Tell someone you're recovering from a workout injury and chances are they'll offer advice. But how do you tell what's really going to help you heal and what's just personal opinion or experience? Every body and every injury is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.
However, there are some things that are universal. If you're a fitness enthusiast, do yourself a favor: Don't fall for one of these common injury myths.
MYTH #1: All You Need Is Physical Therapy
In reality, a physical therapist can only do so much. The rest is up to you. Your physical therapist can use hands-on techniques to ease pain and offer recommendations to resolve any form mistakes or weaknesses. But your recovery depends on how well you incorporate those recommendations into your daily life. So if your physical therapist gives you "homework," do it!
MYTH #2: Always Stretch Before a Workout
Doing static stretches before your workout was once considered essential for preventing injury. However, static stretching not only fails to prepare your body for exercise, it can actually hurt your performance.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that static stretching before a workout led to reduced lower-body strength. You're better off doing a functional warm-up, says Tineile Heiler, senior group training coordinator for Life Time Athletic. It'll not only get your heart pumping, but more importantly, it'll prep your joints and ligaments for the demands to come.
For example, if you're preparing for heavy dumbbell thrusters, perform several reps of a hand-release push-up to get the joints in your wrists and shoulders ready to support the heavy weight.
MYTH #3: If You Injure Your Back, Lie Down
Next time you feel a twinge in your back after a training session, don't camp out in bed. When you lie down, you essentially turn off your abdominal muscles, the ones that work to keep your torso upright and stable. Without the support of your abs, your back takes on more of the burden.
"Without the help of the abdominals, the back pain just keeps getting worse and worse," says Alice Holland, physical therapist at Stride Strong Physical Therapy. If the back pain isn't immobilizing, get moving. Be sure to modify the intensity of exercise according to comfort and ability. If the pain persists or worsens, consult your doctor or physical therapist.
MYTH #4: A Knee Brace Gives You Superpowers
Many people with pre-existing knee injuries or weaknesses believe that wearing a knee brace while exercising will protect against further damage. In reality, a brace offers little but a false sense of security.
Holland compares bracing to a scaffold over a building: "It might help if some rocks are being thrown at the building, but it's not going to prevent the building from collapsing," she says. Instead of relying on a brace, practice caution when you exercise. Save bracing for your recovery toolkit, as it can help ease pain and joint instability.
MYTH #5: If You're Sore, Take a Day Completely Off
When you wake up sore the day after a hard workout session — a phenomenon known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — it's tempting to give yourself a free pass to lie on the couch all day.
While rest days are critical for giving your muscles proper recovery, don't take "rest" to mean "do nothing." Inactivity is only going to slow your recovery, leaving you feeling sore for longer, says Heiler.
MYTH #6: The Right Shoes Will Prevent All Injuries
Exercise enthusiasts — runners in particular — often assume their shoes will protect them against any and all injury. But good shoes won't disguise any pre-existing weaknesses. "It's not really the shoe that hurts the athlete," Holland says. "It's the athlete's lack of conditioning in those shoes that is the cause of injury."
Incorporate strength training and mobility work into your routine. Find the right shoes to fit your size, running form and preferences by visiting a running store to get a gait analysis.
MYTH #7 If You’re Not in Pain, You’re Good to Go
It's a familiar scenario: You get injured, work with a physical therapist, and then resume your regular workout routine the moment the pain disappears. A short while later, the injury repeats itself.
According to Holland, it's not uncommon for athletes, especially those recovering from surgery, to jump back into their sport before allowing their bodies time to regain strength and conditioning. Your tissues may be healed, but your muscles need time to rebuild.
Just as you shouldn't go from couch potato to ultramarathoner without first nailing a 5k, you shouldn't expect to pick up where you left off prior to your injury without first rebuilding a strong foundation.