Injury – it’s a six letter word you’d rather not deal with, but, unfortunately, when you train consistently for many years, you’ll probably spend some time on the sidelines or modifying your workout due to an overuse injury. Whether it be tendonitis or a stress fracture, injuries are inconvenient and often painful.
Concerns about Losing Your Fitness
When you’re injured and have to take a rest, you may worry about losing your strength or cardiovascular fitness when you take time off. Fortunately, you don’t lose strength quickly. One study found that men who weight trained using heavy resistance lost around 12% of their muscle strength after taking a 14-day break. Other studies show a far less decline in strength.
In terms of aerobic fitness, research shows aerobic capacity begins to slightly decline after only 10 days of inactivity, while a study in runners found aerobic capacity dropped around 6% after one month of sitting on the sidelines. After about a month, your body loses some of its ability to deliver a large volume of oxygen to tissues, leading to a decline in endurance.
On the plus side, you can recoup any strength gains lost due to “muscle memory.” Yes, your muscles really do “remember.” Each time you do a workout, you carve neurological pathways that don’t automatically disappear when you stop training. When you start back up, strength is quickly regained due to the pathways previously etched.
As far as aerobic capacity, that too can be regained rapidly, although you can retain the majority of your aerobic fitness by doing short by intense workouts, as long as your injury doesn’t preclude it. If your lower body is injured, you may be able to do an upper body circuit workout that gets your heart rate up enough to preserve your aerobic fitness.
A Short Break is Better Than a Long One
Now you know that you don’t have to stress out too much when taking time off from training. Chances are you won’t have to stop long enough to lose all of your gains, and even if you do, gains are easier the second time around. Don’t hesitate to take a break if you need to, rather than risk injuring yourself further. What could have taken two weeks to heal could take a month or more if you “push through the pain.” Don’t forget that when you have pain or limitation in motion, it affects your form and increases your risk for further injury.
The other thing not to do is take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID) to mask the pain and then try to work through the injury. Not only are NSAID not good for you, they only temporarily ease the inflammation. To make matters worse, some studies show NSAID delay healing of bone and tendon injuries.
Should you work out when you’re injured? It depends. In some cases, you may only need to modify your workout so that you’re not experiencing pain. When you’re injured, pain is your guide, and if you have a more serious injury, take the advice of the health care professional taking care of you.
Making a Comeback
So, you’re finally feeling better and almost completely pain-free. If you haven’t exercised in a few weeks, what’s the best way to make a comeback? Take it slowly, at first. If you haven’t trained in a week or two, it shouldn’t be business as usual. Depending upon the length of time you’ve been out, your connective tissue, including your tendons and ligaments, may have weakened, placing you at greater risk for re-injury. You may feel ready to get back to work, but your connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments may not be.
The safest approach? Lighten the resistance you’re using to no more than 60% of your one-rep max when you first start back and keep your total volume lighter. It may feel like you’re starting over again, but what’s wrong with that? Better to take it slow and gradually rebuild strength than to lose more time due to injury. Resistance training isn’t a race – you’re only competing with yourself.
A lot of how you train after an injury depends upon the type of injury you had. If you had a lower-body injury like Achilles tendonitis or a hip strain, you can do advance training quickly for your upper body but take it slow on lower body exercises like squats and lunges. Start with light reps and do only a single set initially and gradually build up. Pay attention to how you feel the next day and modify your workout accordingly.
Be Smart: Prevent a Future Injury
Take it slow when you come back from an injury, and then take steps to prevent future injuries that’ll keep you from getting your workout. Here are some tips:
Make sure you’re cross-training and not working the same muscle groups the same way repetitively. Vary the type of workouts you do.
Use good form. The biggest cause of weight training injuries is using crappy form and trying to control a weight that’s too heavy for your level of training.
Always start with a dynamic warm-up, even if you’re pressed for time. Warming up raises your core body temperature and heats up your muscles so they’re more flexible. Cold, rigid muscles are more injury prone.
Don’t overtrain. Your muscles need some stress to grow and your cardiovascular system needs it to adapt – up to a point. Beyond that point, you place yourself at greater risk for injury. Don’t suddenly increase your training volume or intensity, gradually work up to it. Recovery time is important. Give your muscles at least 48 hours to recover before strength training them again and give yourself an exercise-free or light day once a week for a full recovery.
If you have a history of repeated injuries, especially involving the same tendons or muscles, get a professional evaluation. You may have issues like a significant leg length discrepancy that’s contributing to your injuries. Muscle imbalances may also be a factor that you can correct through targeted strength training and stretches.
The Bottom Line
Yes, injuries are a bummer, but the week or even month you spend allowing an injury to heal is time well spent in the bigger scheme of things.
Exercise Physiology. Fifth edition. 2001.
Training Peaks. “How Much Down Time is Too Much: The Concept of Detraining”
Journal of Applied Physiology Published 15 September 2013 Vol. 115 no. 6, 892-899 DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00053.2013.
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