Picking up an injury is like getting the flu – it stops us in our tracks and derails our normal routine, both in life and in our training.
However, just like you can take precautions to avoid the flu, you can also reduce your risk of injury.
It’s an important consideration, because whenever we’re active we impose a certain amount of stress and strain on our bodies. While the right amount of stress will elicit a beneficial response, too much stress can break down the body.
And the amount of stress you can impose on a structure, muscle group, or the body as a whole depends on numerous and varied factors.
That’s why, when it comes to stressing the body through exercise, I apply what I call the ‘Goldilocks principle’ – not too much, not too little, but just the right amount! But how, exactly, do you do that?
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Step 1: Prepare your body with a warm up
Just like you warm up your oven before baking a tasty treat, you also need to prepare your body for what you’re about to serve up during an impending exercise session.
This is particularly important if you train first thing in the morning, after 8 hours spent in bed, or after 8 hours of sitting at a desk at work.
During these extended periods of no activity or movement, muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons tend to tighten up and we lose mobility. As such, hopping straight out of bed to bang out a few weighted lunges, or a 5km time trail will likely lead to injury.
But who has time to spend 10 minutes warming up before a 45 minute HIT workout? Well, consider that those 10 minutes could save you 6 or more weeks of recovery time and it no longer seems like such an effort, does it?
Dynamic warm-up routines that are specifically tailored to your workout are best. For example, before a run, a 5-minute treadmill walk, some jumping jacks, jump rope and leg swings are ideal.
If you’ve got a strength training session planned, execute the movements without weights before loading up the bar. Keep your reps low and move through a full range of motion. Some extra elements of dynamic mobility drills are also highly recommended.
Step 2: Cross-train to cover all the bases
It’s human nature for people to stick to what they like, or what they’re strongest at. Runners like to run, cyclists like to cycle, and weightlifters like to lift.
However, sticking to one training modality limits our exposure to other beneficial exercises, while also increasing the repetitive strain we place on the same structures by sticking to the same activities.
If you’re a cardio bunny, it pays to include some weight training to strengthen both your primary mover muscles, and the weaker ancillary muscles that get less of a workout when you run, pedal or swim. This will also make you a stronger runner, cyclist or swimmer, which improves performance. The same goes for weightlifters – some cardio will improve your fitness and strength endurance.
And everyone should include stability training in their routines to ensure their bodies function as an integrated system. This is a vital element to reduce your injury risk.
So mix up your workouts, and make sure you target all of your muscle groups. Not only will this approach help you avoid that dreaded training plateau, but it will give your muscles and joints a much needed break from the same routine.
Step 3: Perfect your technique
Technique is everything, whether you run or lift weights. Proper technique ensures you’re engaging the right muscles, which will reduce your risk of injury as the stress is placed on the strong primary movers, instead of the smaller or weaker stabiliser and accessory muscle groups.
Proper technique also ensures that you get the maximum benefit from the exercises you perform. It is therefore essential to learn the right movement sequence and patterns before increasing variables in your training, such as the weight, intensity or volume.
Ask trained and qualified professionals for guidance – that’s what they’re there for. It may require an upfront investment in a coach or personal trainer, but the long-term benefits will be worth it.
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Step 4: Follow a sensible progression
Whether you’re starting a new exercise programme, or training for your 20th marathon, it is essential that your training progresses at the right pace to meet your goals and avoid injuries.
Taking exponential leaps in your training volume or intensity from one week to the next is not the way to do it. You will get injured!
So, how exactly should you go about progressing your workouts effectively, and safely? Through the application of the scientific training principle of progressive overload.
A common guideline employed in programme periodisation by fitness professionals is the 10% rule.
This is by no means a hard and fast rule. Rather, it is a conservative guideline that simply states that you should increase your activity by no more than 10% per week. That can be applied to any metric, such as distance, weight or speed.
For example, if you did a set of squats using a 50kg barbell, at your next session you shouldn’t exceed 55kg to ensure a safe progression path. The same applies to running. If you weekend long run was 10km last Sunday, this Sunday’s run should not exceed 11km.
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Step 5: Rest and recover
Rest and recovery are important components of any training programme. Every qualified fitness professional and coach will build into a programme periods of rest and active recovery to give the body time to recuperate and adapt to the training.
It’s also important to listen to your body, as it usually gives us plenty of signals and warning signs when it’s getting tired and about to tap out.
However, most of us choose to ignore them! When you experience pain or discomfort, it’s a definite sign that something is wrong. So take time off if you start to experience niggles, or if you feel run down.
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Bonus tip: Always use the right gear
This point is not so much about looking good, but rather it’s about feeling good! This is especially important when selecting training shoes. They need to be fit for purpose, with the right support and materials used to create a suitable and efficient platform for human movement.
The wrong shoe can change your movement patterns, and can shift impact stress onto other joint structures, particularly during high-impact activities such as running, plyometrics, dance classes or gymnastics. This is a leading cause of injury, so never choose form over function.
By Bianca Bunge, registered biokineticist at Paladin & Associates
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.