Post-injury workouts can make you stronger

PHOTO: Post-injury workouts can make you stronger

You don't have to be a professional athlete to sustain an injury. It can happen to anyone, at any fitness level, at any time - even while sleeping. For an athlete, it's a horrific nightmare - like the fractured vertebrae suffered by Brazilian football star Neymar during the recent World Cup. Agony was written all over his face.

For the layperson, it could spell bliss. Depending on the severity of the injury, the tendency is usually to stop exercising and sing hallelujah.

Halting all exercise while recovering is the worst thing you can do for your body. It's not life-threatening or irreversible, but you will start losing overall muscle tone, and take longer to get back into shape once you fully recover.

In addition to getting smaller, the muscle tissue begins to change from the fast-twitch fibres needed for strength and the slow-twitch fibres needed for endurance, to weaker, more easily-fatigued fibres that make it difficult to regain your previous fitness level.

Injury refers to the loss of function of a body part, with or without some visual disruption of the part's structure. There could be swelling, internal bleeding, pain and decreased function of a joint. The most common injuries affect the back, knee, lower leg and shoulder. Assuming the injury is minor (sprains, strains, tendonitis or muscle pulls), you can still work other body parts and reap the rewards.

It's best to stay active throughout your down period while stretching the injured area - stretching is the key word here. For example, if you sprain your ankle, you can still work your upper body and thigh muscles using weights or resistance bands. If your shoulders are injured, work on your lower body.

To maintain muscle tone around the injury, do sets of repetitive isometric contractions (i.e. no active joint movement). Sometimes, even this can cause pain, so stop and gently stretch the muscles around the injured site.

At the onset of injury (acute phase), apply the R-I-C-E principle (rest, ice, compression and elevation) during the first 24-48 hours following the minor injury. Many still believe that applying heat to the injured site does wonders. If you're unsure and have received conflicting information from your friends, stick to ice as it helps constrict blood vessels, thus, decreasing swelling.

Strategic application of ice can soothe pain when it's at its worst. Heat tends to dilate blood vessels, increasing blood flow. That's why you should refrain from using heat if there's swelling. You don't want to increase blood flow to an area that's already overloaded with blood.

However, if you have chronic recurring injuries, then by all means, use heat. Heat is more useful in instances of stiffness and when mobility or range of motion is somewhat limited. These conditions are often, but not always, caused or exacerbated by insufficient blood flow.

During this first phase, you can take time off and do nothing while the pain diminishes. Then, after two or three days, it's time to continue your routine, but slowly. While the most critical window for recovery comes immediately after the injury, it's important to have a workout routine that can help prevent recurring injuries.

It can also be a blessing in disguise as you will be forced to focus on previously unworked muscles. According to medical experts, muscle power diminishes rapidly when muscles are not used; the proteins in surrounding muscles start to break down within 24 hours if a joint is completely immobilised. Yes, that's how quickly muscles start to dwindle. The other component that starts to drop is your cardiovascular endurance.

When you're restarting, always listen to your body and don't fight it with the mind (as what my doctor tells me!). When the body is not ready, it will emit signals and you have to be sensitive enough to pick them up. By choosing to ignore these signs, you could end up with more injuries.

Begin with a five-minute warm-up to limber up the joints. If you're an avid runner, start by walking, gradually advancing into a slow jog, then a run. If you're a swimmer with shoulder issues, hold onto a board and work your legs first. Then try using one arm to glide yourself forward, before adding on the other. Work at a lower intensity and shorter duration.

With weights, halve the loads to ensure your motions are pain-free, then add reps slowly. Don't rush into things and lift heavy weights, which can add strain to other body parts and cause damage.

Again, depending on the severity of the injury, you should see results in three weeks, minimum. And, usually, you end up being stronger than you were before you got injured.

The writer is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance, but longs for some bulk and flesh in the right places. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader's own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.