If you’re an active person, then you know that injuring yourself is super frustrating. However, it can be comforting to know that it is possible for you to safely exercise once you’re feeling better. Depending on the severity of the injury, seeing a doctor is crucial so that you understand the injury itself, any potential consequences, and recovery time. Afterwards, rehab specialists, like trainers and therapists, can establish a plan for recovery, especially following more complicated injuries.
So, once you’re cleared, what are some things that you can do safely? Well, that depends on where you were injured and how active you were prior to the injury itself. For the purpose of this article, we are going to focus on individuals who have recently suffered a minor injury to the muscles, joints, bones, or ligaments that did not require surgery or formal rehabilitation.
If this describes you, then here are some key tips to keep in mind when getting back to fitness after injury:
1. Work Around the Injury. Initially, any injury that affects muscle, joints, or bones may limit your ability to work out. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, many active individuals have difficulty in stopping physical activity altogether despite pain or limitations. However, there are ways around this.
With your doctor or therapist’s blessing, you can safely do exercises to strengthen, stretch, and move other areas of the body that are unaffected by the injury. This is your opportunity to make sure all other muscle groups remain healthy, strong, and active during the healing process.
Depending on your injury, at least one of the activities below may help you maintain your pre-injury fitness levels:
- Stretching: Can help loosen up tight muscles and prevent future injuries.
- Yoga: Boasts many health benefits including increased strength, improved balance, greater flexibility, decreased stress, and improved sleep.
- Swimming: Low impact with less stress to joints and muscles.
- Strengthening of other muscles: Working on upper body strength with a lower body injury or vice versa.
Check out our article, Dealing with Setbacks — How to Stay Fit While Injured or Sick, for more ideas.
2. Listen to Your Pain. Pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong. See our article, What Is the Difference Between "Good Pain" and "Bad Pain" When Working Out?
Limit activities that increase pain, both with exercise and everyday activities. For example, if standing for long periods of time aggravates the injury site, then avoid it for now. You could also modify activities that increase pain, like doing tasks in a seated position. Also, when getting back to fitness after an injury, you should aim to perform exercises and stretches in a pain-free range of motion.
Here are the best ways to accomplish this:
- Use body weight or little-to-no weight as resistance
- Perform movements slowly and with control
- Move in a pain-free range of motion
- Replace problematic exercises with ones that don’t cause pain
3. Gradual Return to Fitness. Getting back to fitness after an injury needs to be done at a slow and gradual pace. Once you’re cleared to start exercise again, it can be easy to want to jump back into your pre-injury workout routine. However, this is not recommended and can lead to (1) reinjury or (2) a new injury involving a different body part. The best way to get back to fitness is to slowly reintroduce activity by limiting your volume, intensity, and duration of exercise. A slow, gradual approach will pay dividends.
For example, a runner who is recovering from a knee injury should begin with a graded walking program that slowly increases in distance and intensity. Upon being able to walk long distances without pain, the runner may progress to short walk/jog intervals. Lastly, the runner can advance to runs while slowly increasing the weekly mileage.
If you have a difficult time pacing yourself, then don’t worry. There are many professionals, especially trainers and physical therapists, who can help with this transition. Because physical therapists are experts in movement, they will be able to show you how to move in a pain-free manner to make a full recovery. Conversely, personal trainers can assist by creating an exercise program to improve your flexibility, strength, and overall fitness level.
4. Pre and Post Fitness. When getting back to fitness after an injury, what you do before and after a workout is just as important as the workout itself. Warm-ups and cooldowns can help prevent any setbacks during the recovery process. Prior to exercise, your warm-up should include stretching, light cardio, and/or dynamic movements that mimic your actual workout. This prepares the body by gradually getting your body temperature up and increasing blood flow to the working muscles.
After your workout, it is important to allow your body to cool down. Performing static stretches, deep breathing techniques, foam rolling, or low-intensity cardio can restore your body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate back to normal (pre-exercise) levels. Cooldowns also serve to decrease lactic acid buildup to prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness, commonly referred to as DOMS.
After your workout, use ice on the injured area to decrease soreness, inflammation, and aggravation of the working regions, especially if you’re out of shape and deconditioned.
5. Prevention of Future Injury. As you build confidence towards a full recovery, it is important to take steps to prevent re-injury or future problems.
Here are some tips for preventing future injuries:
- Give your body enough time to recover between workouts to prevent overuse injuries. Experts recommend waiting 48 hours before exercising the same body parts again. See below for an example of a 5-day workout schedule with appropriate rest breaks.
- Target different muscle groups throughout the week to ensure that you’re giving yourself enough time to recover.
- Watch your exercise form and technique. All exercises should be mastered with little-to-no weight before progressing to a harder variation or weights.
Example of a 5-day workout schedule:
Day 1: Leg strengthening
Day 2: Arm strengthening
Day 3: Yoga
Day 4: Leg Strengthening
Day 5: Arm Strengthening
An injury may seem to be like a setback but, sometimes, they’re an opportunity for growth. And once you’re ready to get back, you may find satisfaction in exploring different types of exercises.
Although returning to fitness after an injury can be a slow process, following these tips can allow for a steady recovery and eliminate your risk for setbacks. Listen to your body, and you’ll be sweating with us again in no time.
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla C, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist
*The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.