Almost nothing derails your fitness routine faster than a workout injury — whether it's a sprained ankle, pulled muscle or torn ligament. Don't let that be you! You have places to go and workouts to conquer.
The good news is there are steps you can take to prevent getting hurt during exercise. Start with a solid warm-up before every workout and focus on range-of-motion and strengthening movements for all of your joints, especially those that are already prone to injury (think: knees and ankles). And if you find yourself dealing with runner's knee, a rotator cuff tear, back pain or shin splints, specific gentle exercises and stretches can help you heal faster.
First Things First: Don't Get Hurt
Warm Up Before You Work Out
One of the best ways to prevent workout injuries is by warming up beforehand. It's easy to overlook these first crucial five to 10 minutes, but they can save you from a world of hurt.
"When muscles are looser and warmer, the risk of injury goes way down," says Gary Olson, licensed doctor of chiropractic and certified personal trainer.
Easing into a sweat session with the right dynamic stretches (ones with movement and not static holds), mobility exercises (taking your joints through their natural range of motion) and easy cardio drills (think: jumping jacks, high knees, jumping rope and butt kicks) raises your heart rate gradually and gets your muscles, tendons and joints moving.
"Warming up gets the blood flowing, which increases your body temperature," says Olson. Muscles that are warm and joints that aren't stiff are ready to take on the more strenuous activity like running, lifting and jumping. Think of your muscles like rubber bands that have been in the freezer: You wouldn't just take one out and stretch it to the limit right away. Similarly, you need to give your body time to acclimate to exercise.
Prevent Knee Pain
Your knees are vulnerable joints, and there's a lot that can go wrong: fractures, dislocations, torn ligaments, bursitis... the frightening list goes on. While accidents can happen to anyone, you can drastically reduce your chance of injury by stretching and strengthening the muscles that surround and support your knees.
Knee pain that's not caused by an acute injury can usually be traced back to either muscle weakness or tightness in the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. When one of those is too stiff, they'll pull on the knee joint. Or, if one is weak or imbalanced, your legs may not be strong enough to support you if you twist or move the wrong way.
Or maybe you need to ward off patellofemoral syndrome, more commonly known as runner's knee, which can cause pain under the kneecap that worsens from running, walking down stairs or sitting with bent knees for long periods of time. It occurs when the bones in the lower leg aren't lined up perfectly, causing an abnormal gliding between the kneecap and thigh bone. This misalignment can lead to wear and tear between the cartilage and surfaces of the bones, causing pain.
Stop Ankle Sprains Before They Start
Whether it's the result of a klutzy moment in Zumba class or a misstep on the treadmill, twisting your ankle too far or in the wrong direction can lead to a sprain. "An ankle sprain occurs when the strong ligaments that support the ankle stretch beyond their limits and tear," according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, and can range from mild to severe, depending on how much damage is done.
While you can't avoid every accident, there are a few things you can do to help prevent sprains. Running outside on uneven terrain or over curbs and potholes increases the risk of an ankle injury, says Cindy Trowbridge, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington. Look for paved, even walkways.
And when it comes to gym workouts, even though you're in the zone, always be aware of your surroundings and where you're walking — you don't want to trip over a stray dumbbell. Plus, moves that strengthen your ankles can limit the severity if you do fall.
When You're Already Sidelined
Is the Pain in Your Upper Back?
Poor posture, overuse of your upper back muscles, a herniated disc or fractured vertebrae can all lead to upper back pain. If you're feeling sore and tight in the area (i.e. the pain isn't caused by an acute injury), take it easy for a few days to see if the discomfort subsides on its own. If it doesn't, see a doctor in case it's a more serious issue.
Or Do You Have Lower Back Pain?
A sudden, sharp twinge in your lower back during your workout could be a sign you've overdone it. Squatting or deadlifting with improper form can lead to strains or, even worse, nerve compression and disc herniation, says Trowbridge. Beginners should first learn how to maintain a neutral spine and master proper form before adding any weight to these exercises, she says.
But if you find yourself in pain, there are still things you can do to soothe (and yes, strengthen) the area. Your best bets are low-impact movements that target not just your lower back but your entire core, like planking. If anything makes the pain worse, though, stop and call your doctor.
Knock Out Knee Pain
As long as your doctor or physical therapist has cleared you for exercise, there are usually ways to work out despite knee pain — even if it means focusing solely on upper-body movements.
Care for a Rotator Cuff Injury
Your rotator cuff is comprised of four main muscles that surround and stabilize the shoulder joint. Injuries here typically result from repetitive overhead motion, like swimming, throwing a ball or certain shoulder exercises, says Luga Podesta, MD, sports medicine specialist at Podesta Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute.
If shoulder issues flare up, stop whatever is causing or worsening the pain and apply ice. Then, ease into some gentle range-of-motion shoulder exercises (as long as your doctor gives you the green light). Maintaining good posture also helps, as slouching makes you more prone to compression of the shoulder joint.
What to Do About Shin Splints
Pain along the inner edge of your shin may be a sign of medial tibial stress syndrome, aka shin splints. "It's muscle inflammation and can occur even after just a couple of workouts," says Trowbridge. Increasing the intensity or frequency of your exercise, running on uneven ground, uphill or downhill or exercising on asphalt all increase the risk of shin splints, as does wearing worn-out shoes.
Buy yourself a new pair and gradually increase your workout intensity by no more than 10 percent a week to prevent shin splints, Trowbridge says. If you find yourself with shin pain, a combination of stretching, foam rolling and trigger point therapy (a type of concentrated pressure applied to tight spots) can get you headed toward recovery.
Managing Achilles Tendon Pain
Pain in the back of your ankle may be a sign of an injured Achilles tendon, one of the most important tendons in the entire body, according to a 2017 study published by Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine. That's because it's connected to both muscles in your calf, the gastrocnemius, which is involved in bending your knee and pointing your toes, and the soleus, which helps you rise up on your toes.
While you should avoid the exercises that increase pain — such as running or jumping — if you're actively dealing with an Achilles injury, there are some others, such as calf stretches and toe raises, that can help alleviate your discomfort.