The way most humans go about coming back to workouts and sports after an injury is dead wrong.
And no, this is not yet another post to be chucked in the ‘to ice or not to ice’ debate. That’s small potatoes compared to the thing that’s really impacting how well you come back to your workouts after you get hurt.
You’re likely doing one of two things when you come back to training from an injury:
- You’re not doing enough.
- You’re doing too much.
- You’re really hitting the ball out of the park and you’re simultaneously doing not enough & too much (it’s possible, read on to find it if this one is you).
(Quick sidenote: most injuries are preventable in the first place.)
So what do you do to recover?
Whatever You Do To Recover… Don’t Do This If You Want To Return To Full Capacity
Here’s exactly what most people do.
- Bargain with themselves on just how ‘fine’ they actually are despite the pain and compromised movement they must take thanks to the injury
- Reduce volume or intensity, but only minimally
- Skip recovery work eg, lymphatic flush, fascial mobility work, muscle re-activation, joint stabilization drills
- Return to training full tilt within 7 days
This is not how you approach recovery if you want to return to full capacity.
If you get hurt, first, make a distinction in the level of injury. If it hurts, the level of injury is such that you need to address it. Examples: You wrenched your back out and all movement is delicate at the moment. You sprained your ankle. You tweaked your ribs and you can’t take a full breathe or turn your head well. You heard a noise that wasn’t good in your knee/hip/shoulder/elbow/ankle.
What you do in the first 24-72 hours is critical to determining how quickly your injury is going to start healing.
It seems logical but I still want to remind you that continuing workouts after a true injury is a really, really, unsmart thing to do. You will be far better off heading straight to recovery-mode than trying to hobble on through your training.
(requisite reminder: go to a doctor if you are seriously injured, seriously, just go.)
You’ve got to remember: you are a highly tuned human.
That limping hitch in your step matters. That ‘move gingerly’ approach you’re using post-injury matters. That joint immobility you’ve been sitting with matters.
Working out with a literal hitch in your step is only going to bring you more compensatory patterns as you overuse muscles to do the job of what the injured muscles should have been doing if they weren’t injured.
If you try to run, and your brain knows “normal ankle flexion” currently equals “pain”, it will find another way to flex the ankle. It might divert workload to the plantar fascia, the Achilles, or even the psoas as you subconsciously try to put less pressure on that ankle by tensing your hip muscles so that you don’t fully load the leg.
It won’t take long for these new, sub-optimal motor patterns to become fixed.
So what’s a gal or gent to do?
As I mentioned earlier, some of you won’t do enough.
Rest time will become skipped workout time will become ‘did I used to workout?’ time.
Much like the after-event abyss, falling into a hole after an injury not only isn’t good for recovering the injury, it’s downright terrible for your fitness goals. And remember that workouts help you release endorphins & feel-good chemicals so to say stopping workouts altogether is bad for your psyche (& friends & family who have to deal with you) is an understatement.
Of course there are many of you who don’t fall into that category. You? Nope, you’re different. You’re more likely to do too much. You’ll go for a limping run the day after the injury. One the first day you’re cleared for activity you’ll be in the gym for 2 hours. You’re the ones who will bargain your face off to get clearance to run again.
“Can I walk on a treadmill?”
“Can I water jog?”
“For 2 hours?”
“For how long then?”
“Until it starts fatiguing.”
“So 1 hour 59 minutes then.”
Being Sloppy With Recovery
Perhaps you fall into neither category above. You’re in the group of special snowflakes who will simultaneously do not enough & too much.
You ‘recovered’ by sitting on the couch for a few days. But you didn’t do any recovery strategies. You just sat. And then, after a few days, you jumped into a workout at the intensity you’d left it at prior to the injury.
If you’ve been immobilizing a body part after injuring it – protecting it, bracing it – because any movement to the area has been too painful, then adaptation has already happened & it needs to be un-done. The soft tissue has hardened, the muscles have shortened, and the neurological connection to your brain has been weakened. All of that happens within just a few days.
You’ve got to re-establish the fine-tuned mechanics of your body after an injury.
Jumping back into full-blown workouts too early, and without doing repair work to undo those injury-adaptations, is a recipe for disaster.
Re-injury can happen. (You’re already going to be working at sub-100% for a short period of time….would you like to press your luck for longer?)
Injury to another area that was overcompensating can happen. (how many injuries would you like to go for?)
More importantly to me though, for you, is this:
When you workout, train, whatever you want to call what you do to evolve your body – you’re sending a stimulus. Why the hell do you want to send a stimulus that is significantly sub-par from your actual capacity?
Your workouts are too important to your health, well-being, and happiness level.
From here on out, if an injury happens, let’s get you recovering smarter & returning to your workouts smarter and better than ever.
Recover Smarter, Return To Workouts Faster
Here is how to do your return from injury better next time:
- Elevate & compress immediately. Can you spend 24-48hrs elevating & compressing? Find a way to do it.
- Rest. Lay down. Sleep. You need to get off your feet & stop moving around. Growth hormone kicks into gear when you sleep. You need tissue regeneration. You need growth hormone. Go to sleep.
- Start self-massage within the 1st 24 hours. Start gently, and working up in the intensity of the pressure you apply over time. You need to get the tissue pliable again. You need to assist lymph drainage. Get inquisitive and start exploring the injured area, pushing tenderly on various areas and seeing what hurts and what doesn’t. Don’t dig into areas that are painful or unstable, but do start light massage to get tissue moving & drainage happening.
- Start moving as soon as possible, while maintaining a level of safety in movement that you’re comfortable with. If you threw your back out, maybe don’t start with a bunch of flexing forward & back-bends.Remember old-school calisthenics? Hip circles. Arm circles. Foot circles. Raising arms up overhead & back down. Make it really simple. Wherever you got hurt, think about the ways you could move that area when it’s not injured, and start doing that, gently.
- If you got injured on a limb, use science to your advantage & do gentle movement on the non-injured side as well. New research suggests that there’s a cross-connection in the brain that provides movement-improvement to an injured limb when movement is done to the non-injured limb. Rad, huh?
- Here’s a similar outcome study of participants using just thoughts about contracting their muscle to maintain 20% more muscle, with no exercise done at all, compared to those who didn’t think about their muscles at all. The brain is powerful. So if you’re doing arm raises on your injured right arm, do them on your left side too, & reap the benefits.Plan to spend many days in a row doing this work. Daily. Multiple times per day. In the 1st 5-7 days, the key here is to be gentle but consistent.
You are either supporting progress or you’re standing in the way of it. If injury happens, set the stage for recovery, assist your body’s progress by recovering smarter, and begin the process of laying down high-quality movement patterns in your body.
You now know what to do should in the short-term, should injury occur.
In Part 2 of this post, I’m going to share specifics on what to do in the weeks following an injury, how the brain is working following an injury & how to use that to your advantage when you return to workouts.