Preventing and Managing Workout Injuries

Understanding the Importance of Injury Prevention

Injuries sustained from working out can range from fairly minor, with recovery times of just a couple of weeks, to serious and life-long. Therefore, it’s important to take the risk of injury seriously. At the very least, injury can prevent you from training – personally I use exercise as my main outlet and mood regulation, and so without it, I struggle with my mental health.

Additionally, an injury could get in the way of your everyday life, either by simply making tasks harder or actually preventing you from working or doing other activities. If this continues over a long period of time, this can seriously impact your quality of life and mental health, on top of any physical pain and discomfort you may also be dealing with.

Injuries can often occur during periods of increased motivation where we’re making really great progress with our training and just want to capitalise on this, and train as hard and often as we can. So it’s important to be aware of our limits and put measures in place to prevent injury.

Common Causes of Workout Injuries

Here are some of the most common causes of workout injuries, most are easily avoidable with proper planning and technique.

  • Not warming up properly
  • Incorrect form or equipment
  • Insufficient rest between sessions
  • Repetitive movements
  • Increasing intensity too quickly (either during sessions, or doing too many)

Pre-Workout Warm-Up: The Key to Preventing Workout Injuries

One way to prevent injury is to sufficiently prepare your body for your workout. Gradually increasing your heart rate during your warm up is key, as your muscles need a good supply of blood to work efficiently, so each muscle contraction during your workout can be strong and powerful. Your warm up will also increase the amount of fluid in your joints which reduces stiffness and allows them to move easier.

Your nervous system also requires preparation for exercise, and you can ‘wake this up’, increasing your proprioception and therefore your balance, agility and stability all improve, ready for your session. A good warm up basically gets the body and mind ready for the stress you’re about to put it under, and being properly prepared means less chance of injury.

A popular football warm up, the Fifa 11+, has been proven to reduce major injuries. The biggest reduction has been seen in 13-18 year old females who have a 50% less chance of knee and ACL injury, and a reduction of 39% across any injury. Although this is a specific sport and demographic, the percentage reduction in injury is so significant, it’s easily argued that this can translate to any sport or activity.

So no more skipping your warm up!

Proper Form and Technique: Your First Line of Defence

Another incredibly important factor in minimising your risk of injury is making sure that your form and technique are correct.

Incorrect form can increase stress on your joints and therefore the risk of injury. Similarly, imbalanced movements can put excessive strain on your muscles, increasing the chance of strains or tears. During exercise we are essentially placing extra stress onto our body structures and if this is not done correctly, it can be incredibly dangerous.

At the very least, your movement may just be inefficient as you may not be working the muscles you are trying to target. So even from a performance perspective, proper form is so important.

The Role of Stretching in Preventing Workout Injuries

Flexibility could potentially lower your risk of injury by increasing your range of motion. This means that if you move fast into a position, you have more range before you hit your flexibility wall.

Being more flexible means that you can generally move about day to day with less pain and restriction, however there is no definitive proof that stretching reduces injury occurrence, despite what we have always been taught! This doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t still be part of your routine though.

The above benefits alone are so worth the few minutes spent at the end of each session and the potential that it could reduce your risk of injury should also be worth the effort. This is why I still swear by stretching after each session as it definitely makes my body feel better, improves my flexibility and enhances my quality of life.

The Importance of Rest and Recovery

Between workouts, your body needs time to rest and repair sufficiently to reduce your risk of injury. Your central nervous system (CNS) needs a rest, because, if it becomes too fatigued, it won’t be able to communicate as efficiently with your muscles as to when, and what order to contract in. Your coordination, proprioception, strength and stability are therefore all affected.

This delay or disconnect between the CNS and your muscles can cause mistakes and slip ups in your form and movements, which can lead to injury. Your muscles also need rest to be able to repair all of the micro damage that they suffer during workouts. Microscopic damage is completely normal during sessions, but not allowing adequate rest means that this damage is unable to heal sufficiently and can weaken the muscle, putting you at risk of injury.

Rest doesn’t have to be complete rest being sat down all day. In fact, active rest is actually more beneficial. Active rest means still keeping moving during the day with light, gentle exercise like walking. This increases blood flow to your muscles and joint structures which aids in the recovery process. So, if you’re like me and struggle with complete rest, this actually works in our favour!

Listening to Your Body: Recognising Warning Signs

Warning signs that you are overtraining and need to increase the amount of rest you are giving your body between workouts include:

  • If you regularly experience sore muscles a couple of days after your last workout
  • Experiencing more and more overuse injuries
  • Feeling fatigued day to day and extra sleep doesn’t seem to help
  • Experiencing a downturn in your mental health and mood
  • Feeling less pumped and enthusiastic for your workouts than you used to (this can happen more often for alternative reasons than the above, but combined with any of the above can indicate overtraining)

Overuse Injuries: Causes and Prevention Strategies

Tendonitis (inflammation of tendon), Tendinopathy (tendon injury) and stress fractures (tiny cracks in bone) are the most common overuse injuries. These are generally caused by repetitive use, poor form or performing movements that are too advanced for your structures to handle until strengthened sufficiently first. Ultimately, doing too much.

Sufficient rest is therefore important between sessions, as is not overdoing any specific movement during a session. If you feel fatigued and your form isn’t as solid, it’s time to move on to another exercise. Better safe than sorry.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that more is always better in exercise. We’re surrounded by the ‘no pain no gain’, and ‘push yourself to the limits’ narrative in fitness, and while it is of course important to push yourself, there should be limits. Your body has limits and you need to listen to them.

Preventing Overuse Workout Injuries

To prevent overuse injuries, it is important to always warm up and cool down and make these tailored and appropriate to the exercise you will be performing. For example, if you are going to be squatting, warm up your leg, hip and core muscles sufficiently by performing lunges, lateral lunges, glute bridges, birddogs and your spine with thoracic rotations.

During your session, make sure you have the correct equipment and know the correct technique/form for the movements you are performing. Increase intensity gradually, for example if you are a beginner, jumping into 4 sessions per week of the same exercise is a huge step up from not doing any at all. Start with a couple of sessions and increase after a month or so.

Make sure you have some variety in your exercise routine as well. For example, a mix of running, cycling, football, and lifting weights is going to reduce your risk of overuse if you are doing 4-5 sessions per week rather than just sticking to one. However, if you’re like me and love lifting, you can still lift 4-5 times per week and just make sure your programme has variety in it rather than doing the same exercise every session, as you will be fatiguing the same muscles and joint structures every session and won’t be giving them sufficient rest.

Build in at least 1 rest day per week, 2 if you are training hard – if you are training many times per week and sometimes don’t feel ready mentally or physically for a session, it’s probably a sign you need to build in another rest day.

Strength Training Safety Tips: Lifting Smart and Safe

Something I will always work on with beginners to strength training, or people that have been inactive for a while, is core strength. Your core links the other parts of your body together, so if this is weak, your entire strength, stability and balance suffer, which puts you at higher risk of hurting yourself. I then always make sure my clients are comfortable with and have mastered the correct form for any strength exercise, using a light weight or resistance first.

With this, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, if you are trying a new lift, leave your ego at the door and put your safety first. Once you are confident you are performing the movement safely and efficiently, you can add more weight.

To learn correct form you can either use online resources and teach yourself, although make sure that if you are learning from anyone on platforms such as YouTube, Instagram or enrolling on an online programme, that your coach is fully qualified. There are many online ‘coaches’ who simply look the part but have zero qualifications, so just be wary of this.

The alternative is to work with an in-person coach who can teach you correct form and cue you real-time of any mistakes you might be making from the very start. This is of course the best option safety-wise but it is usually more expensive. The online route can still be great, you just need to make sure you play it safe and take your time with it, until you are confident, before adding more weight.

Cardiovascular Exercise and Injury Risk: What to Watch For

The most common injuries gained from cardio exercise are strains, sprains, stress fractures and shin splints. A sufficient warm up is key to reducing the risk of all of these, as is proper form, for example poor running technique can increase your risk of shin splints but can also be loading your joints incorrectly and lead to the other injuries above too. Healthline has a great resource to start to correct your running technique and prevent workout injuries.

Another reason you may pickup workout injuries during a cardio session is weakness around joints, knees being the most common problem area for this. Without proper strength and stability in the muscles that support the knee, (you should strengthen all leg muscles but your quadriceps are particularly important here) it is less resistant to excessive, forceful twisting and pivoting which can result in meniscus (knee cartilage) or ACL (knee ligament) tears. Recovery from these can involve surgery and can drastically limit your movement in the early stages which can make life very difficult. Getting back to your previous activity level will be slow, sore and probably pretty frustrating!

If you are overdoing your cardio sessions, for example you do too much too quickly after being inactive for some time, or if your activity involves jumping or running on a hard surface, you can give yourself shin splints. These require a lot of rest to recover from and can therefore really halt your progress while they heal.

So with cardio exercise, don’t overdo it, and make sure your body is ready for the activity you are undertaking and you should avoid these unpleasant outcomes.

Managing Minor Workout Injuries: When to Seek Professional Help

For minor muscle strains, generally resting for 2-3 weeks will sort you out.

Shin splints may require more time to heal, but you can always switch to low impact exercise like swimming, yoga or even jogging on softer ground if they feel up to it.

Sprains often need a little extra help, so asking your GP/Physio for appropriate exercises and stretches is a good idea to get you back in action sooner.

You know your own body though so if you feel like any of the above require more than just rest, always seek medical help to rule out the possibility that it is something more serious.

Nutrition and Hydration for Injury Prevention and Recovery

Taking care of your body with sufficient hydration and nutrition can also play a part in injury prevention and recovery.

During exercise, your muscles require energy to contract and if we aren’t fuelling our bodies properly, it can mean that your muscles lack sufficient energy, leading to weaker and less controlled movements. Between sessions, protein is essential for repair and recovery of tissues. If our intake is too low and this can’t happen, the micro-damage occurring each session can build up and again lead to weaker movements and potential injury.

Many micronutrients are also important here, for example B vitamins are involved in energy production, as are Vitamin C, Iron, Magnesium and Zinc. Vitamins D and E are particularly important alongside these for muscle growth and repair but many other nutrients have roles too, so it is important to be consuming the entire range of essential vitamins and minerals.

Overall health and optimal functioning of the body is only going to aid the recovery process and help you to perform better in sessions, reducing your chance of injury.

For more on managing your nutrition for exercise, check out my Nutrition in Fitness blog.

Don’t Be Scared Of Workout Injuries!

Any activity, whether it involves exercise or not, comes with some level of risk, but the potential gain to overall health and wellbeing by participating in exercise, far outweighs this. A 5 year study conducted at the University of Bath, showed that the occurrence of injuries in a whole variety of activities like gym sessions, running and classes is so small that they shouldn’t be avoided for fear of injury.

The tips above however will help to safeguard you even further, as the main causes of minor injuries are due to insufficient warm ups, improper form and pushing yourself too hard.

Hopefully by taking these tips on board, you can more confidently commit to your workouts and stay injury-free! If you’re looking for a hand to get started, feel free to pop me a message and we can discuss what might work for you.

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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