How to maintain your fitness (and recover properly) when injured

Getting sidelined with an injury sucks. Photo credit: Will Winter Photography

Getting sidelined with an injury sucks.
Photo credit: Will Winter Photography

You’ve finally found your exercise groove and are just starting to notice a change in your body when BAM — you get sidelined with an injury. As frustrating as it may be, especially if you were training for a race or other event, getting injured doesn’t mean all your hard work for the past few months was for nothing. Though rest for proper repair is crucial, there are some things you can do during the latter stages of recovery to help you bounce back quicker.

In general, it takes about two to six weeks for muscles to atrophy (meaning you lose some of the gains in strength and size you’ve acquired from your training). However, when you return to training, the rate of strength reattainment is high, meaning your muscles will “remember” their previous state and will bounce back quicker. Although you may be tempted to start training as soon as the pain stops, it’s important to follow instructions from your doctor or physical therapist in regards to when you can start light activity again. If you were an athlete on a team and I was your strength coach, your doctor or athletic therapist would give me a form with your indications (what you can do) and contraindications (what you need to avoid) on it so I can best help you return to training.

Because I am not an athletic therapist and because certain injuries require certain means of recovery and repair, I can’t tell you specifically what to do to help you return to training… but I can go over some general guidelines.

Tissue healing

Most injuries, depending on their nature, heal through three phases: the inflammation phase, the repair phase, and the remodeling phase. During the inflammation phase, the injured area becomes swollen and red as edema occurs. This process can last between two to four days and is necessary for normal healing to occur. The only thing you should be doing during this phase is RICE — rest, ice, compression and elevation (or a variation of these).

During the repair phase, your body begins to regenerate new tissue to replace the damaged tissue. This phase can last up to two months. During the latter parts of this phase, it’s important to begin to strengthen the new tissue to help prevent excessive muscle atrophy. Light isometric, isotonic and isokinetic exercises of specific velocities can be performed at this time, but only if instructed to do so by your doctor or physical therapist. Although building strength is important at this time, maintaining a level of cardio fitness is important, too. If you have a lower-body injury, you can use an upper-body ergometer (basically a bike for your arms) to maintain your cardio. If you have an upper-body injury, walking or riding a stationary bike is a good way to maintain cardio fitness.

After the new tissue fibres are constructed in the injured area, the remodeling phase can begin. During this phase, you can slowly increase the load, volume, and type of strengthening exercises you were doing during the repair phase to help strengthen the new tissue. It is crucial to work with a trainer at this point and to consult with your doctor or physical therapist about how quickly you should be progressing.

Although getting sidelined with an injury is frustrating, it doesn’t mean you need to start all over again. Depending on the type of injury, you can return to your pre-injury level of fitness within several weeks to months, as long as you give your body the time to work through each phase of tissue healing properly. If you’re injured and haven’t done so already, finding a good athletic therapist or physical therapist and a strength coach is the first thing you should do to help get you back on track.

Reference for this post is the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Third Edition.