When you’re out of shape and you start to take action to become fit, it’s natural to want to progress as quickly as you possibly can. Unfortunately, what often happens is that instead you progress as quickly as you think you can until your body experiences a strain it can’t adapt to and then you stop dead because you’re injured. After the injury heals, you often jump right back into your fitness program where you left off, and you injure yourself even more quickly this time.
It’s a frustrating cycle, but not an inevitable one. There are a few things you need to understand about the way improvements in fitness take place in the body; then my advice to go slowly will make much more sense.
Human muscles are great things; we all have the same number of muscles, but they’re highly adaptable as anyone can see by comparing the musculature of a ballerina with Serena Williams. They respond immediately to an increase in stress (like beginning an exercise program) and within a few weeks you’ll even be able to see the difference in the shape of your muscles.
Tendons, ligaments, bones, and the cardiovascular system take longer to step up to the increased demands that exercise places on them, but you can’t see them improving (unless you’ve got an X-ray machine handy) so people tend to forget about them. Consequently, people’s muscles improve faster than the support structures and that can set them up for injury. The muscles are strong enough to get you into trouble, but the support system isn’t strong enough to get you out again. Picking up a weight you’ve handled before and suddenly your tendon says, “Nope, one rep too far” and snaps. Jumping to spike the ball just like you’ve been doing all month and some tiny bone in your foot has had enough and goes snap!
Stress fractures are common, as are ligament tears, plantar fasciitis, and tendonitis. There are a few simple things you can do to prevent these and stay healthy.
After all, it’s not about winning the race at all costs, it’s about getting, and staying, well.
- consult your doctor before beginning a program of exercise, and bring it with you to go over it with her. She is an expert in your body and how it works, so use her as your consultant. Have her take benchmark readings of your blood pressure, resting heart rate, weight, and if you’re working on your diet as well, cholesterol and triglycerides. She may suggest other tests as well. These serve as your benchmarks; in six months or a year you’ll be able to measure exactly how much you’ve impacted your health with the actions you’ve taken since then, and nothing is more motivating.
- find a sound, professionally designed and respected program that has built in rest periods. Working out seven days a week is destructive to the body and depressive to the mind. Working out is serious body business, and you need good advice. This is no time to take your cues from some infomercial queen just because she’s there. You might want to start working out at three days a week and work up; throwing yourself into a gruelling training program will burn you out mentally and break you down physically.
- cross-train. This means that rather than doing the same exercise on consecutive workout days, you’ll do something else instead. This will build different muscles and give the ones you’ve worked a chance to rest. Even if what you’re doing is normally classified as aerobic exercise, if you’re just starting out it’s building muscle, too, and your muscles need that 48 hours to strengthen themselves for the next workout. Putting them through the same routine too quickly will break them down, not build them up. As an example of cross training, maybe on Monday you go for a run. On Tuesday, go for a bike ride, or do circuit training or a step class at the gym. Wednesday you can run again. Thursday, do something else, maybe go dancing. This ensures that your body is getting fit all over, rather than just fit in one sport. Many a die hard Spinning fanatic has had a humbling experience when he tried to translate that fitness into a game of Ultimate or even road cycling! Cross training means flexibility; it means you’re fit for more Life.
- stretch only when you’re warmed up, and always stretch at the end of a workout. The #1 cause of sports-related injuries is stretching cold muscles. The only reason to stretch before your main workout (and after at least five minutes of warmup!) is to improve your range of motion and performance in that particular workout; studies have found pre-workout stretching to have no overall health benefits at all. Stretching afterwards is what prevents injury and staves off stiffness. Use static stretches, not bouncing; those tear the muscle fibers and are very harmful. Hold your stretches between 12 and 30 seconds: any less and the muscles actually tighten up overall due to a reflex reaction, any longer doesn’t do any particular good.
- take the time to warm up. Mo’ warmup, mo’ betta. Warm up by doing a slower version of whatever your workout is going to be: maybe you’re cycling and your warmup is heading downhill to start with. If you’re running, your warmup could be walking or a slow trot. Warm up at least five minutes to get the blood flowing; quite literally that’s what’s happening. If you jump into a workout too quickly, the muscles can’t get the oxygen they need because the cardiovascular system can’t deliver it fast enough. Warming up first gets the heart rate up gradually, so you don’t have a heart attack and you don’t run out of gas fifty yards into your workout.
- take the time to cool down. Mo’ cooldown, mo’ betta. From my own experience, this is the single most important part of the workout for preventing injury. Once the official workout is done, ease up. Think of those racehorses after they’ve crossed the finish line, still cantering but the pressure is off. If you’ve been running, drop to a trot and then to a walk. If you’ve been hiking, plan your route so that the last fifteen minutes are slow downhills (I always start a workout heading uphill for just this reason). Walk it out until your heart rate comes down to something so close to normal you’re not actually aware of it as this thudding anymore and you have to go looking for your pulse. Then it’s time to stretch. Try these basics from the US Army. Yes, I know it’s a weird place to get stretches from.
- if you do end up injured, take adequate time off from your program. Remember: what you were doing didn’t work for you. You need to heal and then you need to lay the groundwork before you can progress.
- when you return to your fitness program, don’t jump back in where you left off; remember, that was where you got injured last time. You need to dial back the physical load on your body. I would recommend going back one week from the point of your injury for a minor injury that’s healed (twisted ankle, etc), a minimum of three weeks for anything more major like a stress fracture, back injury etc. Do not count backwards from where you would be if you’d kept up with the program. The idea here isn’t to tick it off on your To Do list; the idea is to improve your health. Get your doctor’s advice.
- one last thing: know when to call it a day. Don’t go for the burn, if you don’t yet know the difference between the feeling of lactic acid buildup and the feeling of a critical system failure, and until you’ve been working out consistently for a couple of years at least, you don’t. If your body hasn’t got what it takes to do the 5k today, do 2k and some stretches ora nice long walk. Or do yoga instead. If you’re really down, but you want to do something healthy, I highly recommend Tai Chi. When I had third-stage undiagnosed cancer and was pulling 90 hour weeks at work, Tai Chi was the single thing that made me feel better. I would drag myself to class, literally wishing I could lie down on the floor and nap, and on my way home from class I’d be hopping the curbs because I felt that much better. There are low-intensity alternatives for days when that is what you have. Every day, you have only and exactly what you’ve got right then.