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.
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.
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.
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.