Injury-free training

What do a gym-goer and a top athlete have in common? Both undoubtedly want to lower their chances of incurring an injury!

Injuries decrease the amount of time spent in leisure activities, lower fitness levels, downgrade competitive performance and can adversely affect overall motivation and happiness.

The only way around this is to put “avoidance of injury” top of the list of your training objectives. For injury prevention to really pay off, it must be an active part of the training process, not a reactive consequence of a training error or mishap.

Are there any general rules about injury prevention? Thankfully yes – scientific research has yield a number of important points about who gets injured and why. So here are some practical guidelines that apply to all sports and abilities:

1. Don’t overdo it

Don’t train hard when stiff from the previous session. Tired muscles provide inadequate support for tendons, ligaments and bones, increasing the risk of strains, sprains and stress fractures.

2. Introduce new activities gradually

There is a first time for everything, whether a longer distance, a different surface or a new sport altogether. Prepare your body for the new effort gradually and be specific in your training. Make plenty of time for preparing the muscles that will be placed under greater or new stress. Gradually increasing your mileage alone will not prepare you for the sustained effort of endurance running: commit to a strengthening period emphasising drills that boost leg-muscle power. Taking up tennis? Devote time to strengthening the muscles in the front of the shoulder to build power, while working systematically on the muscles in the back of the shoulder to maintain balance. Watch out for the number of consecutive days of training – the second best predictor of injury! Scientific studies strongly suggest that reducing the number of consecutive days of training can lower the risk of injury. Spread them throughout the week for best results.

3. Monitor fatigue and past injuries

The compulsive streak in many athletes (amateur and professionals alike) drives them to train hour after hour, day after day, in the erroneous belief that “this is how you get stronger”. Bear in mind that increases in training necessitates increases in resting too. Anytime your training volume increases considerably, you need to make sure that you’re getting more sleep and taking more time to rest. Ignore this fact, and you are on your way to overuse injury or illness.

Many injuries are actually not new trouble areas, they are recurrences of previous problems. Regular exercise has a way of uncovering the weak areas of your body and you are much more likely to get hurt again. Make sure you address those weak spots by changing your biomechanics or strengthening your muscles.

4. Warm up and cool down thoroughly

Especially in the British climate and when training outside! Warm muscles stretch much better than cold muscles. Ligaments and tendons are much more likely to tear when the muscles are cold and inflexible. Warm up anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes before a hard workout – starting with a low-intensity general warm up (like jogging) and progressing to a sport-specific higher-intensity routine. Allow some time for dynamic stretching of the main muscle groups to be involved in the workout.

The cool down period should last approximately 10-15 minutes and consist of the low-intensity version of your main workout. It allows body temperature to return to normal, blood supply to be released back to the heart and fatigue products to be flushed out of the muscles – reducing the chances or intensity of stiffness the next day. Gentle active or passive stretching after your workout allows muscles to return to their full length and flexibility and retain their full range and power for the next workout.

5. Pick the right gear

Whichever school of thought you have adopted – from barefoot running to bionic trainers – pick wisely and monitor closely. Just as no 2 theories on running shoes would agree with each other, no 2 runners are the same. One runner’s panacea is another runner’s stress fracture. Whatever your sport, whatever the weather – seek out and find your own winning combination based on your wellbeing and ability to stay injury-free.

6. You are what you eat

Make sure you increase your consumption of carbohydrates during periods of heavy training. Muscles that are low in carbohydrate are tired muscles, leading to fatigue and the consequences described in recommendation No 3. Keep well hydrated throughout the day, not just at the gym, and build your body’s ability to absorb water over time if you’d rather skip the portaloo queues!

7. Get regular massage

Ideally, a hard session or a race should always be followed by remedial massage if you want to speed up recovery. The benefits of massage are cumulative and best results are maintained by receiving regular, focussed treatments. The skill of the talented massage therapist in identifying problem areas in the soft tissue even before they manifest into pain or inflammation is probably one of the best injury prevention tools at the disposal of any athlete – amateur or pro!

This article is the result of research carried out by The Massage Lab based on professional publications such as Sports Injury Bulletin and others. Always consult a qualified therapist of coach who will devise a personal plan according to your fitness and wellbeing goals.

29th June 2011