Have you avoided taking up running, cycling or even strength training as a form of exercise because you fear getting injured? You’ve probably known at least one person who “ruined their knees” from running, or overdid it with strength training and couldn’t walk for a week. In fact, your risk of injury can be reduced or even eliminated with these seven basic principles.
#1 Always warm up and cool down
This principle is so important that I even wrote a separate article about it [read Three Key Reasons to Always Warm Up]. A proper warm-up and cool-down should be a part of every exercise session you do, no matter how time-crunched you are. Even if you have to shorten the main set of your workout, never skip these critical elements. Your muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments all need heat and blood flowing to them to ensure they’re ready for what’s ahead. The cool-down is also very important because it brings your heart rate back to normal slowly, while you gently stretch the muscles that have worked so hard. The cool-down effectively tells your mind and body that you’re done exercising for today, and helps you feel revitalized instead of exhausted.
When you exercise, you’re effectively tearing down muscle tissue. As your body rebuilds this tissue, it builds more and stronger muscle fibers. But this rebuilding process can only take place during rest and recovery. This typically means resting for 48 hours before working the same muscle group again (the one exception is the abdominals – you can work these muscles every day). For beginning runners and those of us over 40, skipping a day between runs is another way to prevent overuse injuries – aches and pains that develop from continuously stressing the same muscles and connective tissues day after day. Have a clear plan for each exercise week to ensure you are resting appropriately – or have a coach set up a plan for you.
#3 Follow a periodized exercise plan
In exercise science, we refer to “periodization” as a systematic approach to training that slowly incorporates new challenges to the body over time to ensure continual gains without overtraining or injury. When you do the same exercises over and over, month after month, your body eventually adapts to the demands you’re placing on it, and you stop improving. This is true for both strength training and cardiovascular exercise. With periodization, you change your training program at regular intervals or “periods” to keep your body working harder, while still giving it adequate rest. [Read: The Body’s Response to Stress – Understanding the General Adaptation Syndrome for more on why.] A personal trainer or coach can help you build an effective periodized plan for whatever exercise you enjoy.
#4 Foam roll and stretch
I discuss foam rolling in my article Hurts So Good – Why You Should Foam Roll. Setting aside just 10-15 minutes each night to foam roll and then stretch your key muscles (hamstrings, glutes, calves, quads, hip flexors, etc.) will make a world of difference. Keep the roller near the TV and do your routine while watching your favorite show. Be sure to stretch after you foam roll, and not before.
#5 Do some type of flexibility training once a week (or more)
If you only participate in just one form of exercise or sport, you’re probably very inflexible. If you sit at a desk all day, the same is true. The benefits of flexibility training, such as yoga, can’t be beat for injury prevention and overall quality of life. Many people have said to me “I could never do yoga, I’m too inflexible!” My response is, “you’re inflexible because you don’t do yoga!” There’s a reason yoga is referred to as a “practice” – it’s because it’s meant to be learned and developed over time, even a lifetime. You start where you are, and with consistent practice, you become more loose and flexible, your balance improves, and you become stronger.
Just one yoga session per week is all you need to reap the benefits (but doing more will help you improve even faster). Yoga is available everywhere – yoga studios, recreation centers, commercial gyms, DVDs, YouTube, podcasts, and even private one-on-one sessions in your home.
#6 Eat well
Good nutrition is key to providing your body with fuel (carbs) as well as giving it the building blocks to repair itself (protein). This doesn’t mean a strict diet of brown rice and vegetables. It simply means making more of the right food choices every day, and drinking lots of water. I love how Jack LaLanne, the fitness icon who lived to the age of 96, puts it: “Exercise is king, and nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.”
#7 Listen to your body
Pay attention to the signals your body is sending you. Your overall mood, level of fatigue, susceptibility to colds, more aches and pains – all these can be signals that you’re overdoing it with your exercise routine. Or it could be other stressors in your life, like the upcoming holiday season. If you find yourself consistently feeling bad, try a lighter exercise session than you’d planned, or even take an additional rest day.
None of these principles are new or revolutionary, and they’re not expensive or complex. The challenge is to incorporate all of them into your routine. If you do, you’ll have a highly effective injury prevention strategy that works.