If you’ve been working out for an extended period of time, you’ve probably experienced some sort of injury. A lot of people think that when you’re injured you can’t workout at all and they completely slack off. But this is the time you can get even stronger elsewhere. This is also the time to eat right to decrease inflammation and heal yourself faster. So here are 5 tips from a physical therapist on how to work out when injured so you can avoid the situation below!
In my gymnastics career, I was lucky to only have two somewhat serious injuries. With both injuries, I broke bones in my foot. With the first injury, I continued to attend practice every day, conditioning everywhere else. I hopped around the gym working on arms and abs. I got stronger and was able to compete the next level the following year, which allowed me to be recruited to compete in college. I also decided I would cut out foods that increase inflammation to help myself heal even the slightest bit faster. With my second break, I actually continued to practice as normal although I had to wear a walking boot everywhere outside of practice. I also modified my lifts slightly, but for the most part didn’t really adjust much. Honestly, I wasn’t in the best place and even went on a run and a hike (without my boot) when I was still supposed to be in the boot, but that’s a whole other story. So for this we can use my first injury as an example 🙂
1. Workout other body parts other than the injured area
The thing about most injuries is that if you can’t do anything with that joint, you can do things with the joint above and below. With strength training, you can continue to train other areas of the body as normal with minor adjustments. Some adjustments you may need to make with an upper extremity injury include changing the location of where you load squats (e.g. possible weight vest, hip belt squats, even use a safety squat barbell, or variations of leg presses) and changing positions for abdominal exercises (e.g. no hanging abs, hollow holds instead of planks, etc.). Some adjustments you may need to make with a lower extremity injury would be to add an ankle weight to the other side if you are wearing a boot so each leg is weighted evenly when doing abdominal exercises, using a step to climb to a bar for pull ups and hanging abs, decreasing range with squats to a pain free range depending on the injury and severity.
2. Incorporate some cardio
With most injuries, for cardio, a stationary bike would work. It doesn’t use your arms at all and it doesn’t require any sort of bouncing or jostling of the arms like walking or running. Also depending on the bike, you can lean back, forward, or sit upright so if your back is what’s bothering you, you can adjust your posture to be most comfortable. For lower extremity injuries, you can continue to wear a boot while on the bike, but with knee or hip injuries, if it causes pain, you can rock back and forth to remain in a pain-free range and work the range you have. Additionally, depending on the injury, swimming can be an alternative cardiovascular activity. You can find a comfortable stroke at a comfortable speed and go from there. Again, this should be pain free. The only concern with swimming is if you have an incision or open wound. But regardless, you should double check with your doctor to make sure they don’t have any additional restrictions for you.
The reason why you want to incorporate some cardio is to increase blood flow to the area to increase the ability of the cardiovascular system to carry byproducts away from the injured site. Early on with the injury, monitor swelling, as you don’t want to do anything that significantly increases swelling. If swelling becomes an issue, you can try activities that keep the injured area out of a dependent position. Meaning if you have an extremity injury, elevate the extremity and avoid prolonged standing activities with a lower extremity injury. Also, swimming, as long as it’s not super warm water, can help due to hydrostatic pressure essentially giving a little compression to the area.
3. Train the contralateral or non-injured side
If your injury is only on one side, you want to continue to lightly train the non-injured side to maintain size and also for the neurologic crossover effects to the injured extremity (aka your injured arm/leg gets gains by not even working it out!). This is due to your spinal cord sending signals to each side despite one side not moving. If you’re just learning (or re-learning something after a neurologic injury), it is a lot easier to do something on both sides vs. just the affected side. If you think about watching young kids try to lift one finger at a time, they’ll have a lot easier time lifting both index fingers off the table vs. just one index finger. This is the same principle for why you should train the contralateral side while injured!
4. Focus more on nutrition with an anti-inflammatory diet
Obviously, what you put into your body affects how well it functions. So if your priority is healing as fast as possible, you want to eat as well as you can. Due to increased inflammation due to injury, you want to focus on eating foods that can decrease inflammation and avoid or limit foods that increase inflammation. Additionally, with diet, I personally find it a lot easier to make changes for longer periods when there was a significant reason, e.g. fracture, as compared to trying to make a lifestyle change. But, if you can make the change for longer after, you may feel even better!
5. Prioritize hydration and sleep
Hydration is also extremely important in general, but also when injured. Hydration affects many bodily functions and when the body is dehydrated it puts additional stress on the body. When your body is already under stress due to an injury, why would you want to put additional stress on your body that you can avoid?! Additionally, hydration effects how well the byproducts are removed from the injured site.
Sleep is also where your body recovers. It is a time when your body can focus on healing the injured site without focusing on other bodily functions. Also, who doesn’t like sleep? So use your injury as an excuse to get those zzzz’s!
This is not intended to be medical advice, so take the recommendations with a grain of salt, and adjust to your particular condition! Always check with your doctor based on restrictions they may give you and obviously I’d always recommend going to a local physical therapist to help recover, rehab the injury, and address any impairments that may have contributed to the injury!