One of the most vulnerable periods for sustaining a physical injury is a few weeks after starting a new exercise program. Likewise, the risk of injury is greater when returning to exercise after a hiatus. In a recent blog, we considered WHY injury occurs when starting or returning to exercise. Let’s now consider HOW you can avoid exercise-related injuries in this same scenario.
Below are a few strategies to help you start an exercise program safely and avoid exercise-related injuries:
1 | Start slow and small
Begin by outlining an achievable routine or program that you can accomplish on a regular basis. This should consider (1) specific exercises, (2) the duration and (3) the intensity (or load) that you perform them. Keep the duration of your session short, but retain a consistent schedule. You should be able to return to your routine each day without experiencing pain.
As your body adjusts to new exercise, increase your activity levels incrementally. As discussed in the previous blog, injuries occur if you overload your body too intensely and quickly. Resist the temptation to overindulge to avoid exercise-related injuries.
Consistent exercise is also an important factor in establishing an exercise habit. If you are delay your exercise due to physical discomfort from a previous exercise session, then it becomes difficult to establish a habit of exercise. Read another of our recent blogs for more insight how to achieve the exercise habit.
2 | Follow the 10% rule
Every individual differs in their fitness levels, pre-exiting injuries, lifestyles, and stressors. Regarding exercise, there is no single formula that dictates the level of effort required when you begin an exercise program. As a starting point, the 10% rule is a general and safe guideline that will give your body time to adapt to increasing amounts of physical activity. The 10% rule is a way of slowly and consistently progressing and building on your strength and fitness and will reduce your chance of injuring yourself.
The 10% rule is simple – you increase your exercise loading by no more than 10% a week. Loading refers to (1) the duration of time spent exercising as well as (2) the intensity level. Don’t increase both duration and intensity each week. Select only one of these variables to increase. This same principle applies to increasing weights at the gym or any exercise regime.
10% Rule Scenario
For example, if your aim is to work towards a daily brisk 5 km walk and you are starting from a low activity base, start with 2 km medium paced on flat surfaces. It could take you about 3 months to get to 5km safely. Following this you can increase the speed or introduce hills – again one at a time and in small increments. If you have experienced a bout of recent illness, then start smaller at 1km or less. Just starting is important – then progress slowly and be persistent.
3 | Introduce “recovery time” as component of your exercise
Another method to avoid exercise-related injuries is to introduce rest days or less active weeks. For example, incorporate a “recovery week” following two weeks of consistent exercise by repeating your routine from the previous week instead of increasing 10%. This allows your muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments to adapt to the new and increasing loads. It is commonplace for competitive athletes to incorporate “recovery days” or “recovery sessions” as a part of their training program.
You can integrate recovery as part of your fitness plan. You may find it helpful to develop a monthly exercise schedule, and identify a “recovery week” every third week.
4 | Pay attention to your body
If you start to experience exercise-related pains or aches, reduce the amount and intensity of your exercise, and allow for recovery between sessions. However, be aware the incorporating a variable of recovery can lead to total exercise abandonment. When you completely stop exercising instead of merely pausing (recovery), you reverse any gains you have achieved. This is because your tissues become less adaptive to loading and you may perpetuate a cycle of injury – starting and stopping each time the injury and pain returns.
To alleviate this problem, reduce your exercise load enough to allow the injured area to settle but still allowing you to continue exercising. This may involve reducing the amount of walking or running you are doing and increasing other strengthening exercises that will not affect the injured area.
Overloading of a potential area of injury can often take up to 3-6 weeks to manifest as a problem. So if you do find you are starting to experience some pain, reflect on what has happened 3-6 weeks previously. Did you change your routine or start a new routine? Again, don’t halt your exercising – just reduce the amount and /or intensity. Stopping will increase your risk of reinjury when you restart. This cycle of reinjury is well-documented for common injuries such as knee pain. Subsequently, this has led to models of rehabilitation.
There is evidence that a small amount of pain when exercising is not harmful up to approximately 3/10. If the pain decreases overnight or the day following, your body has adapted. If the pain persists, then take this as a sign you have done too much and take measures to reduce your exercise duration/intensity. Then slowly increase your exercise.
5 | Supplement exercise with strength training
Specific strength training will improve the health and potency of muscles and flexibility of tendons. There is evidence that athletes have higher tolerance to loading and avoid exercise-related injuries when supplementing their rehabilitation program with resistance strength training. An example of this involves running activity, which involves significant calf strength. Studies show that increasing the volume of running will not specifically help increase the strength of your calf muscles. The best way to target and improve the strength of your calf muscles is to implement a simple calf strengthening program. Exercises, such as heel raises, improve the load capacity of the calves and help avoid exercise-related injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy.
The World Health Organization recommends adults participate in at least two sessions of strength training each week at moderate or greater intensity, involving all major muscle groups to improve health outcomes.
These five points provide evidence-based advice how to avoid exercise-related injuries as you exercise and work towards achieving your health goals.