Four ideas on dealing with injuries during training

My friends. But they don't care if I'm injured.

My friends. But they don’t care if I’m injured.

Tell me you’ve heard this one before…

You’re training hard, working toward a specific goal. Things are going great, progressing nicely, and then it hits: An injury.

Now what?

I’ve faced this a bunch over the years. A cranky back, tweaked neck, wonky shoulders and sprained ankles. Last spring it was a tweaked hamstring, and there have been elbow, wrist and foot problems, to boot.

Last week, it was something else.

I’ve been working hard on building strength for the past couple of months, dialing back my running and pushing hard in the weight room. I still run, but less frequently and shorter distances. The bike has taken over some workouts where running used to be.

But a little over a week ago, I was doing a deadlift workout and tweaked my right trapezius muscle. The trapezius is a long back muscle that starts at the top of your neck, widens and thickens on your upper back, and runs down the side of your spine.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

It is a crucial muscle in any lift where a hip-hinge movement is involved, and if it’s freaking out, you’ll know it every time you get out of bed, turn your head or try to pick something up.

I did a lot of rehab exercises to try to work out the kinks, but by late last week, it was still angry. The workout I had planned included Romanian deadlifts – a great hamstring and glute move that also works the back, and therefore, the trapezius. Additionally, I’d also be lifting a barbell off the floor to the front squat position for another exercise. Same deal, and my back was saying no.

The rest of my body was fine. But one ticked-off muscle can throw you for a loop.

I ended up doing two things. First, I modified that day’s workout to a lighter-weight circuit that included back squats, calf raises and reverse lunges. Six rounds of that, with minimal stress on the traps. Second, I skipped the next day’s shoulder workout entirely and just ran trails.

By Saturday, I was good to go for another deadlift workout (which also included farmer’s walks, cable pulls and pull-ups, all of which recruit the trapezius). I slayed that workout.

There are some important lessons here, and to be frank, sometimes you have to learn this the hard way, like me. Whether you’re training to get strong, for a long-distance race, or preparing for a major physical challenge (say, climbing a mountain), injuries are going to happen.

How do you handle them? Here are some ideas:

Sometimes you have to suck it up and train through it, but work around the problem. Not every injury requires you to shut it down and wait it out. Think it through and find ways to keep up your training without aggravating the problem. What I described above is a good example. Another: runners facing roadblocks can hop on a bike or swim for their conditioning needs until their bodies are well enough to hit the road.

Many injuries are caused by overuse and imbalances. These in turn put undue stress on others parts of your body, leading to injury. Diagnose that, and find ways to train those weak areas so other parts of your body aren’t overcompensating for the weakness and leaving you sidelined. For runners, “dead-butt syndrome” is a perfect example (lack of glute strength). Many lifters suffer from shoulder impingements (poor postural alignment, or underdeveloped back musculature are common there). The fixes are simple, but they will take time. Commit to it.

Your “form” in your training sucks. Fix it. So many runners I know pound their knees into oblivion by hard heel-striking. Others bounce too much, putting a ton of stress on the Achilles tendons. In strength training, poor form – especially on compound exercises, Olympic lifts and explosive movements – lead to potentially serious problems (and don’t get me started on doing these lifts in a fatigued state). My ongoing back issues can be traced back to piss-poor squat form over a decade ago that left me injured. I’ve had to work on that diligently to keep myself from getting hurt again. Proper form in any athletic pursuit mitigates injury. It’s usually pride that keeps people from fixing the problem, and ultimately leads the prideful to the sidelines, bemoaning a fate that could have been avoided.

Sometimes, you really do need to stop and heal. Injuries happen. If you rip your knee up, wrench your shoulder, suffer a stress fracture or hurt your back, there may not be enough chiro work, at-home rehab, Ibuprofen, inner toughness or other tricks to keep you moving forward. When that happens, you need rest, time to heal, and a plan for rehab and recovery. Whether it’s something as relatively minor as an ankle sprain before a big race or something major like a blown disk or ligament/muscle tear, there are definitely times when you need to swallow your pride, shut it down and get well.

If you're like me, you don't want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

I was fortunate that I knew what I could and couldn’t do in terms of what was a minor physical setback, but one that was big enough to potentially derail my training. I could do my squats; but the overhead presses the next day? Nope. And it all worked out in the end.

Bob Doucette


Injuries: Dealing with one angry muscle

One little muscle.

Well, not that little. But it’s just one. You’d be shocked, however, at the amount of work that thing does, and how little you can do when it’s injured.

I’m talking about the trapezius. You have two of them, one on each side of your upper back, running from the base of your skull, down the spine, and flaring out toward your shoulder joint. The trapezius helps you lift things over your head, stabilizes your neck and head, and it an integral player any time your pick something up from the ground.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

So I hurt mine about a month ago. I’m not sure, how, but I think it happened while performing a barbell complex exercise, and the poor thing got overtaxed, freaked out, and stayed tight as a drum for weeks. It’s just now getting better. But I learned a lot about how critical this muscle is to a lot of simple functions.

First off, the injury. Yuck. It made turning my head to the left very iffy and stiff. It’s a residual thing from my martial arts days, when my neck would get cranked when grappling. Every now and then it wants to act up again.

The good news is the injury did not stop me from running. It did slow me down some — any aggravated muscle will do that to you. Injuries tend to tax you all over, I suppose.

But the list of weightlifting exercises I couldn’t do for three weeks is rather lengthy.

No bench press. No incline presses. No deadlifts. No barbell back squats. Even things like tricep cable push-downs and chin-ups flared it up, as did a number of other, seemingly innocuous lifts you wouldn’t think included much use of the ole traps. Boy, was I wrong.

So what did I do for three weeks? I found substitute exercises and otherwise backed off.

Here are some examples…

Instead of barbell back squats, I did the leg press. No weight on the shoulders, but still some work for the thighs and glutes. I was also able to do a lot of light single-leg dumbbell moves (single-leg Romanian deadlifts, lunges), and goblet squats were still OK.

Instead of bench presses and incline presses (which were totally out), I used a seated chest press and did pec-deck flies. Not the best subs, but it was something. And it didn’t aggravate my neck.

Instead of cable push-downs, I did light single-arm triceps extensions with lots of reps. Again, not ideal. But you do what you can.

Some exercises were completely unaffected. I had no problems working biceps and calves, for example. Others, though, were just out. No barbell deadlifts, no pull-ups or chin-ups (though cable lat pulls were OK), and no isolating shoulder moves at all. And forget planking and push-ups. Face-down on a horizontal plane just means the traps had to work that much harder to keep my head stable, and my neck was having none of that.

Most importantly, though, was this one simple trick: I backed off. I knew I could run and do some lifts, but doing all the biggies had to go away for awhile until that muscle chilled out. So between the rest or light work, there was a lot of foam-rolling, postural exercises and rest.

And it worked. I’m back to a normal routine again, my left trapezius is calm, and I can turn my head to check traffic when I’m out on a run or just driving without having to turn my whole body.

So the bottom line is this: If you injure a muscle, don’t push through. Figure out what aggravates it and stop doing that. Give it time to heal. If rest isn’t enough, then maybe professional help is needed. But for the most part, a little TLC and some down time is what your body needs.

Bob Doucette