5 Ways to Keep Improving During an Injury

By Danny Horgan –

Athletes in all sports know common injury sequences all too well.

New injuries are terrifying. One day, you’re in the midst of an effective training block, making rapid improvements en route to a set goal. The next, that little ache you barely noticed has grown to a point where you can’t train. Now, instead of hitting the roads or the gym, you’re entering your symptoms into Google, praying there’s a quick fix to your new problem.

Chronic injuries can be even worse. You’ve rested, you’ve tried every stretching and massage technique Internet forum posters have thrown at you, but you just can’t seem to get healthy. Even when you hit a solid stretch of training, the pain always finds a way to make itself known.

As frustrating as injuries can be, you can take comfort in knowing that nearly every athlete has experienced what you’re going through. The reality of trying to find your physical limits is that you’ll occasionally push too hard. When that happens, your body will rebel. But injuries do not have to be a complete impediment to your long-term progress. In fact, with careful planning, cross-training, and patience, you can use your injury time to improve beyond where you’d be had you stayed healthy.

The following five rules and tips have become my definitive guidelines for continuing to improve while on the sidelines. Remember, progress is a long-term process. If you put in the work even on your bad days, you’ll get an edge over athletes who treat injuries as an excuse to eat M&Ms and watch Netflix.

1. Do everything you can to recover

By far, the most important exercises you do while injured are those that will help you return to your sport. The reality of nearly every sport, from swimming to power lifting, is that skill specificity trumps all other elements of fitness. Just ask Lance Armstrong, whose enormous aerobic base from cycling only carried him to a 2:59:36 debut running marathon (an impressive time, but light years away from world-class).

So do your homework on your injury. Find rehabilitative exercises and stretches, and make them part of your daily routine. Beyond everything else, you want to be back training in your specialty as soon as possible. Considering injuries are practically inevitable, cutting down your time on the sidelines will pay huge dividends in your long-term development.

2. Keep moving

The human body is incredibly adaptable, but what many people fail to realize is that this adaptability can actually be a negative thing. As amazing as your body is in becoming stronger and faster with training, it’s even better at becoming flabby and weak with sitting around. So to keep your metabolism revved and your blood flowing while injured, you need to find an alternative way to move your body.

There are only a small handful of injuries that prevent athletes from moving entirely. As long as you don’t fall into that category, you have a slew of options to keep your heart rate up on a daily basis. Many times, you’ll enjoy “injury cardio” so much that it will become a regular part of your routine even when you’re healthy, leading to greater long-term benefits. Here are some of my favorites that are often overlooked:

-Shadow boxing – If you think it’s difficult to maintain a high running cadence with your legs, try throwing punches for five minutes straight. Shadow boxing, either with bare hands or boxing gloves, is a great way to challenge your heart, arms, and core without the impact of heavy bag contact. It’s also the perfect exercise for athletes suffering from leg injuries.

-Lengthy farmer’s walks – While many injuries will exclude athletes from completing farmer’s walks, this exercise is perfect for those who are suffering from impact-related running injuries. Walking with equal weight in each hand is like moving through regular gravity on steroids. You’ll breathe heavy, you’ll sweat, and by the end, you’ll realize tremendous improvements in strength, cardio, and stamina.

-Stair walking – This one is self explanatory. While you may risk your sanity just walking up and down stairs, you’ll keep your heart rate up in a controlled, low-impact setting.

3. Improve on your weaknesses

If you’re strong, an injury may be your chance to get faster. If you’re fast, an injury may be your chance to become more flexible. The key is exploring other areas of fitness you are unfamiliar with and incorporating new stimuli into your routine.

There are many misconceptions about elements of training being counterproductive to specific sports. Martial artists have told me that lifting weights will kill my speed. Runners have told me that cycling will develop the wrong leg muscles and destroy my stride efficiency. But the reality of nearly every type of movement is that the body moves cohesively, relying on every bone, tendon, and muscle to finish the task at hand. So the better all-around athlete you are, the better you’ll be at your sport.

So if you’re an injured endurance athlete, hit the gym and lift. If you’re a strength athlete, lace up your shoes and log some miles on the roads. Your injury period is your chance to develop new, untapped athletic potential.

4. Learn more about your sport

Perhaps the most under-looked component of athletics is the mental side of training. I’m not talking about the psychological toughness that’s developed from years of consistent training – I’m talking about the strategic thinking that goes into getting better.

No matter how long you’ve been training, there is still endless information out there that will help you become a better, more efficient athlete. Fortunately, we live in an age where a lot of this information can be found for free online. Don’t neglect this resource. Read about elite athletes’ training methods. Study the philosophies of the top coaches in your sport. You’ll return to training with a whole new arsenal of tools that will take your athleticism to a whole new level.

5. Eat well

Your body works well when it has the right fuel. Period. So if you want your body to heal faster from an injury, you need to avoid junk and make sure you’re getting proper nutrition.

If you scour the Web looking for nutrition advice, chances are you’ll receive conflicting information. That’s because many nutrition writers have no background in the field. Their “research” consists of finding corporate-funded studies that are easy to understand and then regurgitating the information without any type of critical analysis.

If you want to find the truth about nutrition for athletics, it’s up to you to do your own homework and make up your own mind. Here are some of my favorite resources:

  • Nutritionfacts.org – A highly detailed site that delves into scientific studies on a number of nutrition-related topics.
  • BreakingMuscle.com – A fitness site whose writers are known for doing their homework and citing scientific studies
  • BenGreenfieldFitness.com – Podcasts and articles from Ben Greenfield, a personal trainer and athlete who is constantly scouring scientific literature on nutrition and athletic performance.

As an athlete, your body is your tool for success. Eating well will allow you to remain healthy and ready to perform at your best.

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