Preventing Injuries and Improving Performance
If you’ve ever experienced an exercising-related injury, you know how incredibly irritating it can be. You were making progress in the gym, feeling awesome and dominating your workouts, then you run into a roadblock, an injury. Like many things related to our body, prevention is the key to injuries. This article will give you tips and strategies to add to your routine to make sure you prevent injuries before they prevent you from going to the gym.
What is a muscle strain?
Before you can prevent injuries, you need to understand why they happen. There is a ton of research about exercise-related injuries and it can get very complicated. I’m going to keep this as simple and short as possible but encourage you to do your own research, if you are interested.
For the purpose of this article, we are going to focus on muscle strains, which are one of the most common type of soft tissue sports injuries and are caused by activities that require muscles to stretch and contract at the same time, like strength training. The muscles most susceptible to strain injury include the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip adductors, hip flexors, abdominals, calves, and biceps. Sometimes you may hear someone refer to a muscle strain as a “pulled” or “tweaked” muscle. A muscle strain is the stretching or tearing of muscle fibers. The muscle tissue becomes overloaded and reaches a breaking point where a tear or partial tear occurs. Most muscle strains happen because the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits or it has been forced to contact too strongly. There are also fatigue-related muscle strains from sustained postures and strains caused by too much exercise. Strains come in varying degrees of severity, including “partial” (a few torn fibers), “subtotal” (a bunch of torn fibers, with some remaining intact), and “complete” (the entire muscle is ripped in two and there can sometimes be a “pop” sensation).
How do our bodies heal?
Once a muscle strain occurs, the body begins the healing process with an inflammatory response, which could typically last anywhere from 3-5 days. This time is crucial for recovery and when you need to make RICE (rest, ice, compress and elevate) a priority. When a muscle strain occurs, you would think that the body would repair the tear with new muscle but that isn’t the case. Instead, the tear is repaired with scar tissue which is made from a very tough, inflexible fibrous material. The scar tissue tries to draw the damaged muscle fibers back together, resulting in the injury site being surrounded by a bulky mass of scar tissue.
Unfortunately, the scar tissue that is formed is never as strong as the original tissue it replaces. In fact, it is often less flexible and can impair muscle function. Since this area is weaker and less flexible now than it was before, it is more susceptible to future injuries. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the strongest predictor of injury is history of previous muscle injury. So what can you to be rehabilitate this area to regain its maximum strength and flexibility? The scar tissue needs to be realigned and smoothed out to become integrated with the muscle fibers, which can be done through deep tissue massages. This will accelerate the healing process and help restore muscular balance long term.
How do I prevent injuries and improve my performance?
There are multiple strategies you can use to both prevent injuries and improve your performance including, but not limited to: regularly incorporating mobility exercises, dynamic stretching, adequate warm-ups and cool-downs and foam rolling into your exercise routine; doing yoga to increase your flexibility and range of motion; getting regular massages to loosen up your muscles and release fascia; and, allowing your body to recover between workouts.
In the gym
What you do before a workout is just as, if not more important, than what you do during a workout. In order to improve your performance, your body needs to be ready for the movements. An adequate warm-up prior to training consisting of low-intensity aerobic activity, mobility exercises and dynamic stretches can help increase range of motion, muscle temperature, and elasticity, which will allow you to perform better and decrease chance of injury.
During your workouts, it’s essential to lift with proper technique and ask a coach when you aren’t sure if you are doing a movement correctly. Before adding your “workout weight” to the bar, you need to warm your body up with sets at a lower weight. Then, rather than speeding through a set of strength training exercises, allow yourself long enough rest periods between sets. These rest periods should be long enough for your breathing to slow down, but not long enough for your muscles to get cold. If you are given 20 minutes to complete the strength portion of the workout and finish it in 10 minutes, you aren’t allowing yourself enough rest time between sets. If you don’t enjoy standing around, add in some core exercises or ancillary movements that will help you perform the lift better. Ask a coach if you need ideas!
Allowing your body adequate time to recover between workouts is essential to building muscle and preventing muscle strain. Continually loading fatigued muscles will not result in gains. Rather, you will notice decreased performance and an increased potential for mechanical failure and injury. We can usually tell when our body has been pushed to the limit, but the hard part is honoring the rest our body needs. Doing one more set when you feel exhausted after multiple challenging sets isn’t worth it, nor is working through an exercise when your body is in pain. While we want you to challenge yourself and your potential, you need to know and respect your limits. A potential PR is not worth an interruption in training due to an injury.
Outside of the gym
Unfortunately, our work isn’t done when we leave the gym. What we do after a strenuous workout to restore our muscles is crucial. If you typically come to class then don’t do any mobility exercises, yoga or fascia release on your own, I challenge you to incorporate some of this work for a couple weeks to see if you notice a difference. Foam rolling, mobility exercises, yoga and massage will help with recovery and may prevent potential muscle strains.
Mobility Exercises: Mobility refers to our ability to move freely without stress on the body. By working on mobility you will be able to prevent injury and execute exercises with more power and efficiency. Lack of mobility is easily seen in large, compound movements like the squat. If you cannot get below 90 degrees, keep your heels on the ground and your knees turned out, there is likely a mobility issue occurring. Good news though, it is beneficial to start mobility exercises at any point and improve your functional range of motion! Many of the exercises we do before class target mobility issues, but if you have a specific area you would like to work on, ask Coach Liz or Dan next time you’re at class.
Yoga: It’s safe to say that a yoga class is much different than a class at GFSC. While we may love the high-intensity, powerful movements we do at GFSC, it’s important to balance it out with some slower, low-impact movements like yoga. The thought of having to be quiet and listen to your breathing for 60 minutes throughout a yoga class might make you nervous, so do it at home instead! Hellllooo YouTube! My favorite part about doing yoga videos at home is that you can do as little or as much as you want to. Only have 5 minutes? There are still videos that will leave you feeling great after 5 minutes of yoga. Also, you don’t have to worry about what to wear, if your leggings are see-through or if you’ll fall over onto your neighbor during downward dog.
Here are some yoga videos that have been made specifically for people that like lifting weights (tip: search ‘meathead yoga’ in YouTube):
Massage: Repeat after me, “I need to schedule a massage.” Great, now go visit Kelly at Massage in Davis for a massage! It seems like we view massages as special occasions or as a healing method after we’ve already gotten injured. However, regular massages are key to helping our body perform at an optimal level, especially when engaging in strenuous exercise. Sports massages will improve your performance by:
- Increasing blood flow to the whole body
- Reducing your chance of injury by improving muscle flexibility and range of motion
- Eliminating metabolic waste products like lactic acid after hard exercise
- Shortening the recovery time needed between each workout
- Reviving muscles and improving connective tissue to areas that have been injured
Trigger Point Release with Foam Rolling and Lacrosse Balls: While these are the easiest of the list to complete, they tend to be easily forgotten about. I finally put my foam roller right by the TV stand, so I see it anytime I sit down to watch TV. You can get some of the benefits from massage on your own by using a foam roller and a lacrosse ball to put pressure on fascia to release the tension that has built up. Here are the basics to doing trigger point release on your own:
Roll on the foam roller/ball until you feel a “trigger point” or “hot spot.” You’ll know you found one when it hurts. When you find a trigger point, stop and just rest on the foam roller for 10 to 20 seconds. It’s the pressure, not the rolling, that smooths fascia.
Avoid applying pressure on bones and joints. Just muscle.
You can come to class early to do this, stay after class or do it at home. YouTube is also a great resource for finding videos to guide you through this process. You’ll be amazed at how much better your body feels after releasing the fascia.
If you aren’t sure where to get started with mobility exercises or trigger point release, attending the brand new “New You Workshop” beginning on Saturday, July 21st would be a great place to learn about body mechanics. Kelly, a therapeutic and sports injury massage therapist and a GFSC athlete, will be leading classes on Saturdays at 10am to help you peak your performance, rehabilitate injuries and prevent future injuries from occurring. Check it out!