We’ve all been there. We take up a new sport or exercise, or set ourselves a challenging goal, like running a marathon. We throw ourselves into our new passion 110% and give it everything we’ve got. We feel good the first few times we do it, we start to improve and we try and do more, doing it harder and doing it for longer. And then: it all goes wrong. That little twinge in our hamstring that we felt on our last run has blown up into something far more serious, or the strain in our shoulders when we lift weights has suddenly got a whole lot worse. The end result is we have to take time off to recover properly to prevent the injury becoming chronic.
It’s a common enough experience, but one that really doesn’t have to happen. So, how do we go about avoiding injury? Here are a few tips.
1. Take your rest days
Those blocked out days in your training plan with a big letter ‘R’ next to them are there for a reason – so don’t ignore them. Rest days work in the same way that a good night’s sleep does – they are an opportunity for the body to recover itself in between the days when you are stretching your muscles and ligaments as you exercise. When we exercise hard – for example lifting weights repetitively – we are actually causing lots of tiny micro tears in our muscles. The rest days are when your body takes the chance to repair these tears, by adding more muscle on top. So, when we rest, we’re not just taking a break – we’re actually giving our bodies the time to build up the added muscle we want.
2. Build it up slowly.
Of course, this much easier said than done, especially when you are just starting out, full of enthusiasm for a new sport. But it really does pay to build up slowly – it’s one reason why having an end goal like a specific race or a target weight in mind is great. Why? Because it forces you to follow a plan – whether it is specific weights, exercises, running distances or a certain pace, you will approach your new passion in a far more gradual and methodical way. Too much, too soon, and you will almost certainly injure yourself. Taking a gradual approach is therefore also a great way to stay motivated – you’ll see yourself making steady progress over a much more sustained period.
3. Get the right gear, and learn how to use it.
This is actually an incredibly important point, because it goes to the heart of what many people find most enjoyable about exercise. Browsing for and buying the right gear (whether it a new pair of trail shoes or gym equipment to use at home) is fun – there’s no getting away from it. But is also important to remember why you are buying it – your end goal always has to be because it improves your performance.
So, don’t just buy the running shoes that look the coolest or that have the most five star reviews – go to a proper running shop, try a few different pairs on, and talk to the experts there about what you need your shoes for. Or if you are heading to the gym, desperate to use the latest piece of equipment, just take the time to talk to the trainers about exactly the right way to use it before you do.
4. Warm up, and cool down.
When you’re desperate to just get out there and get on with it, it can be very easy to skip the warm up. You might jump up and down on the spot and do a few half hearted stretches, but that’s not warming up. Equally, when you’ve been outside in the freezing cold for an hour, or working out hard on a gym machine, the last thing you want to do is spend another ten minutes cooling down. But it really is essential. There are plenty of quick warm up and cool down routines out there, but if you can’t face anything too elaborate, our advice is simply this – if you are going to go for a run, just walk or lightly jog for five minutes before you start in earnest – and do the same at end. The same goes for the gym – instead of driving there and back, just walk to warm up and cool down.
5. Don’t exercise when you’re injured.
The best way to avoid a serious injury is not to compound any minor ones you might already have. No one knows your body like you do, so trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right – if you are pushing yourself to run a kilometre too far on that aching ankle, or you think your sore shoulder might just hold out for one more bench press – just stop.
All of the tips above will go some way towards preventing you from injuring yourself, but if you do start to feel a problem, then always take a break and make sure it doesn’t become a chronic one.