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home : features : health September 14, 2014

Health Watch: Don't Let Injuries Stop Your Workouts

When my cousin ever felt a tweak of pain in his left knee, he would check his running shoes. And sure enough, they were nearly always showing signs of excess wear. Sometimes, he didn't check soon enough, and his workouts were shelved for a few weeks as he recovered from an injury.

Regular exercise is good for you -- in fact, crucial for good long-term health. Yet those who embrace exercise enthusiastically often find themselves battling injuries -- mostly minor -- that put them on the sideline for a few weeks at a time.

A trouble spot for my sister is the period right after the holidays or a vacation. Knowing that she has missed several days at the health club, she tries to make up for it ... and ends up with pain in her heel that sends her to the sidelines and gives her even more work to make up.

KNOW THYSELF! My cousin and sister would agree: the best way to prevent injuries is to know yourself -- your habits, strengths, limitations, weaknesses, foibles and symptoms of overwork.

One major advantage of regular exercise is that it teaches you to monitor your body. If you are used to a certain activity such as running or biking, you probably know without looking how fast you're going, how far you've gone, how hard your body is working and how fast your heart is beating.

Your body will also tell you pretty quickly if you start to go too fast or too far for your current level of conditioning. If you're honest with yourself, you probably remember the little twinges of pain you felt in your shin for several weeks before you developed shin splints.

For a recreational athlete, nearly all injuries involve overuse syndrome. And they can be avoided if you learn to recognize the signs early and cut back before a potential problem becomes a real one.

BUILD GRADUALLY: Getting fitter and stronger is a matter of progression. If you're lifting 50 pounds readily on a weight machine, you'll eventually find it pretty easy to do two or three sets at that level. That's when it's time to add another 5 pounds.

Don't push yourself too fast, though. Trying to lift too much too soon will lead you to shift the work to nearby muscles that may not be ready for the effort.

As my sister learned, an extended time away from the gym means it's time for stepping back in duration and intensity rather than leaping forward. Move back to an earlier, lower level and use that as your base for moving forward.

USE PROPER FORM: Weight trainers warn athletes to lift only as many repetitions as they can do with proper form. If you feel fatigue at rep #12, you will probably lose form by rep #15.

My cousin ran with a heavy heel strike on the outside of his foot. When his shoes became worn, they failed to give him adequate shock absorption, and they tended to exaggerate his bow legged stride, leading to knee problems. He was no longer running with proper form.

KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES: If you tend to have knee problems, choose activities that stress them the least -- like riding an exercise bike or using an elliptical trainer. A stair stepper can be particularly hard on either the knees or the balls of the feet.

Deep knee bends or squats -- to an angle greater than 90 degrees -- are particularly hard on knees.

GET REST, CROSS TRAIN: Rest is a crucial element of building fitness. If you're lifting weights, don't work the same muscles two days in a row. For aerobic work, trainers recommend a similar hard/easy approach. Never do two consecutive hard workouts without an easy one in between. And you should always schedule at least one, preferably two, rest days a week.

Cross training is a variation on that theme. Alternating activities such as running or walking with biking or swimming allows you to rest some muscles while still getting an aerobic workout.

STRETCH, WARM UP, COOL DOWN: The value of stretching to avoid injury is controversial, but maintaining flexibility is a crucial part of fitness.

Warming up gradually for 5 to 10 minutes helps get blood flowing to muscles and makes them less vulnerable to stress. Cooling down for the last 5 minutes, bringing the heart rate slowly back to normal, is even more important. At the very least, it helps prevent muscle soreness and stiffness the following day.

Individuals who do well at exercise tend to develop a routine or ritual that brings them back and gives them satisfaction day after day. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned veteran, make sure your routine is built around not only increased fitness but protection from injury.

This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace, the advice and care you receive from your health care provider.

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