. Some pain is okay and doesn’t prolong the healing process, but too much pain is frustrating and can make things take longer to heal. The difficult question is How much pain is too much pain? That’s such a complex topic that we took an entire blog post to answer it. Take a few minutes to read it; we think it’ll help.

Two Types of People

The short answer to this difficult question is that there are two types of people – ones that stop much sooner than they need to and ones that should have stopped a long time ago. (I’m guilty of falling into the latter camp and flaring up my own injuries that are almost fully healed). Once you figure out which type of person you are, figuring out when you should stop becomes much easier.

For example, I now know that I need to stop before I think I should stop. In reality, that doesn’t always happen. The key point here is the knowledge of “yes, I should stop” or “no, I can keep going.” In certain situations, like an important competition, it can make sense to keep going when your body says stop. Choices like these are about weighing the pros and cons, then making the decision based on the information at hand. However, if you are putting yourself in a highly unsafe situation, of course the decision should be to stop.

Injury Tip #4 – Modify Your Exercises

In truth, this relates straight back to Tip #2 because the best way to modify your exercises is to ask someone whose job is to modify exercises. It’s possible to deadlift with back pain, squat with knee pain, run with heel pain, and press weight overhead with shoulder pain. The key is knowing how to do it while facilitating healing of an injury.

Injury Tip #5 – Start (And Progress) Slow

Moving too quickly when returning to activity is also one of the most common mistakes individuals make when it comes to an injury. If something feels good, more must be better, right? Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. Even with a regular training program, there are guidelines for how big of an increase you can make without adverse effects. The rule of 10% for running volume is a great example of this. The video below provides more details.

When working with active individuals, we use a general rule of thumb – if you’ve been doing the same exercise for a week and haven’t had any increased pain from your injury, you can progress to the next level. When we say progress to the next level we mean increase your mileage by 10%, add 10# to your overhead press, or add a couple inches of depth to a squat or deadlift. We aren’t saying swap from a 35# barbell to your normal 65# overhead press or resume your running plan at full capacity. That is a recipe guaranteed to land you right back where you started.

Injury Tip #6 – Rest and Recover

When we say rest, it does not mean complete rest. This does mean ensuring you’re getting adequate protein, sleeping enough (or even extra), drinking plenty of water, and consuming food that is good for you. While nutrition, sleep, and hydration are important on a daily basis, they become even more important when you have an injury.

We’ve seen a lot of folks cut their calorie count back while injured because they think they don’t need as much energy due to their workouts being less intense. In truth, the body – and injured tissue – needs extra calories to heal itself. If you decrease your calories but ask your body to rebuild itself, you’re asking a lot of your body and healing will happen more slowly.

Keep Exercising When You’re Injured

In conclusion, working out with an injury can be difficult, but it is absolutely possible! By consulting a medical professional who understands your situation, listening to your body, modifying your exercises, starting (and progressing) slowly, and facilitating proper recovery, you can stay active while allowing the injured area to heal. And, remember, occasional injuries but good overall health is better than no injuries and poor overall health!

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