No matter how long you’ve been working out, whether you’re starting your journey or you’re an experienced athlete, you’re going to get injured at one point or another.
Unfortunately, injuries are a bit like taxes, unavoidable. However, there are ways where we can prevent them happening often, we can lessen the effects they have on us, and we can help speed up recovery.
But first, why do injuries happen?
A lot of people, especially beginners, are scared of getting injured in the gym. For some reason, we kind of associate working out hard with injury and accidents. Is that always the case? Not at all! The problem is not training hard, but not training smart.
This is definitely a sure cause of injury. We’ve all been there at some point, you’re training, and it feels good. You work out hard, so you struggle during the session, sure, but then you get that high after a good training, you’re more alert and… happier? Heck, you might even start seeing results. So you do it again. And again. And again. Suddenly, rest days are a bore, you want to hit the gym and you feel like a caged wild animal when someone says skip the gym or something silly like that. Rest day? Nah, you’ll just take it a bit easier and call it a day.
Not giving your body enough time to rest, either between sets and exercises, and between sessions, can deplete your body of the energy it requires to keep itself up to speed and healthy, ready for another session. Depending on the type of training you do, and how long you’ve been training, you might need a whole 48 hours rest in between training days! Crazy, isn’t it?
Not sleeping enough
This one goes kind of hand in hand with overtraining and not giving your body enough rest, but it goes one step further.
Same way as a lot of London’s Tube works are done at night, our body recovers while we sleep. Not only our body, but also our minds.
We start each day with a bucket-full of energy points and as the day progresses, those energy points are being drained, like health points in a video game. Ideally, we would wake up in the morning with a full energy bar and a couple of stars to give us super energy at certain times. We get our breakfast and add a bit to those energy points, that have already started to be lost. Snoozing the alarm? Five energy points. Choosing which clothes to wear? Two energy points… By the time we leave the house, we’re already on 95%. Commuting in London is draining. We get to work and we have to make constant decisions in a time-poor environment where every situation feels like a matter of life and death. Our bosses micromanage us, our clients are ever demanding, and we endure meeting after meeting. Sometimes the only energy-replenish method we have is that pack of crisps mid-morning, or that chocolate biscuit. And coffee, lots of coffee – remember the energy boosting stars in games? They usually gave you super speed and invincibility but only for a short period of time, and if not careful enough and you weren’t ready when the time finished, you were always hit by an enemy, just as your character stopped flashing. Same here.
When we leave the workplace, after a long, stressful, busy day, it wouldn’t be a surprise if we left with about 60% of our energy bar, tops, but we need to get to the gym.
We do a hard session, with or without pre-workout, and get ourselves home, tired but energised. Time to deal with the family, pets, chores, dinner (if we don’t meal prep) and catch up with the news or Netflix, going to bed all too late. Rinse and repeat, only the next day we might not wake up with 100% on our energy bar, and we might get up with only 85% because we just slept for about five broken hours. Try doing that for a month, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of pizza. And burgers. And dirty fries from the Co-op. And afternoon tea… but I also know they’re not the best ways of fuelling my body.
Here’s an example, all my life, back in Spain, I used to drive a diesel car, and when I moved here I didn’t drive for many, many years. Recently, I’ve been driving my boyfriend’s car, which is petrol (it’s also a sports car, but that’s a different story). The first time I went to the petrol station to fill it up, I was freaking out I was going to choose the wrong fuel, so I kept repeating to myself, unleaded, unleaded, green one, green one, and even as I was choosing the right fuel, I had to still check a couple more times. I kid you not, I was shaking by the end of it (silly, I know, but hey, it’s a really nice car…).
Same as you wouldn’t choose the wrong fuel for your car because you know the damage it would make, you shouldn’t choose the wrong fuel for your body. Fast food, confectionery, sugary and fizzy drinks… some of these might give you a boost of energy, but most likely they will leave you feeling drained, and possibly hungry again (no mention of the amount of calories they might contain!).
Lack of hydration
What? Yep, you read that right. Not drinking enough will get you injured, and by drinking I mean water. Your muscles need to be flexible enough to withstand the pressure of exercise and daily activities (more on flexibility later). If they’re not hydrated enough, they just can’t be flexible enough. They will simply break if you force them, the same way plasticine if malleable when you open the packet, but it breaks when it dries out after you’ve left it open for a while.
Did you know in the UK we need at least 1.2 litres of water? At least. And that’s just to sort of, you know, go on living. If the weather gets hot, or if we exercise or sweat, we need to keep topping up!
I used to think I didn’t need enough water. It turns out I was dehydrated and I didn’t even know about it! I would drink one, maybe two large glasses of water in a day, max. Terrible. I would think my body would tell me when I needed to drink, and surely it told me, I just didn’t notice the subtle signs and only paid attention to the blaring alarms (I’m looking at you, headaches!). I started forcing myself to drink more, and I am now drinking about two litres of water on a normal day, using as well some re-hydration tablets when I need them, but sometimes I drink more than that. And I’ve never felt better.
If you’re tired, or if you get headaches. Even if you drink water and within minutes you need the toilet, it might be you’re not drinking enough (it might be something else, so always check with your doctor for any health concerns you have though!).
Lack of proprioception
This one is kind of weird, but hear me out.
Proprioception is, essentially, the ability to know where our bodies are at all times. If you close your eyes, you don’t need to touch your leg to know it’s there, you just know. That’s how we can avoid hitting ourselves with our own hands by mistake (most of the time), or are able to eat without stabbing the middle of our faces with a fork because we’ve missed our mouth.
Training your balance and coordination helps not only prevent accidents, but also enhance the neurological connections and nerve endings, which helps with proprioception. It’s not just about not hitting yourself with something, and not just about being able to stand on a stool on one leg while balancing over the kitchen counter to reach a high shelf; but also about knowing how to land your foot when you jump, how far to bend/straighten a knee, etc.
This can be trained, and it’s important, especially as we age, because one of the major causes of injuries in the elderly is falling, usually because of a diminished ability for balance.
Also, alcohol diminishes our proprioception, so next time you’re drunk trying to walk in a straight line while touching your nose with alternating hands, you’ll know your proprioception is being affected (you might not be able to pronounce the word then, but alcohol also slurs our speech!).
Lack of flexibility
There it is. I said it. Keeping our bodies flexible is key to be in good health and not injure ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, we need to be able to move and bend. Our bodies weren’t designed to move like dolls, static joins that creak when you manipulate them but can only hold certain positions. Our bodies were designed to flex and bend and twist and do a myriad of things… and that can only be achieved by being flexible.
Raise your hand if you can touch your toes without bending your legs. I can’t see you, but most people would struggle with something like this. Sure, why would you want touch your toes anyway, it’s a weird move after all? But can you pick up things from high cupboards? Can you carry a weight while twisting your torso? Have you ever needed to stretch your back after sitting down for a long period of time, only to find out that you’re kind of stuck and stiff? And that’s only your back! Neck cricks, stiff shoulders, tight hamstrings… Believe it or not, our bodies are very complex machines, that can work like clockwork, if only we let them. Too often we mistreat them and don’t allow them to work to the best of their capabilities, and that’s a shame.
Lack of flexibility can be the difference from having a fun day out playing with your kids or dog in the park, or pulling a muscle when trying to kick a football. Just saying…
There’s one last category, which isn’t so much about what we do to our bodies, but it also needs to be included. Accidents happen, and sometimes they’re unavoidable.
You trip over a cable at home or work, your dog or cat decides to weave in between your legs while you’re walking, you distractedly step into a pothole while on the phone, you drop a bunch of pans and pots on your head and fall on your bum when trying to reach a high shelf in your kitchen. Things happen.
Not long ago, I fell down some stairs. It wasn’t very high, but it was a good fall. I had my dog on a short leash and he reached the end of the stairs while I hadn’t yet. He turned to the side to run off to the kitchen, and he literally pulled me off the side of the stairs (last flight, no handrail). I felt everything slow down for a moment, let go of the dog and prepared for impact (as good as I am, I can’t really fight gravity while free-falling). I ended up hitting my head, shoulder and back on a bookcase next to the stairs, and landed on my bum. It was painful. It knocked the air out of me. And for a moment, I couldn’t move from the shock.
For almost two months since then, I’ve been suffering from a shoulder injury. For a few days I couldn’t reach behind my back with my right arm, and I could barely move my neck (whiplash, anyone?). I was sure I even had a concussion, because I would get disoriented and dizzy, and every time I tried to turn my head or look up I would get nausea. Of course, I walked it off for a few days and ended up swallowing my ego and visiting the doctor, who signed me off work for a week.
Accidents happen, but I’m sure if my body hadn’t been already fit, and hydrated, and flexible, I would have been much worse after the fall. Who knows.
There’s one last item I’m not mentioning in depth, because it’s very specific, and that’s genetic disposition, illnesses and similar conditions. Some conditions affect our muscles and bones, making them weaker and more brittle, to the point we can’t really prevent getting injured. However, we should be looking at how we can minimise the damage from injury, manage the conditions, and also speed up recovery, always with the help of doctors, of course.
So, to conclude. Injuries are going to happen. We can prevent them to some extent, and we can try to lessen their impact and we can definitely help the recovery. It’s all down what we do with our bodies before and after injury has happened.