Just about this time every year one of two things happens. People lose their New Year’s resolution momentum and their workouts come to a halt. Or people rev it up and really hit the gym hard. Now, if you have slowed down, that’s OK. But, in a few weeks, you might be hitting the fast-forward button to get back into shape—quickly. But hold on a minute. This kind of acceleration, while motivating, can also lead to injury. So, let’s just say for the sake of argument that you have sustained a minor injury. Or you have pushed yourself too hard and too fast and have rediscovered an old injury. What do you do now? Do you leave the gym and come back in a few months, or do you just push through it?
Now, there are good reasons to keep working out while you’re injured. You just have to be smart.
An intense workout causes cellular damage, which triggers your body to release a bunch of hormones to repair it and make it stronger (testosterone, insulin-like growth factor, human growth hormone, etc.). Usually these lead to beneficial effects, such as muscle growth and increased bone density. But these hormones aren’t just pushed into the used muscles; they go all over the body. As a result, you will actually heal faster if you keep working out.
Working out will keep you from backsliding on your fitness. If you’re sitting on the couch “recovering,” all you are doing is adapting to a sedentary lifestyle. If you continue working out, you will still maintain much of your functionality, and you very well might see improvements.
But, I did say you have to be smart about working out when you are injured. Here is some good advice:
See a physician or a physical therapist to learn what exercises are possible with your type of injury. Focus on the goal of maintaining strength, not gaining it, while you are recovering. And always be wary of pain as you explore different workouts.
Pain is always the indicator; discomfort is OK, but pains tells you when you should stop what you are doing and do something else. You always want to keep in mind that you should be doing something that doesn’t re-injure or further injure yourself.
If you have sprained your ankle, stick with low-impact workouts such as swimming or riding a stationary bike. Running or aerobics are generally activities that are too high in impact—so avoid them. A person with a sprained ankle can also do upper-body or core impact exercises for strength training.
Plantar fasciitis is an overuse injury normally caused by a lack of cross training. For example, a person may develop plantar fasciitis by only running when training for a marathon but not preparing through other exercises such as swimming or biking. If you are suffering with this type of injury then you need to focus on resting in order to heal, but it is possible to explore low-impact core and upper-body exercises while recovering. There are not a lot of ways other than physical therapy to recover from plantar fasciitis except for resting. You always want to do things that are low impact without a lot of pressure on the area. Grab an ice pack, get some rest and allow your injury to fully recover before trying to get stronger.
Let’s say that you have strained or pulled a muscle. What can you do? The first thing a person with a pulled or strained muscle should know is that they, like everyone, should warm up thoroughly before doing anything. People with this type of injury should stay in a pain-free range by focusing on conditioning the side of the body opposite of the strained or torn muscle. If you have pulled a hamstring, for example, then aim to work on your upper body.
Remember, there are preventative measures that a person can take to avoid pulling or straining a muscle. Make sure you do a good warm-up for five to 10 minutes. Second, be sure to cool down at the end of your workout. And don’t forget to stretch.
If you keep all of these guidelines in mind, you should be able to continue on your fitness program even if you have sustained an injury. The bottom line is to be smart about what you are doing. Yes, working out while injured is psychologically beneficial. And, knowing that you can overcome intense physical challenges while injured is definitely a confidence booster. But it’s important that you scale and modify your workout so that you can allow the injury to heal and get back to 100%.
Ken Hunt, AFI Certified Personal Trainer and fitness consultant, is the owner of Steel Gym with locations in New York City, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He frequently travels the U.S. and Europe giving lectures and seminars on health and personal wellness. Steel Gym has been ranked one of the top five gyms in the U.S. by Muscle and Fitness magazine.