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How to Avoid Injury When Returning to Physical Activity

By Dr. Andrew Miners, Medcan Director of Sports Medicine, Therapy and Rehabilitation

After a long period of inactivity, avoid breaking “the rule of too” and employ such techniques as rest, recovery, preparation and periodization.

I recently returned to playing recreational slo-pitch. It’s a fun activity that gets me outside and around other people. But one of the most common sights I see at these games are people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s coming off a long and sedentary winter of working from home. As their competitive edge re-emerges, they push themselves too hard, which can lead to tweaks, sprains and other injuries. Physical activity is great for your overall health, but it’s important to be careful—and allow time for rest and recovery. As you become reacquainted with your physical capabilities and limits, keep these guidelines in mind.

Avoid Breaking the “Rule of Too”

What keeps me in business is people’s tendency to break what I call the ‘rule of too’—they try to do too much, too soon, too hard, for too long, with too little recovery time. If you have been sedentary for an extended period, say greater than one month, avoid breaking a rule of “too” by spending at least a week preparing your body for its intended task. Say you’re getting back into slo-pitch. During the week before your first practice, go to the park two or three times and do some light-to-moderate game-like movements. Begin with some light jogging or brisk walking, then some gentle joint movement like shoulder, hip, and knee rolls, arm swings and leg swings. This is called a dynamic, or moving, warm-up. After this, if anything feels tight or stiff, engage in some targeted gentle stretching. Following your warm-up, engage in more vigorous game-like movements, such as light sprinting for short bursts, some changes of directions with running, and some bat swings. On your first day, think of engaging your body tissues at approximately 50 to 60% of the sport’s maximal effort. Over two or three days try to gradually increase your effort so that on the last day you are near or at your full effort. Incorporate at least a day of rest between each of these workouts. Listen to your body, and build in more rest days if you need them. If it has been longer than a month since you have engaged in your chosen vigorous activity, you should take even longer to get your body back up to its tolerance.

Once your prep is over, start small and build gradually. If you’re getting back into resistance training, start with only 50% of your previous load, and number of exercises, and focus on getting your body used to the movements rather than returning immediately to the heavier weights you once lifted. For running, you might start with 50% of your previous distance or time. Or start by alternating between periods of running and walking. Give yourself at least a day of recovery between exercise days. The goal is to avoid breaking the ‘rule of too’ by trying to do too much, too soon.

Risks

When we strain or injure our muscles and tendons, it’s because we’ve done something to overload or overstress the tissues. Generally, these injuries come in the form of a peak load or a sustained load intolerance. When playing slo-pitch, a peak load intolerance usually occurs when someone breaks the “too hard” and “too soon” rules. Someone steps up to the batter’s box, hits the ball into left field and takes off for first base. As they approach the bag, they stretch a leg to beat the tag and pull a hamstring. Why? Because they didn’t warm up and then exceeded the peak of what the muscles and tendons could handle in that situation.

Another type of injury caused by tissue overloading is a sustained or repetitive load intolerance. Think of a simple action like lifting a pen with your right arm. Doing this10 or 20 times would be easy, but what if you were asked to do it 1,000 times? Repeating the same motion over a long period of time produces fatigue in your muscles and tendons. Without proper rest and recovery, this can ultimately lead to repetitive tendon and muscle injuries, such as tennis elbow or knee pain.

Prevention

Another technique to prevent injury is periodization. The idea is to vary the intensity of your exercises, and the specific areas of the body they target, allowing you to remain active without developing a repetitive strain injury. So one periodization technique is to vary light-intensity days with higher intensity days, or to assign a specific muscle group or type of exercise to a given day of the week. For example, Monday might be an upper-body workout, Tuesday is lower-body, Wednesday is yoga or stretching. By varying the intensity, body part, or mode of exercise, you can give your body ‘relative rest’ so that you can keep active more often but still allow your body some level of proper recovery.

Rest for Recovery

The human body is an amazing machine. When we physically stress our tissues, the body responds by adapting to that stress, becoming stronger and more tolerant. However, if we do not allow enough time for our body to adapt and recover, injury can occur. This is why accounting for rest and recovery is so important. How much rest your body requires depends on your present fitness level, your age, and your past injury or health history. Allow at least a day of rest between heavier or more vigorous bouts of exercise that challenge the body in the same way or capacity. This is more important if you are just starting a new exercise or activity, or if you are returning to a certain physical activity after an extended period of sedentary behaviour. Sometimes doing a different, or lighter, activity the next day is possible. But you must pay attention to how your body is feeling and adjust the level and frequency of exercise accordingly.

Watch for Signs

Hard and fast rules don’t exist for how much rest is required for any single person. Every body is different. If you’re feeling sore, try and evaluate how extreme the discomfort is on a scale from zero to 10, with 10 being the most discomfort possible. Any pain or soreness above level four is generally an indication that you should take it easy. Either decrease the intensity of the planned exercise or take the day off. Listen to what your body is telling you both during and after exercise engagement and remember: a workout plan isn’t sustainable long-term without incorporating time for recovery.

Medcan’s Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation program can provide effective care to meet a variety of your needs—in person or virtually. For more information, call 416-350-5900 ext. 6

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