Injuries suck, that’s all there is to it. Oh, but there’s more. Injuries are a big reason as to why an athlete can’t get past a certain performance ceiling. If you’re training improperly as you try to take your fitness to the next level you’re probably going to get injured sooner or later. That injury will not only prevent you from achieving your goal, but now you’ll spend weeks if not months or longer recovering from the injury. Obviously this means you’re going to lose a huge amount of fitness and if or when you return to your sport you’ll be spending a lot of time making up lost ground.
So why do athletes get injured? Of course aside from some unlucky trauma/accident, you suffered an injury because your training formula became imbalanced. Essentially you trained too hard and/or took on more stress than you were able to balance with your rest and recovery. It’s as simple yet as complex as that. Call it overtraining, overreaching, or under-recovered – it really doesn’t matter in the end. An injury is an injury.
You don’t just suddenly become injured. You don’t just wake up one day and step down from your bed and have plantar fasciitis. You don’t just bend over to pick up your pen and throw your back out. These injuries take some time to develop and often there are warning signs and symptoms that are present as your body is letting you know you need to change what you’re doing and chill out or it’s gonna get bad.
Let’s look at five main reasons an athlete becomes injured. These are also the same reasons why an athlete often doesn’t recover as fast and he or she should. These are also in order of importance – in other words, more athletes are injured or not healing properly due to a dietary problem than because of a footwear problem.
An Injured Athlete’s Diet
Biochemical and nutritional problems are by far the main reason athletes get injured and don’t fully recover. Nutritional problems can range from a lack of protein to too much caffeine. Biochemical problems are more due to nutrient deficiencies either from depletion or even free radical damage from too much oxidative stress – often from training too hard and not recovering or eating well.
Protein: I’ve always observed athletes to perform their best when they consume approximately 1.5 grams of protein per kg bodyweight. For those who are injured then around 2.0g if not a bit more may be necessary. This needs to be high quality protein such as eggs, meats, fish, clean undenatured whey protein, and even a bit of dairy if tolerated. Beans and rice won’t cut it.
Fats: Arachidonic Acid (AA) – Though they are given a bad rap for creating inflammation it’s only because those AA fats which do are the ones the body makes from converting omega-6 vegetable oil-type fats (often refined) over to inflammatory AA fats. Naturally occurring AA fats from egg yolks, butter and other high fat dairy sources, and grass fed beef have amazing healing effects when it comes to injuries. There’s a reason these fats are most the abundant fatty acid in our brains. I’ve always told my patients that if they could only take one fat then it should always be butter before a fish oil supplement. More on AA fats here.
Carbs: Speaking of inflammation, cut out most of the carbs if you’re injured. Too many carbs, especially those refined, will lead to too much inflammation. Plus, there’s a link between high insulin levels and gait imbalances in people. That means that if you have too much insulin then you won’t move well and if you don’t move well then you’re at a greater risk of injury and you’ll heal much more slowly. Remember that proper sugar metabolism has a lot to do with joint repair – GAGs – as I discuss here. So chill out on the treats when you’re injured.
Aside from paying specific attention to the protein, carbs, and fats as just discussed, don’t forget that when you’re injured you need more nutrients, often minerals such as zinc, magnesium, and manganese. These are all very individualized so I don’t want to discuss them any further here and I’m not keen on someone taking a multi-supplement. Multis never work as they just keep nutrient imbalances in their imbalanced state rather than correct an imbalance, (if you’re lucky enough to get a good product). Load up on the vegetables when you’re injured, and even as part of healthy injury-prevention program especially when you’re training hard.
Too Much Stress and Not Enough Rest
The harder you train and the more frequent you train, the more you need to rest and recover. This means not just a restful night’s sleep but also lowering daily stress to the best of your ability. Though many trainers, coaches, and physicians like to promote HIIT training as a “quick and effective time efficient strategy” for those living a busy lifestyle, I say the exact opposite. If you’ve got too much going on and live a stressful life, then your exercise should be more aerobic with perhaps some strength tossed in when appropriate. HIIT training at this time is only asking for trouble.
If you’re training mostly aerobically, especially if those training bouts are of long duration, (as you get over an hour for running, for example), you need to balance this with more recovery.
Training and Racing Improperly
This one is much like #2 where if you’re training too much you need to rest more but it also considers those training way too often and too hard – or both. There’s a race somewhere close to where you live every Saturday and Sunday; some people even race twice in one day – it can get a bit crazy. Plan your schedule and plan your races. You can’t race effectively and remain healthy if you’re racing hard all year-long. Likewise, you need times when you chill out on the long distance and stay away from the high intensity anaerobic workouts. Don’t get stuck in a rut by doing the same type of training over and over all year-long, only to wonder how the hell you suddenly got injured. You need periods of more steady aerobic work, periods of more strength, and periods of high intensity which are all dependent on how fit and healthy you are as well what your goals are. Every workout should have a purpose and workouts should be changing and developing as you develop as an athlete.
Old Injuries Haunting Athletes
For some people, often the ones I see in my office, this is the main reason they are unable to recover from an injury. It’s also the reason why some people get injured over and over. It’s not uncommon for an old ankle injury to still be affecting your gait and next thing you know your knee or hip is injured even though there is no longer any apparent pain in the actual ankle anymore. The problem with these types of injures though is that they’re super difficult to correct since most physicians and therapists don’t know how to identify them and the athlete no longer feels pain or discomfort in the previously injured area – so they go untreated. My best advice here is to make sure you find a good doc and/or therapist when you’re injured to make sure, to the best of their ability, that your injured area is fully functioning, (strength, range of motion) – not just pain-free. Of course if you’re having to wear orthotics or take NSAIDs because of your injury and that’s how you’re getting by then you haven’t corrected anything; you’re just some moments away from the next injury waiting to pop up.
Wrong Footwear, Poor Economy, Your Form Sucks
Some people like to say that the reason runners are so easily injured is that because running is such a repetitious activity. If you’re having a problem in your ankle then landing on that 80-90 times a minute for 30-60 minutes is going to quickly become a much bigger problem. Of course this is true for most sports in general whether you’re swinging a tennis racket (shoulder/elbow) or pushing a bike pedal (hip/knee). If your form is poor then you will eventually develop an injury.
Footwear, as I discussed last month and in many other SockDoc articles, is a major reason why athletes get injured. Orthotics are a big reason why athletes never heal up properly and continue to move with poor form/economy and get injured again (often a new injury) later on. I put footwear as number five on this list because although it is important, there are far more athletes injured because of poor diet, improper training, and just too much stress overall. But footwear is an issue, and for some it is their only issue especially if their shoes are thick and over-supportive.
Change Your Plan
No, you’re not injured because you forgot to stretch or because you forgot to ice before and after your workout. If you need to do these things then you’re already broken and you’re just buying time before it gets even worse to the point where you can’t train at all.
If you’re injured and not healing then don’t keep doing what you’re doing, (assuming that you’ve been injured for a very long time). Undergoing the same therapy month after month with no success will not all of a sudden heal your body. Get a second opinion and seek out a doc or therapist with a different perspective. And going for a second if not third MRI isn’t going to magically heal your injury either.
Consider what you’re not doing right, (per the list above), and what you can change for the better. Sometimes it’s the little things such as tweaking your diet, assessing and treating a specific muscle, or changing how you’ve always done something a certain way that can be the difference between slow or no progress to a fast and full recovery.