Should You Train Around an Injury?

Injuries suck. We all know that.

Chances are if you’ve been physically active in any endeavor over the course of your lifetime you’ve experienced some sort of injury, whether minor or major.  For some, the response is simple. Rest and recover until you’re all healed up. For us exercise addicts though that answer isn’t so satisfactory. We have an inherent need to keep our bodies in motion so we ask further questions.

Should I keep training?

Should I cross train?

Should I take time off? (shudder)

How bad is it really?

These are all questions best answered by a trained medical professional so my first recommendation would be to get to the doctor as soon as possible to get yourself heading in the right direction. Really. Just go. This could save you tons of time and frustration.

Of course I feel slightly hypocritical typing that as I traditionally use that as a last resort. It probably has something to do with the vast number of trips that resulted in no definitive diagnosis and the general recommendation to refrain from physical activity.  So I can understand those of you that don’t want to go that route and why I’ve compiled a short list of tips for working around an injury.

Evaluate the Pain

Notice I didn’t say diagnose.  Look, I like to consult Dr. Google as much as the next guy, but I’m never going to be able to differentiate my shoulder pain enough to be able to pinpoint whether it’s a labrum tear, rotator cuff issue, or some sort of impingement that’s causing the pain. What I can do is establish what sort of motions exacerbate the pain and which ones feel fine.

For example, rows feel good. Barbell military press bad. Kettlebell snatches good. Dips bad. Once you start to identify movements patterns that don’t cause you pain you can start designing workouts around those motions. This is the simplest way to keep training with a minor injury. Just keep testing those boundaries every once in a awhile to make sure you’re healing.

This can be a little daunting for some people if they don’t necessarily know what alternatives are available or they are following a cookie cutter plan. My advice: get a coach.  They’ve likely helped someone through a similar situation. If you can’t afford one just keep it simple and avoid anything that causes undue pain.

For athletes whose injury prevents them from playing their particular sport, they may have to find another sport to replace it for awhile. In other words they need to cross train in order to keep their sanity.  Back in my triathlon days I had a bout of hip bursitis that required me to reduce my amount of running and biking for an extended period of time.  I practically lived in the pool that winter because the swimming motion did not irritate the condition. So while I went a little nuts staring at that black line on the bottom of the pool I ultimately improved my swimming skills and speed, becoming a better all around triathlete in the process.

Sleep

This is an overlooked component of recovery, not just recovery from injury, but in general as well.  The majority of the body’s healing process occur when you’re asleep so getting more shut eye can be hugely beneficial and speed up the process. Your body is more anabolic when asleep so just by getting an extra hour or two of sleep means that more time is being spent rebuilding damaged muscles and connective tissue.

Eat

Again, not a super glamorous piece of advice, but the body needs extra nutrients to speed up the repair process. This can be up to 30% more of your normal daily requirements.  It took me some time to wrap my head around this one and really put it into practice.  Normally an injury means I’m working out less or with less intensity and somehow I would feel like I didn’t earn the extra calories so I’d reduce intake. No wonder those chronic injuries never fully healed. It should almost go without saying that the additional calories should continue to come from good quality nutritional sources.

Promote Blood Flow

You may have heard of the common advice to ice an injury, which is still the norm for treating an acute injury in order to reduce pain and inflammation, but it may actually be quite beneficial to get more blood flowing to an injured area. It promotes healing by facilitating the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the damaged site.  Massages and self myofascial release are great for this and part of the reason why they are the post-workout recovery method of choice for a lot of people. Brief foam rolling before a workout is even recommended to help get the blood flowing before a workout.

For those low blood flow areas (like the back) e-stim can be helpful too, but you typically have to have that done at a doctor’s office or chiropractor.  Another treatment I’ve been dabbling with is accupressure treatment.  Every night before I go to bed I lay on one of these mats filled with tiny little needle-like projections that operate similar to acupuncture for twenty minutes. In addition to helping with blood flow circulation in the back it causes a release of endorphins, which can improve mood, relieve stress, and can lead to improved quality of sleep.  Hardly a night goes by where I don’t use this guy.

Another tool in my blood flow arsenal is the voodoo floss band.  Essentially this is a giant rubber band that you wrap around your body to temporarily restrict the blood flow to the injured area. Upon release of the band it causes a rush of oxygen rich blood to cascade into the injured area.  I’ve been doing this nightly on my angry shoulder and I can definitely notice a difference.

Prehab

Admittedly this is a tough one for me.  Prehab entails all of the mobility work, like stretching and self myofascial release, that you should be doing in order to keep your body operating happily through its entire range of motion. When I get short on time this is the first thing to go, and without fail, it seems that every time that happens I become a little more susceptible to injury.  I let this slide a bit the past few weeks and now I’m battling through a back injury. Go figure.

When I’m being good I will typically spend about fifteen to twenty minutes post workout to roll things out and do some of this mobility work. On rest days I strive for an hour’s worth of activity.  At a minimum buy yourself a foam roller and a lacrosse ball for self massage.  If you need some resources I highly recommend Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett and The Roll Model by Jill Miller.

Attitude

While this may not be perceived to have any direct physical benefits to many, I believe that there is power in keeping a positive mental attitude. As I mentioned at the top, injuries suck and there’s almost never a good time to be injured.  They are ultimately disruptive, causing you to miss chunks of training time or specific events you’re training for. It’s easy to fall into a “woe is me” victim mentality and use the injury as an excuse.

I’ve done that.

More than once.

I’ve allowed an injury spiral myself into depression, inactivity and weight gain. It was easy to blame the injury for those things than to take responsibility, man up, and find a suitable work around.  Unless I’m in a full body cast I’m determined to never let an injury become an excuse again.

I’m currently working through some low back pain and had to take some time off training in order to let myself heal.  The issue cropped up with about 8 weeks to go until the RKC certification, which is an intense 3 day workshop that requires participants to be in peak physical condition to pass. 8 weeks out I should be training hard, getting stronger in preparation, but instead I’ve done little kettlebell training for the last couple of weeks.

Definitely not an ideal situation, but it is the situation I am faced with and I can only control my attitude toward it.  I could be angry and disgruntled, claiming that victim mentality, but I choose not to. It serves no purpose. Instead of viewing the injury as an obstacle, it instead becomes an opportunity. An opportunity not only to learn, but to prove a point that an injury will not become an excuse and that I can come back stronger than before.

I found out just how powerful this outlook can be when I broke my collarbone a couple of years ago.  I was six weeks out from a marathon I had trained all summer for.  Instead of using the break as an excuse I was determined to reach my goal of qualifying for Boston at the race in spite of it. I trained through pain, running in my sling before my doctor thought it would be possible, and ultimately ended up recovering enough so that I was running pain free by the time the race rolled around. Unfortunately I fell 3 minutes short of my time goal, but the point I’m trying to make is that my positive mental attitude may have helped speed up recovery.

We’ve all heard of the placebo effect, where people report relief of symptoms when they believe they are taking a drug. In reality that “drug” contains no active ingredients. A similar study was done on knee surgery patients where they were given a fake arthroscopic procedure and reported as much pain relief as those that got the actual procedure.  Because they believed so powerfully that the procedure was going help they received the same benefits.

Think about that for a moment. Just by believing you are going to recover from your injury you may be able to influence that positive outcome and speed it up.  If you sulk and play the victim you could be extending that recovery period by weeks. The beauty of it is that you are ultimately in control of that outcome.

Me, I’m not getting down on myself about that back issue. Instead I’m trying to get ahead of things. I’ve upped my daily mobility work, focusing not only on the back, but other problem areas as well like my tight hip flexors. This week I’ve added in some kettlebell training, taking it slow to make sure I’m ready to dive into full on training next week. There’s still 5 weeks to go before the cert and I’m determined to use the aforementioned strategies to be ready when it comes around.

Kettlebell/Bodyweight AMRAP - A Friday "Fun"isher
Final February Friday "Fun"isher

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