Return to sport, not to injury

The three keys to returning to training injury-free in 2021

by Sarah Meade, April 2021

The risks of returning to training post COVID-19:

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has been the biggest disruption of this generation (and possibly ever outside of war times) to our everyday way of life. And while there was always an emphasis on keeping as physically fit as possible in the circumstances – which in the darkest days was the permitted one hour of daily solitary exercise – there is very little out there on what the return to proper exercise looks like following such a period of relative inactivity.

Thankfully, global pandemics don’t come around often enough for us to be able to look back at the last one and consider how pandemics impact injuries when people return to sport. However, we can look at examples of situations where restrictions on training have impacted injuries when athletes return to the field.

Lessons from the NFL

For over four months from March to July 2011, the US NFL went into lockout when the players and the owners could not agree on a collective bargaining agreement. For these 18 plus weeks, players were shut out of team training facilities and restricted from seeing team doctors or communicating with coaches. When the league finally resumed, there was a four-fold increase in achilles tendon ruptures in the first month of competition. On average, there are 6-10 achilles tendon ruptures during a regular NFL season. During this rapid return to training there were 10 achilles tendon ruptures over the first 12 days of training camp, with an additional 2 injuries occurring during preseason. A devastating and career-altering blow, particularly given half the affected athletes were rookies.

Similar findings have been found year after year in pre-season training in professional sports. There is no worse time for injury than in the first few weeks back to proper training after a break.

While we are not all training (nor being paid) at the lofty highs of the US NFL, the risk of injury from returning to training after periods of relative inactivity still holds true… and often an injury can take its toll both physically and emotionally – the last thing anyone wants after a testing 2020.

The purpose of this article is to give you some quick pointers on how you can return to training safely, gradually working your way up to your pre-COVID19 training schedule while successfully minimising the risk of injury.

We set out our three keys to returning to safe training below.

1/ Reduce the intensity – beware of going too hard too early

While it can be soul-destroying, it makes sense that we can’t return to our personal best performance immediately after a period of inactivity as we are not in the same physical condition as before. While it will return quickly, the first session back in the gym should be at half of your previous intensity (ie half the amount of weight you used to lift, and running at half pace). This reduces the chances of injury as the body won’t be put under significant strain. It also allows us to mentally check in with how we feel. From there, we can adjust the intensity accordingly, always working within our success.

2/ Consider frequency – it’s all about the gradual build up

Just like intensity, it takes time to build up our resilience and stamina. It’s a tough (and unrealistic) ask to go from 2 home workouts per week through lockdown to going back to the gym 5 days per week. Ideally, if two workouts a week was your frequency of exercise through lockdown, begin with two workouts at the gym and gradually build up from there.

3/ Include active recovery – to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue

We’re all familiar with that crippling stair climb that follows your first session back in the squat rack. Good pain, right? Well the latest evidence suggests that moving your body in some way is better than having a total rest day with inactivity after that squat session. The idea is to complete a low intensity session with your heart rate just above its normal resting rate. An active recovery session helps to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue by improving blood circulation – which aids recovery. With your return to training, aim to complete an additional active recovery session per week. It comes in many forms; stretching, walking, swimming, yoga or even getting a massage (we promise we’ll have mercy on you!).

With that being said, it is still important to listen to your body and when you feel like a day of complete rest, rest!

The science behind muscle memory

The good news? Your brain remembers what to do.

Although our physical fitness will decrease in periods of little or no activity, the good news is that our brain remembers old mind-body connections from when we were training often (at least someone remembers those golden days!). This allows for muscles to adapt to their old capabilities much faster. Thankfully, the hard work you put in prior to lockdown has ensured that your muscles are in a much better state overall, and it will take less time to get back up to speed.

Better still, when you gain muscle strength and increased fitness from training, you gain more muscle cells. During your COVID-19 exercise break these cells may have become smaller but the more muscle cells and brain connections you had previously, the better your return will be. These two processes in combination allow us to return to our pre-lockdown fitness and strength levels with greater ease.

So let’s get moving – you’ve got this!

If you need some guidance or support during your return to exercise, feel free to get in touch with one of our Osteopaths for some expert advice.

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