Springtime in the Midwest is magical. It’s like a blanket has lifted and humans become humans again rather than cold, angry cave-dwellers. It means patio season, a few glorious extra hours of daylight, and a massive wave of people returning to their beloved outdoor activities after a seemingly never-ending hell of a winter being trapped indoors. The seasonal depression slump fades away and people re-discover their motivation and energy. I myself nearly cried tears of joy at my first opportunity to get my bike out on the trails this year. It was rejuvenating seeing so many other people out being active, whether it was running, cycling, or simply pushing their kids in a stroller.
Unfortunately, due to this mass return to activities, we in the rehab world also start to see an influx of running-related and “overuse” injuries around this time. While that’s good for business, it can be incredibly frustrating to the weekend warrior trying to return to his/her active lifestyle or train for an upcoming race. Have no fear—I’ve compiled a short guide on some of the best things you can be doing to prevent these types of injuries and stay active through these warmer months.
But first, let’s start off with some basics.
What even is an overuse injury? As I’m sure you can deduce from the name, it happens when certain tissues in your body are overused or overloaded, and they become painful and inflamed. Simply put, it happens when you do too much too soon. It can happen with any sport/activity, but especially the ones that are more repetitive in nature like running and cycling. Your body has the remarkable capability to adapt to the stressors you put on it, but it needs time and progressive overload to do so. If it is not given sufficient time to adapt and recover, it can result in injuries and pain.
Some common examples of overuse injuries include Achilles tendinitis, IT band syndrome, shin splints, and hamstring strains. If you’ve been a runner for any length of time, there’s a good chance at least one of these sounds familiar to you.
Thankfully these injuries are relatively common and straight-forward to treat conservatively. They rarely require imaging, prescription medications, or surgery, but they do take time and patience to heal. Lucky for you, if you seek care for an overuse injury in my office, I probably won’t be telling you to just rest or take time off your activity. Trust me, I know from experience that telling a runner to just stop running is basically a cardinal sin. Not only that, but it’s an ineffective way to heal an overuse injury (more on that here).
But let’s turn our focus back on prevention so that you can hopefully avoid ending up in my office in the first place.
Here are 4 of the best strategies to prevent overuse injuries:
1. Graded exposure
Simply put, graded exposure is a way to expose yourself to a certain stimulus or activity gradually to avoid overwhelming your tissues and exceeding their capacity. If you’ve been sedentary all winter, it’s probably not going to be a good idea to try to start suddenly running 5+ miles a day once the weather turns nice. Instead, starting small and slowly building up your mileage over time is a much safer and more effective way to train. For example, maybe your first week back to running you start off alternating between incremental walking and running—5 minutes on, 5 minutes off—for 30 minutes. Then the next week change the ratio to 8 minutes running, 2 minutes walking, and so on. This will obviously look different for everyone as everyone has a different background and starting point, but you get the gist. Don’t go 0 to 100 in a week and wonder why everything hurts.
There are infinite benefits to cross-training, no matter what your sport/activity is. But one of the most important is that it gives your body a different stimulus and gets it out of its normal repetitive movements or positions. As an example, I always recommend swimming and strength-training to my runners on their non-run days. Contrary to popular belief, the way to become a better runner is not just by going out and running every single day, but rather, strategically mixing it up. Lifting weights strengthens and thickens your tendons and ligaments and increases bone density, which is essential for injury prevention during running. Swimming is fantastic cardiovascular training without the repetitive stress of running. Mixing up your training gives your body time to recover while still moving you toward your specific goals. Work smarter, not harder.
3. Training outside the sagittal plane
This one goes hand-in-hand with cross-training. Many people are not aware that there are different “planes” of movement. Humans, by nature, largely occupy what’s known as the sagittal plane—i.e., forward and backward movements. Walking, running, cycling, going up and down stairs, and many common weight lifting movements occur in this plane of movement. But there are two other planes of movement—the frontal plane and the transverse plane, which include side-to-side (lateral) movements and rotational movements, respectively. These two planes are incredibly important, but unfortunately they are often neglected in training regimens. For many reasons, we want our joints and muscles to be strong and stable in all directions, not just forward and backward. If you’re looking for inspiration, some of my favorite non-sagittal-plane exercises include lateral ladder drills, curtsy or side lunges, monster walks, banded woodchoppers, and landmine twists. Still want more? Reach out and let’s chat.
This one seems obvious, but I’m learning more and more that it is not. Your recovery is just as important, if not MORE important, than your actual training. Obviously what you’re doing in the gym is very important, but if you aren’t recovering properly, you will not progress effectively in your training and you’ll be more prone to injuries, fatigue, and setbacks. Now, let me be clear that recovery does NOT necessarily include expensive massage guns, cryotherapy sessions, CBD creams, or even chiropractor appointments. Rather—focus on the basics before considering any of those other modalities. Think of recovery as everything you do outside of your training—most notably SLEEP, nutrition, and stress management. I KNOW there’s some of you out there priding yourself on surviving off of 4 hours of sleep per night. I’m here to tell you, my friends, that that is a slippery slope and not enough, especially if you are training. Trust me, I like to grind as much as the next person, but only after 7-8+ hours of quality sleep. Especially if you are someone who finds yourself with recurring injuries/ soreness or just habitually feeling like crap during your training sessions, before rushing to your favorite chiro or PT, ask yourself how much quality sleep you’re getting and what you’re using to fuel your body. I can promise you that improving those things first will take you farther than any adjustment, cupping, or dry needling will.
Ok, I’m going to get off my soap box for now, but I do hope you’ve learned something or taken something away from this. I want you to be able to run/bike/lift/swim your little heart out this spring and summer, train for your race or meet, and not have to be set back from an injury that could have been easily prevented. But that being said, if you do find yourself in the camp of an overuse injury, I’m here for you and would love to help you get back to doing what you love. If you have any questions or are interested in scheduling, hop on over to the contact tab.
In the meantime, happy training, my friends. 🙂