Three common overuse injury mistakes you are making and how to avoid them

Using the “wait and see” method:

There are two ways to go wrong with the “wait and see” method. In the first, an athlete, believing “rest” is the critical factor in injury recovery, takes a large amount of time off after the initial onset of pain. When they do finally return to activity, having had no pain for a day or two, they often start out with way too much intensity or time. If you haven’t run in 2 weeks, then the first run back should not be a 5-mile excursion. In fact, it should be quite brief. And of course, instead of running an easy 10-minute mile pace, your legs are fresh, so 7- or 8-minute miles seem suddenly more comfortable than ever.

Few people ever follow this advice because there is a misconception that rest fixes all. (Same assumption goes for surgery fixing everything, but that’s another story.) And then the athlete can’t figure out why the injury came back a couple weeks later. Of course that recurrence is followed by yet another solid block of rest and the cycle of inconsistency continues. The body WANTS to heal. I find that to be pretty amazing. The key is providing consistent exercise loading to not only maintain fitness but to improve tissue integrity.

Don’t get me wrong. Rest is extremely important in recovery from training and from injury. But it should all be administered in appropriate doses. If you know, deep down, that rest is powerful then you should be doing a better job of resting prior to any symptom onset, not waiting until something hurts. Rest should never be considered as the primary method to address injury.

In the second scenario, the athlete ignores their initial injury symptoms and continues to exercise, waiting for the injury to spontaneously resolve. This can stack too much stress onto an already injured area. It’s often easy to do with running, because so many muscle and tendon injuries actually feel better once the tissues have warmed up a bit. That’s why overuse injuries are so deceiving. If the pain is gone while exercising, you must be doing okay, right? Well, no, it’s not that easy.

If we were to classify the onset of pain from overuse injury, there’s typically a progression:

  1. Pain only after exercise.
  2. Pain during exercise, though not at a high enough level to stop.
  3. Pain during exercise that does limit time or performance.
  4. Pain so severe you absolutely cannot exercise.

Athletes often become stuck at the second phase. Sometimes for months at a time. When they approach the third phase, they suddenly become desperate and finally begin addressing the things they knew were problems in the first place. Don’t be “that guy.”

Consider yourself only as good as your last successful, pain free run. Best not to worry about progressing when injured if you want a long career. Best to worry about preventing regression and working on your known problem areas, like hip strength or ankle range of motion. If you don’t know where your problem areas are, seek guidance from a movement expert.

Relying on pills and injections:

Everybody loves a “quick fix.” Some like it because it requires no real effort or time to take a pill. Others like it because it might reliably take pain away and they are unaware of any other treatment option. For some people, they feel they don’t have time for proper injury treatment. In any case, once the pain decreases you expect to go on about your training as soon as possible without any other care.

But think about this for a moment. If a mechanical stress led to your painful tissue damage, then there’s good reason to focus on a mechanical solution when there is one available. Medicines aren’t typically designed to alter mechanical stress. Let’s say the medication did stop the pain. Just because the pain stopped doesn’t mean the underlying problem went away.

Unfortunately, rarely is the proper solution a quick one. Pills and injections are not a reasonable long-term solution. Just like appropriate doses of rest, NSAIDs and corticosteroid injections certainly have a place in treatment. But they are not a valid long-term option for relief of overuse damage.  

Blaming the shoes:

I am guessing the shoe industry is at fault for this perception. It’s not about the shoes. Overuse injuries are likely to be caused by a variety of factors but most frequently by training errors. This means your intensity was too high, distance too long, or the rest was insufficient. (This is the third time I have mentioned rest!)

Even the biomechanical flaws that I might address in the clinic take a back seat to poor program design. We are highly adaptable. Each running technique is known to stress specific tissues.

What might be considered horrible running technique can be safely performed if you progressed slowly enough and were strong in all the right muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Summary:

Like the cause of the injury, resolution should be a multifactorial approach. The trick is going to be exercising within the tolerances that the injured area allows while also working on any related deficits. Back the distance and pace down.

It’s unreasonable to believe that you don’t have mechanical deficits somewhere that contribute to the injury. Training errors in speed and time just make those flaws more prominent. You must look outside the area of injury. The body relies on an integration of systems for movement so if just one system fails at its job then you have a problem. And that problem probably isn’t where your pain is occurring. Is your balance perfect? Movement awareness stellar? Posture perfect? Strength out of this world? Have the joint motion of a 10 year old? Unlikely. Bring home those new shoes and get to work on the right things.