Not enough rest, doing too much too soon, overly repetitive motions and everyday wear and tear can result in workout injuries that put the kibosh on your fitness plans. In fact, a 2017 study of college athletes published in the Journal of Athletic Training found overuse injuries (repetitive motions from sports and workouts) account for nearly 30 percent of all injuries. Don't let that be you! Here are the most common workout injuries, how they can occur and tips for staying safe.
1. Ankle Sprain
Running — whether outdoors or on a treadmill — is a common cause of ankle sprains. "The biggest problem running indoors on a treadmill is losing your focus and accidentally stepping half on and half off the treadmill while the belt's still moving," says Cindy Trowbridge, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington. And running outside on uneven terrain or over curbs also increases the risk of an ankle sprain.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: "If you run outdoors, stay on level sidewalks or at a park, versus running where you have to go up and down off a curb," says Trowbridge. Look for paved, even walkways because uneven terrain and potholes can be problems. If you're on the treadmill, attach the safety clip to your clothes.
2. Shin Splints
Pain along the inner edge of your shin may be a sign of medial tibial stress syndrome, a.k.a. 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, uneven ground, uphill or downhill running or exercising on asphalt all increase the risk of shin splints, as does wearing worn-out shoes.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: Wearing proper shoes and gradually increasing workout intensity (no more than 10 percent a week) goes a long way toward preventing shin splints, Trowbridge says. Before exercising, warm up to get your blood flowing and your muscles warm, she says.
3. Lower Back Strains
A sudden, sharp twinge in your lower back during your workout could be a sign you've overdone it. According to Trowbridge, squatting or deadlifting with improper form can lead to strains or, even worse, nerve compression and disk herniation.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: Beginners should first learn how to maintain a neutral spine with these exercises, says Trowbridge. To do this, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Your spine should touch the floor under your neck and lower back, which allows the natural curves of your back to absorb shock during exercise.
"Get your form correct first before adding weight," Trowbridge says. "Beginner weightlifters should do the leg press or hip sled first before trying squats." If you're unsure of proper form, ask a certified personal trainer for advice.
4. Rotator Cuff Injury
Your rotator cuff is comprised of four main muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis), and it surrounds and stabilizes the shoulder joint. Experiencing shoulder pain when you reach behind you, overhead or out to the side may be a sign of a rotator cuff strain.
According to Luga Podesta, M.D., sports medicine specialist at Podesta Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute, this injury typically results from a repetitive overhead motion. Activities such as swimming or throwing a ball and overhead shoulder exercises, like a military press, can lead to rotator cuff strain when done repeatedly over time.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: Strengthen your rotator cuff muscles as part of your upper-body program. Use good posture (a slouched posture makes you more prone to compression of the shoulder joint). Avoid repetitive overhead exercises with excessive weight that's too heavy and perform lat pulldowns in the front, rather than behind the neck.
5. Stress Fractures
These tiny, hairline fractures usually occur in the bones of the foot, heel or shin and are often the result of doing too much too soon or repetitive jumping, says Dr. Podesta. A common symptom of a stress fracture is pain and/or swelling around the site with exercise, standing or walking. Sports like basketball and tennis increase the risk of stress fractures — as does osteoporosis. If left untreated, a stress fracture may not heal properly and can lead to chronic pain.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: Start gradually. Try to progress by no more than five to 10 percent in exercise volume each week, says John P. Higgins, M.D., director of exercise physiology at Memorial Hermann at the Texas Medical Center.
"For example, if you are jogging 10 miles a week, don't do more than 11 miles the next week. If you are doing 10 reps of 50-pound biceps curls this week, next week do 11 reps of 50 or 10 reps of 55 pounds." Cross-training can also help.
6. IT Band Syndrome
Common in runners and cyclists, iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) occurs when the IT band, a ligament that runs along the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin, becomes tight and inflamed. "Cycling can trigger this flare-up, which causes pain on the outside of the knee," says Trowbridge. This can also occur in runners who wear worn-out shoes, run on uneven surfaces, run downhill or run too many miles.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: If you're a cyclist, make sure the seat height is appropriate — not too high or low — says Trowbridge. In an indoor cycling class, ask the instructor to help you adjust the height of the seat and find the right location that places your torso in an ideal position.
"You want to be able to just reach the bar without feeling all bunched up," she says. Runners should do a short walking warm-up before running and make sure to replace worn-out shoes. Avoid running on concrete and, if you run on a track, change directions regularly.
7. Runner's Knee (Patellofemoral Syndrome)
Pain under the kneecap that worsens from running, walking down stairs or sitting with bent knees for long periods of time could be a sign of patellofemoral syndrome, a.k.a. "runner's knee." You may also hear a crunching, creaking or grating sound.
"You can get this from running, jumping or squatting," says Dr. Podesta. An increase in running mileage can contribute to pain. Runner's knee occurs when the bones in the lower leg are not lined up perfectly, causing an abnormal gliding between the patella (kneecap) and femur (thigh bone). This misalignment can lead to wear and tear between the cartilage and surfaces of the bones, causing pain.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: Keep your knees healthy with exercises that strengthen quadriceps and hip flexors. Seated and lying leg raises are often prescribed for strengthening the quadriceps. Also avoid kneeling or squatting repeatedly.
8. Biceps Tendinitis
Pain in front of the shoulder and upper-arm may be a sign of tendinitis, an overuse injury that typically occurs from repetitive motion like weightlifting or swimming. Biceps tendinitis refers to the inflammation of a tendon that attaches your upper biceps muscle to the bones of the shoulder.
"Impingement and rotator cuff damage often accompanies biceps tendinitis," says David Geier, M.D., orthopedic surgeon in Charleston, S.C. You'll feel pain and tenderness in the front of the shoulder that worsens with overhead lifting. Pain may also move down the upper arm bone and you may feel an occasional snapping in the shoulder.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: Cross-train by varying your activities to avoid repetitive overhead movements. Make sure to take enough rest time between workouts. Check your posture which can increase the risk of biceps tendinitis, says Dr. Geier.
9. Pectoral Injury
Losing control of a dumbbell or barbell during a heavy bench press, for instance, can lead to a tear in the pectoralis muscle — a serious injury. "You'll feel a tearing sensation, and the chest and upper arm often turn black and blue," says Dr. Geier. "Sometimes a defect in the muscle is visible or palpable. You should see an orthopedic surgeon within a few days to determine if the injury needs surgery."
HOW TO STAY SAFE: Make sure you can control the amount of weight you're lifting, says Dr. Geier. "If you're trying to lift a very heavy weight, have a spotter present to help control it so that you don't drop it or lose control."
10. Glenoid Labrum Tear
Clicking sounds and uncomfortable catching sensations deep in the shoulder during bench presses or military (overhead shoulder) presses may be symptoms of a glenoid labrum tear, says Dr. Geier.
"This refers to a tear in the cartilage bumper that surrounds the glenoid, the socket of the ball-and-socket joint." Labral tears can result from overuse or a direct injury to the shoulder, like falling and landing on an outstretched arm.
HOW TO STAY SAFE: It may not always be possible to prevent a labral tear, says Dr. Geier, but any uncomfortable popping or pain deep in the shoulder is worth checking out. If the pain doesn't improve, see an orthopedist to determine the cause and treatment options. "Modify exercises to avoid pain," says Dr. Geier. "You can still get a good shoulder or chest workout even if you have to avoid specific shoulder or chest exercises."
- Nearly 30 percent of all college athlete injuries a result of 'overuse'
- Cindy Trowbridge, Ph.D.: Associate Professor of Kinesiology at University of Texas, Arlington
- Dr. Luga Podesta: Podesta Sports Medicine
- John P. Higgins, M.D., director of exercise physiology at Memorial Hermann at the Texas Medical Center