Getting hurt sucks, but it doesn’t mean you have to just sit on the sidelines. In fact, you shouldn’t. You can use work-arounds, or find activities that accommodate your injury to stay in shape and speed up your recovery.

We try to be careful and avoid injuries. But inevitably, something happens and we hurt ourselves. Like I did training a client a couple of weeks ago. I was demonstrating an exercise and caught my foot on a dumb bell that was behind me. My ankle turned and I went down like a sack of potatoes.

As I sat on the floor, trying to assess how bad the damage was, two things when through my mind:

  • Did I break something or irritate a previous injury since this was my right foot, and I’ve had four surgeries on it over the past 12 years.
  • Recovering from this, no matter how minor or major the injury, was going to put a crimp in my training. I had actually planned to hike the next day and now I knew that was never going to happen. Crap.

How you handle an injury and what you do afterward is critical. Your first step is to assess the damage. What did you actually do? You may need to see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Ouch Alert

How can you tell whether what you’re feeling is a normal ache or more than that? With an injury…

  • It’s sharp. Pain is your body’s warning or alert system. If the messages you’re getting are sharp and shooting, it’s more urgent. Sharp pains definitely mean you should stop what you’re doing immediately and address the pain.
  • It’s near a joint. Common exercise injuries come from overuse and center on bones or tendons (think shoulders, knees and ankles). That makes any pain you experience in those areas cause for concern and you should stop to have it checked out.
  • It hurts when you aren’t moving. If your knee is aching or popping during the first few minutes of your exercise–whether you’re running or squatting or Zumba-ing, it could be a warning sign. But it’s a major red flag if you feel joint or bone pain when you’re just lying in bed or sitting on the couch.
  • It’s been three days. Delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), caused by microscopic tears in your muscle, is necessary for muscle growth and lasts anywhere from 24 to 72 hours typically (although I’ve had it go on slightly longer after a particularly intense workout). If it lasts beyond the 72 hour time threshold though, it’s time to get it checked out because it could be an injury.

In my case, it was sharp and near a joint–a double whammy. I twisted one of the anterior ligaments in my ankle. Thankfully I hadn’t broken anything. But it made simple walking painful. And forget about rolling my foot or putting real pressure on it, like you would do if you bent at the knees to pick up something.

Once I knew what I was dealing with and how to treat it, I needed to actually follow through and do those things. So do you! Ice, heat, therapy, rest or a combination. Whatever is recommended to deal with pain, inflammation and to jump start the healing process.

I spent that evening icing my ankle and staying off of it. Ditto for the next day. By day three, I was able to walk around more on it, so I worked with clients (without demonstrating exercises myself) and I ran errands that had me walking a bit. By day four, I was feeling a bit better. Still sore, but I could move easier. And I was getting antsy to work out.

This is key, because sometimes when we’re injured or recuperating from a trauma like surgery, we can take too long of a break. But, spending too much time on the sidelines causes detraining, or a regression of your current fitness level. In fact, decreasing workouts for just two weeks can significantly reduce your cardiovascular fitness, lean muscle mass, and insulin sensitivity, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. I saw this first hand recuperating from surgery I had in December, and I couldn’t work out for almost four months. It was hell. Exercise is a big mood enhancer since it floods your brain with a surge of endorphins. Let’s just say I wasn’t always fun to be around…  🙂

Why You Want to Work Around Injuries

Finding ways to accommodate your injury in your workout doesn’t just keep you on track with your goals. It can actually help speed up recovery time by reducing all-around deconditioning. Strong supporting muscles can help take some of the pressure off of an injured joint or muscle. Plus, getting your heart rate up circulates extra blood through your body, which helps damaged tissues get the nutrients they need to repair themselves.

Pay Attention to Your Body

When you’re working around an injury, make sure you don’t push too hard. Try this 1-to-10 scale: if any exercise increases your pain level by more than 2 points, you need to try another move.

Here are a couple of substitutions you could make:

Knee Back Shoulder Foot/Ankle Elbow
Instead of: Lunges Instead of: Back extensions Instead of: Tricep Dips Instead of: Squats  Instead of: Bench Presses
Do: Split Squats  Do: Planks  Do: Tricep Push Downs Do: Wall Sits Do: Dumb Bell Flyes 

When I got back to it, I built a workout that would work around my injury but still challenge me. Instead of a lower-body focus, which is usual for me, I spent more time on core, upper body and glutes, in a Tabata style that really fatigued my muscles. And after each workout, give yourself two or three days to see how your body responds to the stress before pushing things further.

Instead of squats, lunges and deadlifts, I did donkey kicks, wall sits and TRX squat to rows. I did walk-out push-ups standing on my left foot only to avoid bending my right ankle too much. Then, I focused on upper body and core exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises, overhead press with crunch and reverse crunch with a foam roller, using a medicine ball for leverage.

I hope that you never get injured. But, if that should happen to you at any point in the future, now you know more about how to stop, get treated, and get back to activity to speed up recovery and keep your fitness program progressing at the same time.

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