5 ways to avoid overuse injuries

Who else is excited for summer and the summer sports season?  I just hosted a workshop at the office for the endurance athlete and it got me so fired up for the upcoming season!  As some of you may know, I am an avid motocross racer and have been racing since I was 5 years old.  I look forward to it every year and my season just started last week!  Many summer sports tend to have a long competitive season and that places a lot of demand on the body.  In part from this, overuse injuries are common amongst athletes and they can sideline you for the year if you aren't vigilant in treating them.

What are overuse injuries?  Overuse injuries are a category of injuries that typically occur from too much repetition, improper training, or poor alignment.  They tend to occur gradually rather than traumatically or suddenly.  Most overuse injuries are tendonitis or tendinopathies where the muscle tendon becomes inflamed and irritated.  Common overuse injuries include patellofemoral pain, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and shoulder impingement.  Since the pain will gradually get worse with overuse injuries, most athletes don't take them seriously until the pain becomes unbearable or begins to limit their ability.  The problem with this is that you can risk degeneration of the tendon causing it to weaken and be at a higher risk for a more serious injury.  Have your pain addressed sooner versus later to avoid this from happening.  The following tips will help you prevent an overuse injury from occurring and keep it from returning if you have a history of an overuse injury.

  1. Training errors.  The most common cause of overuse injuries are related to your training program.  Ramping up your mileage too quickly can lead to overuse injuries because the body isn't ready or able to perform at that level of demand.  Also not incorporating any cross training or adequate rest days into your training program can put increased stress on the body.  For example, if you are a runner, you move in the same patterns over and over again.  Due to this repetitive pattern of movement, the same forces and stresses are placed on the same structures repeatedly, like your plantar fascia on the bottom of your foot.  This can lead to irritation and inflammation which then turns into plantar fasciitis which is an overuse injury.
  2. Warm up.  Be honest, how many times have you stretched for a total of 30 seconds then hopped on your bike and started pedaling away?  I hate to break it to you but that's not exactly a proper warm up and can put you at a high risk for injury.  A proper warm up will help increase blood to the muscles, increase the heart rate and also activate the main muscles needed for your sport.  This is called a dynamic warm up and it should be specific to your sport.  For example, a cyclist uses primarily their leg muscles and core so these should be focused on with the warmup and could include bodyweight squats and inchworm.  For more detail on dynamic warm ups, check out this blog post.
  3. Proper nutrition.  With all the training and competition during the season, your muscles need to be repaired in between.  Eating a well balanced diet with plenty of protein will help repair your muscles.  Without it, your muscles continue to breakdown which can lead to an overuse injury.  Every sport has slightly different demands for nutrition and each person is different with how their body processes certain foods.  However, a good mix of protein, fat and carbohydrates with each meal (especially pre and post competition) is ideal for fueling and replenishing the body.
  4. Recovery.  Training and competing puts a high level of stress and demand on our body, muscles, and mind.  We all need proper recovery in order to avoid overuse injuries so the body has time to heal itself.  The muscles need to be rebuilt and replenished with nutrients in order to perform optimally at the next training session.  The body also needs to be rehydrated before the next training session to allow the muscles and brain to function properly.  If you lose weight during your training session or competition, you want to regain that water weight before the next training session in order to be properly hydrated.  Recovery is also the perfect time to loosen up your tight muscles and make sure that your body is moving properly and not compensating due to tightness somewhere.  All of these recovery techniques will help you avoid overuse injuries because you are keeping the body functioning at its optimal level.
  5. Get rid of muscle imbalances.  In my experience, it's very common for athletes to have muscle imbalances in their body meaning one set of muscles may not be functioning properly or as well as possible and another set is compensating for them.  For example, if the hip muscles are weak or lack neuromuscular control, this creates an imbalance at the trunk and can place additional demand on the back muscles or leg muscles to stabilize.  These compensations and imbalances are a large risk factor in overuse injuries because the body isn't moving properly and is instead compensating too much.  Working with a physical therapist to identify these imbalances and compensations can help get you balanced so your risk for injury is decreased.  A really  great way that we work with endurance athletes at the office is utilizing slow motion video to analyze how your body is aligned while performing your sport skill and to help us better understand the imbalances and compensations that may be occurring.  Want to learn more about it?  Check it out here!

Overuse injuries can be avoided for most athletes by following these tips and utilizing the right health professional.  If you want to make sure you finish your sports season without an overuse injury, start implementing these tips now and don't wait until you begin to feel pain or limitations.  I'd love to hear your feedback on if you've suffered an overuse injury in the past (or currently) and what helped you!  Feel free to comment below!

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