Apparently I’m not a quick-learner, because it took me close to 20 years to learn these very basic, but oh so important things about sports injuries. During that time, I can’t count how many times I played through the pain. In my case, it was a hip injury that never seemed to heal. By the time I figured out the smart strengthening (which for a hip injury shouldn’t include the heavy squats that I was doing) and getting enough rest (if it hurts for days after you play, it’s probably not doing good things to your body), I had done too much damage to my hip joint and surgery ended up being the only option that allowed me to stay active. With the level of damage I had, surgery wasn’t a sure thing, so I have been incredibly vigilant since then. I lift weights, stretch, get manual therapy as needed, don’t play more than I should, hydrate, and warm-up before I play. I sometimes wonder if I could have avoided surgery had I figured that stuff out 10 years before I did. Who knows. The silver lining is that this experience makes me a better trainer. And it means I can share what I’ve learned over the past 25 years (20 years of pain plus 5 years pain-free) with you, in case you’re either younger or slower than me, and thus haven’t learned them yourself yet.
1. Your body isn’t like your car. If you hear a noise you don’t like while driving, you can just turn up the radio to drown it out. Problem solved. Doing that with your body, however, is a really bad idea. Ha – is anybody having a fit right now as they read that? “What?…But…You can’t…You have to maintain your car!” Okay, you’re right. That’s not the best way to treat your car. But treating your body that way is even worse. Very few of us keep the same car for our entire lives. If your [knee, hip shoulder, back, achilles...] is painful every time you [run, play ultimate, cycle, play tennis...], ignoring it and pushing through is like turning up the radio to drown out the knocking sound from your engine. Don’t do it. Go see someone. Maybe even, *gasp*, take a bit of time away from your sport.
Your body is incredibly wise, and is willing to share its wisdom with you. If you’re willing to listen. Or you can turn up the radio. I mean, there might be a good song on.
2. It’s quite amazing what you can do in the presence of injury. I say this with the caveat that you should respect your body and stay out of the pain zone. You may need to take a break from your sport for a while, but you can still get that great workout feeling, if that’s something you enjoy. If you’ve got a leg injury, you can train your other leg, your core, and your upper body. Similarly, an arm injury leads plenty of option for training your core and lower body. Back and hips are a bit more tricky because they’re pretty central, but even there – you can work around. Oh, and of course you can also incorporate “corrective exercises” into your training that can actually help speed up the recovery process. In other words, accepting an injury doesn’t mean you have to sit on your butt and get horribly out of shape. You just have to be smart about it, and you may even come away from an injury in better shape than before.
3. Just because a little is fine, doesn’t mean a lot is fine. I’m starting to sound like captain obvious now, aren’t I? And yet, I’m guessing most of you reading this either have been here, or are still here. You may be able to play your sport for a period of time without pain, but when you pound the pavement for an extra 10km, spend an extra hour in the saddle, add an extra night of ultimate, or add another 50 pounds to your squat, suddenly you’re faced with the “maybe I should turn up the radio…” situation. It turns out sometimes a little is great, and a lot is not. In those cases, is it a question that you’ve reached your body’s limit? Or maybe just the limit for your current training level? There’s no universal answer, unfortunately, but what is universally true, is that pushing through will transport you out of the world of healthy exercise and into the injury cycle. What if, you take a step back to evaluate when you hit this situation? (ducking to avoid lightning strikes). Did you increase your volume too quickly? Are you strong and fit enough to support your activity? Is there some movement issue going on that your body can tolerate for a while, but eventually doesn’t like? You may be able to figure this out on your own, or you may need some help. Or you can turn up the radio, if you’d rather pretend this isn’t actually happening. It will be more painful in the short term and long term to do that, but you won’t have to cut back on your sport this week, so that’s something.
4. You know how your mom told you you can do whatever you put your mind to? She was wrong. Or maybe she was lying, but you can sort that detail out with your shrink. The reality is, we are all built differently, and some of us aren’t built for the activity we love. For some people, it’s pretty obvious. If you’re 5’4″, you’re not going to be playing in the NBA. Sorry. Conversely, if you’re 6’7″, you’re not going to make it as a professional jockey. For others, the reality is not as clear. They might be able to do their activity of choice, but their body won’t tolerate it well. If you love to ride a bike, but you don’t have a back that tolerates flexion well, you’re not going to have a long and successful cycling career. You’ll probably retire early due to back pain. And if you’re a hockey player with an abnormal hip structure (many of us do without knowing it), then hopefully you’re not a goalie, because your hips are not going to survive the butterfly for very long. Ultimate players love to really rotate the knee back as they lunge out to throw because it allows a lower release. That’s just fine if you have the knee and hip to support that position. Unfortunately many of you don’t and are finding yourself on the sidelines with overuse injuries. Maybe it’s time to try a straight knee release. It’s true that you might lose an inch on your reach, and that might be enough to keep you off the starting line of the travelling team. That sucks. But continuing to move in your sport in a manner that your body can’t support will likely prevent you from playing at all.
If your body is continually getting injured from your sport, and you’re doing all the right things to support it (not playing too much, warming up, proper strengthening geared toward your body, seeing a good manual therapist when stuff pops up,…), then I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you might not have the body for what you’re trying to do. The good news is that you might not have to change all that much. You might just need to make some minor adjustments. Maybe a less aggressive bike set up will take away the back pain. Maybe being a stand-up goalie instead of butterfly will let you play without re-injuring your groin. Maybe keeping your knee in safer alignment will allow you to throw without re-aggravating that knee injury. It’s true that each one of these things can mean your peak performance will take a hit. But here’s the thing: if you’re unable to play because of constant injury, then your peak performance doesn’t exist. I know that sucks to hear. But it might be true. If you give an inch on peak performance, though, you may be able to get back to almost peak performance. And if you’re as awesome as you tell everyone you are, then that’s still miles ahead of everyone else.
If you are in the injury cycle but aren’t doing all the right things, then maybe it’s time to try doing them. Odds are still good that you can get out of the injury cycle without compromising performance. Awesome! But it will take work and patience. If you love your sport, then you know it’s worth it.
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who has years of experience running, skiing, playing hockey, and playing ultimate both with and without injuries. The latter is much more enjoyable! She’s also a former hockey coach, ultimate coach, ski instructor and guide for disabled skiers.
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