How to Avoid Injuries While Working Out
As you age, you may notice your bones “pop” more, your joints feel achier, and your body simply doesn’t bounce back from workouts as quickly as it did when you were younger. Your body reabsorbs phosphate and calcium from your bones as you grow older, making your bones weaker and putting you at greater risk for injury. While you can’t simply oil your joints like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz,” there are foundational habits you can implement in your daily routine to keep injuries at bay while working out.
Common injuries stemming from workouts
Point blank: injuries can happen to anyone. From star athletes to people just starting their fitness journey, injuries can not only happen at a moment’s notice but can also result from poor habits that compound over time. Here are some of the most common exercise injuries:
- Shin splints: Shin splints are a common term for pain along the main bone in your lower leg (the shin, also known as the tibia bone). Shin splints typically occur when you intensify your workouts.
- Tendinitis: Tendinitis is a general term for any tendon (tissue that connects muscle to bone) that becomes inflamed, causing pain and tenderness. Common areas for tendinitis include elbows, wrists, knees, and shoulders. You’re more likely to suffer from tendinitis if you are in a job or sport that requires you to repeat the same motion over and over, like swimming, tennis, basketball, and golf.
- Sprains: Inside your joints, bones are connected to each other by fibrous tissue called ligaments. When these bands of tissue become stretched or torn, you’ve got a sprain. Ankles and wrists are by far the most common locations for a sprain, often due to landing or falling incorrectly on that particular joint.
- Back pain: Repeated heavy lifting can cause muscle and ligament strain in the back. Strains often occur when you use your back instead of your legs for lifting weights.
Best habits for preventing injuries
Injury prevention starts in the kitchen.
Is your dinner plate filled with foods that are helping or hindering your potential for injury? Sports and workout injuries can actually be a sign of an improper diet or nutritional imbalance. Your bones need magnesium and vitamin D to stay strong. A vision of an old “Got Milk?” ad might be popping into your head right now, but you don’t have to reach for a glass of milk to maintain your bone health. Nuts, seeds, fish, and leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and cabbage will help you meet all your bone-supporting mineral needs.
Try a big salad topped with crunchy pumpkin seeds and roasted salmon for a nutritional powerhouse of a meal. The omega-3 in fish can also fight chronic inflammation that stems from your training. Zinc is another important mineral to include in your diet: It is key for healing tissues and wounds, so stock up on zinc-heavy foods like brown rice and turkey.
Water, that is. Coconut water, energy drinks, and juice all have their place, but at the end of the day, your body needs and craves plain water more than anything else. If your tissue becomes dehydrated, you become far more vulnerable to a major injury. Want to know how much water you should be consuming throughout your workout? It varies for every person based on their height, weight, and sweat rate. Hydration pack brand CamelBak partnered with the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute to build a “hydration calculator” and “sweat rate worksheet” for athletes who really want to dig into developing precise hydration habits.
Warm up and cool down.
Jumping right into a strenuous workout after you’ve been sleeping or sitting at a desk all day is a recipe for disaster. Ease your way into every workout with a proper warmup. Warming up quite literally warms up your muscles by increasing blood flow. Starting with a warmup helps your muscles and joints prepare for stress, gets your heart rate up at a scaled tempo, and the overall pacing ensures you avoid injury as much as possible. If your workout is cardio-based, start with a light jog or jumping rope. Aim for at least five to 10 minutes of gradual pacing. If you’re working on resistance and weight training, do a few sets of bodyweight exercises before adding weight. This way, your body is prepared to take on more intense versions of the same movements.
A cooldown following a workout is just as important as warming up. Cooling down allows your body to transition smoothly from exertion to rest and reduces pressure on your heart. Cooldown exercises don’t have to be complicated. If you’ve been lifting weights, simply stagger off the weight until you feel little resistance. If you’ve been running, swimming, or doing another form of cardio, slow your pace and really feel the stretch of each movement as your heart rate goes down. Again, aim for at least 10 minutes of slowing your pace.
Work with a personal trainer.
Have you ever tried to do deadlifts and gone home with a sore lower back? Or used a row machine for 30 minutes only to leave the gym with terrible pain? If so, this tip is for you. When trying out a new type of workout, particularly weight training, working with a personal trainer will help you find the most appropriate approach.
If you’re experiencing major pain while performing an exercise, you’re doing it wrong. Choosing the right workouts for your body type and level of experience and learning the proper form on every movement is critical to avoiding injury. A personal trainer can monitor your progress to avoid overloading your muscles and joints with too much weight too soon. You’ll avoid both burnout and injuries by slowly working your way up in weight, distance, and exercise type.
Take rest days.
You may hear the term “progressive overload” as an essential part of weight training. The keyword is progressive. You will only make progress if you give your body time to recover from each workout. Rest days don’t have to mean sitting at home on the couch (although there is nothing wrong with doing that on some days).
Look into incorporating cross-training into your workout plans. Cross-training means utilizing multiple types of training to support your main workouts. For example, long-distance runners are more susceptible to lower leg injuries due to the impact of their miles-long workouts. By spreading the impact of orthopedic stress to other areas of their body with swimming or weighted arm workouts, they can avoid overloading their vulnerable lower body. The easiest way to cross-train is to alternate days; for example, run on Mondays and Wednesdays, swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and rest on Fridays. With cross-training, you’re not only avoiding injury, but you’re also staving off boredom from doing the same workout over and over.
Work on core strength.
Particularly with cardio workouts, your knees and hips often take on the brute force of the workout, which leads to major wear and tear on your cartilage over time. This is where having a strong core comes in. A strong core creates balance in the body by diminishing the tension in your joints. Experiment with abdominal exercises and yoga movements to help strengthen your core.
One wrong move can put an athlete at any level on the sidelines. The human body is a powerful and adaptable tool, but it still requires proper care. By integrating mineral-rich foods, rest days, and a solid warmup and cooldown into your routine, you’re setting yourself up to avoid injury and hit your fitness goals in no time.