Getting injured is a very common issue, both at the general population level and the elite level. An injury can be a major sideline to your fitness progress. Injuries are expensive when you consider the money and time spent going from one pain-relief appointment to the next. Plus, injuries have been shown to decrease your total happiness quotient over time (not surprising).
The vast majority of injuries are not “freak accident” occurrences. Often, when I meet with clients who are walking in the door already injured, these folks were simply doing (or not doing) things in their training that could have prevented the injury in the first place. They just didn’t know.
What follows is a list of the top things you can do to prevent exercise-related injury. Reduce your injury risk by implementing these into your life today.
1) Make the goal = (goal + get mobile)
The most efficient path is sometimes the longer one. There are short-cuts in fitness that you can take, but, they come with very real concerns. For example, box jumps are one way to increase your leg strength and tone; so are squats (which keep your feet firmly planted on the ground throughout). Many think that if squats are good, box jumps are better.
But, if your calves, feet, and achilles are tight and limited in their mobility, box jumps can cause a devastating injury if any of those soft tissues decide the pressure you’re exerting against them is too much and they break.
By working on your body’s mobility alongside your goal of strength, physique, or sport, you expand the repertoire of ‘things you can do safely to reach your goal.’
Injuries support zero fitness goals, and they extend the process of achieving any of them. Improving your body’s mobility allows you to train better, longer, and with less risk.
2) Perform brain-body connectors before starting your main workout
The value of “warming up” has been battled back and forth for a long time. But here’s the reality: warming up gets not only your muscles and tendons ready for what is about to happen, your central nervous system also appreciates that warm-up time.
Have you ever had to make a mad dash out of bed once the alarm has gone off? You tend to stumble and bumble around a bit in those first few steps into the kitchen or your kids’ room. You’d never walk like this later on in the morning after your brain has been dosed with sunlight, caffeine, and a bit of time to get its’ bearings.
Your brain would appreciate time to get its’ bearings to prepare for what movements its going to be called upon to do in the workout ahead so that it can respond with strong, organized, muscle-recruitment.
Do a warm-up that includes dynamic stretching and movement prep drills that mimic movement pathways you will be following. You want your brain to know “glute work is coming!” and respond accordingly with increased muscle activation of the glutes.
The glute activator squat is one of my favorites for a day that includes squatting. Watch this video to see how it’s done.
3) Do daily soft tissue work
Repeated stimulus gets remembered. Often, injuries that have shown up are the result of months, if not years, of soft tissue that had lost mobility. This doesn’t just cause muscle aches & pains. Whatever joints or bones were attached to that soft tissue got pulled with it, causing unnatural grinding and rubbing of those joints.
Spend a few minutes every day using a mobility tool on the areas of your body that need better soft tissue quality. (Lacrosse ball and 2” wooden dowel are my favorites, but use what you have. Got a rolling pin? You’ve got a mobility tool.)
You could dive deep into the study of what soft tissue to use your mobility tool on, but here is a simple action that practically anyone would benefit from.
Leave your lacrosse ball or a wooden or PVC stick near your bed (but not anywhere you’ll trip on it in the middle of the night!). When you first wake up, stand up and press your foot down into it, rolling and pressing as you rub all of the tissue on the under side of your foot down into the tool. Starting the day with feet that have better mobility sets you up for better walking, better standing, better everything.
The well of ‘soft tissue work’ is much deeper than we can cover here today, but the takeaway is this: a little bit, done every day, goes a long way.
4) Even if you prefer not to make a ‘workout plan’, plan your workouts
Keeping a workout journal is incredibly helpful because it ensures you avoid the common mistake of repeating too much movement that fatigues the same part of the body too many days in a row.
Your head space is much better filled with things that focus on the rest of your life and trying to keep a photographic memory of exactly what you did in your last workout doesn’t have to be one of them.
Often, an exercise-related injury can happen when someone performs a workout that is very low-back taxing one day, then promptly does another workout in the day or two following, that also is very taxing on the low back.
In the 2nd workout, the low back is already fatigued, and it’s being asked to give more. It will either do so until it simply can’t anymore and you feel immense discomfort, and eventual injury, in that region. Or, you’ll begin to recruit other muscles to assist, leading to compensatory movement patterns that become a part of ‘how you move’, which also can lead to injury.
Write down what you did, and when you come to the gym the next day, look back at the last workout or two and pick exercises that don’t further fatigue what you just were working in those last workouts.
5) Write down what you did, even if you had no real plan for what you’re doing
Don’t want to “plan” your workouts? Cool. But, you must do this one tip if you want to avoid injuries that seem to “pop up out of nowhere” (but that were actually lurking around earlier, you missed the warning sign).
Write down what you did and if anything was notable about it. If you look at my workout journal, you’ll see small notes written next to some of my rep numbers that I’ve written down; notes like, “technique needs work,” “felt myself cheat on last one, too much low back,” “way smoother, yay,” and “weird, R low back got really tired.”
Those little details that you jot down will remind you in the future when you decide to do that exercise again, what you were feeling and experiencing at that time.
Continually missing the technique for a movement is a way to eventually become injured. There have been times I’ve written down notes and looked back and realized I’d written almost that exact same note the last 3 times.
So this now becomes an opportunity to go research a bit as to why you’re not feeling on-point in that exercise. While the internet is massive and must be searched through with caution for ridiculousness, it’s also an amazing place to search for other people who have experienced something similar and found a solution that works.
Even if you want zero planning at all in your workouts, write down a few details on the things that stood out to you when you’re done. You’ll be glad you did when you reference back to them later on.
6) Accept that you can’t, and won’t, have all of the fitness all of the time
It’s not nice to put such high expectations on your body that it’s impossible to ever reach them. If you’re working on improving your stress and starting a new healthy habit, it’s ok to not be the person in your group workout who is hitting personal best’s on every single workout.
Having too many fitness goals on your plate means “rest” isn’t getting a big enough portion of your fitness plate. Health and performance are both enhanced when proper rest is a part of your program.
Workouts work because of the breakdown that happens during the workout, and then the soon-to-follow repair happens which is where the gains are made. Every person will have a unique ‘sweet spot’ of volume & intensity of training+ rest where the best gains happen and the body feels the best.
Find out where your personal tolerance level for workouts is, and accept it. Your friend might thrive on four days a week of hard workouts. But if every time you bump up to four days of hard training you end up excessively fatigued, and feel aches and injuries creeping in, then four days a week isn’t your sweet spot. You’ll make better gains and get less injuries if you hang out in your sweet spot.
Injuries can be prevented more times than not. Getting smarter about how you handle yourself in your workouts will reduce your injury-risk and keep you on the workout path for longer. And staying on the workout path means not only better fitness, but also better quality of life.
Kate Galliett is the creator of Fit for Real Life where she brings together body, mind, and movement to help people become highly-charged and fit for real life. She coaches clients in-person, online, and through her foundational strength & mobility program, The Unbreakable Body. She holds a BS in Exercise Science and has worked as a fitness professional for 12 years. Her secret ingredient is always smoked paprika.
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