When it comes to exercise, most people either do too much or too little. I think this applies beyond exercise, but let’s stick with that for the moment.

Those of us in the fitness and nutrition fields write a lot about those who do too little, in the hopes of helping fight the growing obesity epidemic. Today, however, I am going to talk about the other end of spectrum: too much exercise.

We laud those around us who maintain a healthy lifestyle, and are motivated by, and impressed at their the feats of strength and dedication. I recently read about a man who has run everyday for the past 40 years. I’m sure most of us who read that were inspired, and impressed. But is that actually a good idea? In his case, he seems to be enjoying a great and long life, which is all we can really ask for. But is it because of his excessive dedication to running, or in spite of it?

Many of my clients are referred to me by their health care professional. They are runners; cyclists; soccer, hockey, tennis and ultimate players. Or at least they were, and hope to be again. But they fell victim to overuse injuries of one variety or another, and instead of enjoying their sport, they have spent months getting to know their physical therapists and chiropractors and orthotists and massage therapists and athletic therapists and osteopaths all too well. They make fantastic clients because they are incredibly motivated to get back to the athletic pursuits they used to love; and most do get back.

But they all have the same story. The individual details are different, but the fabric is identical:

One day, while enjoying [insert sport], I felt a slight pain in my [insert body part]. It felt odd, but I was able to keep enjoying [insert sport]. Over the next few weeks, the discomfort grew, but I kept playing. Weeks turned to months, and the discomfort that initially only occurred during the first or last few steps of [insert sport], now occurs constantly, and in sometimes keeps me from sleeping.

At this point, they make a visit to their health care professional of choice, but often continue to play in pain. What is it that makes us ignore the very clear signals our body provides? I talk about this without judgment, as I have been there. I know what it’s like to include “vitamin I” as part of my daily nutrition (in fact for me it evolved to Celebrex). But most of these long term injuries are completely preventable. If we listen to, and respect, the pain signals our body gives, we can avoid months (sometimes years) of pain and medical expenses. The irony of course is that our effort to not miss a few days or weeks of our beloved sport leads to missing weeks, months or even years of our beloved sport.

So I ask: are you strong enough to take a break when something feels off?

I didn’t used to be, but I am now. Years of regular hip pain, followed by surgery and significant loss of cartilage in my hip is what it took for the message to get through my thick skull. I am finally strong enough and smart enough to listen when my body talks.

And it started to talk a couple of weeks ago. I have been working on getting stronger in my split squats and deadlifts. I love lifting heavy weights; particularly deadlifting. It just feels incredible. And I have become part of an incredible group of women spread across the globe who all lift heavier weights than is typical for women. Watching the feats that these other incredible women do in the weight room motivates me to want to keep pushing myself to more lifting personal bests. But I started to get a small twinge of pain in my hip. I’m not sure what caused it, and it isn’t overly painful. But it is not normal. And I know that I don’t want to go back to being an Advil junkie; or to spending another several years and thousands of dollars on athletic therapy sessions. So I chose to listen.

It was weird initially. I started to rationalize, trying to convince myself that it was just a one time fluke, and that I should hold off on the deadlifts, but I can surely keep doing the split squats without harm. I’m either getting smarter or my rationalizing skills are waning, but this time it didn’t work, and I have taken deadlifts and all variety of squats out of my training for a while. I’m not talking about eternity in purgatory; just a short hiatus from the big lifts. Here’s the cool thing though: there are still ways to get a really great workout. And for those who feel that they need to exercise to keep the weight off: IT IS POSSIBLE TO CUT BACK ON EXERCISE AND NOT GAIN WEIGHT. For serious. Really really. I kid you not.

My new plan? It involves a bit more time rolling, stretching, and doing corrective exercises than usual, as well as a few visits to my massage therapist. The rest of the workout is full of fun strength training exercises (Yes, I refer to strength training as fun. What?). Here’s an example of a “I’m taking it easy” strength circuit from last week:
3 circuits of:
Chinups (max effort)

Single leg shoulder elevated hip lifts (10 ea with 70# added – killer!)

Half-kneeling cable chops (10 ea with 100#. Rotational core strength = optimal power transfer between upper and lower body. If you are not strong here, you are not strong. Period.)

Half-kneeling cable lifts (10 ea with 60#).

If you look at the videos, I think you’ll agree that they are not easy, and that I’m getting my butt kicked. There are always options that will allow you to build strength and work hard without pain. Often it can be done while helping you improve your movement quality. Take these opportunities if you need them!

What do you do you when your body says “Hey, so, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to avoid this activity for a while”? And what’s your workout plan so that you can stay sane while your body stays healthy?

Elsbeth Vaino trains athletes in Ottawa, Canada.

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1 Comment

  1. Elsbeth,
    First I wanted to say I highly enjoy reading your posts on strengthcoach.com. I never realized you had a blog and am so happy to have found it and at the right time. I am currently in the stage of learning how to back off. I am only 28 and I have spent years playing through pain and serious injuries from college softball and international play. At that level you get this mind set of go go go and not stopping when you feel pain. It was ingrained in my head to push through the pain. I now regret not easing up when I should have. I played with broken bones and torn ligaments. Last year I partially tore my rotator cuff and still tried to play/workout with it. Recently discovered that my hips are completely anterior tilted and shifted to one side. And the grand finale, 3 weeks ago an MRI showed I have an overstretched ACL with torn fibers in the middle. I thought my knee pain was just my patella femoral acting up. This post has already been printed and hung up to remind myself it is okay to slow down.

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