Avoid overuse injuries with small challenges

Q: I recently switched to a higher intensity exercise program, but apparently overdid it, because I am still very sore. I don’t want to risk injuring myself but don’t want to miss any of my workouts either. Any ideas?

A: Overtraining is common among exercisers. The desire to lose weight quickly or increase muscle mass, power or strength can lead some to work out too intensely or frequently, or for a longer time than is necessary to achieve results. A “no pain no gain” mindset is risky because the body can handle only so much physical stress before it begins to weaken, setting the stage for injuries, particularly muscle strains and joint problems. This can happen suddenly if the change in routine is extreme, but usually occurs over a period of time when exercise is repeatedly overdone. The best way to see consistent results is to be patient, setting smaller challenges and keeping in mind that getting fit is a step-by-step process. As each milestone is achieved, new challenges can be set. This gives you the opportunity to recognize both strengths and limitations as you go along, so that you can be realistic with goals and the intensity of your workouts.

Some common overuse problems include:

Knee pain. Discomfort can be felt in any area of the knee, and may come and go. Knee pain occurring from simple overuse typically responds well to rest, easing back of the amount of exercise once it is resumed, and avoidance of high-impact activities. Knee pain can also come from using improper form or from suddenly switching to an unfamiliar exercise. If you experience knee pain that does not go away, be sure to have it checked out in order to rule out fractures or other problems that may need tending to. Exercises that use the quadriceps (front of upper thigh) such as lunges and squats or having muscle imbalances such as strong quadriceps and weak hamstrings can bring on problems if over-done or with improper form.

Neck pain. When the body is under stress, such as when lifting weights, the muscles around the neck contract. Improper positioning of the head and neck when performing exercises can also increase neck pain. A common example of this can be seen when performing crunches, where the hands are behind the head and the neck is being pulled forward. Biking with incorrect handlebar height or a seat that is too high or low or with excessive downward tilt can also create neck pain. Running with shoulders hunched can also cause muscle fatigue and strain around the neck and upper back. When lifting weights, look straight ahead rather than turning the head.

Lower back pain. Common causes include weak abdominal and low back muscles, tight hamstrings (back of the upper thigh), and poor exercise technique, such as forgetting to use the legs rather than the back when picking a weight from the floor. The further forward the torso travels, the greater the load on the low back, which increases injury risk. Leaning too far forward when using cardio equipment is another potential contributor to low back pain. Instead, try to stand upright, with shoulders over the hips, which will better engage the glutes, giving you more power with every step, with less strain on the low back. With strengthening exercises that require bending forward, it is best to go only as far as your range of motion will allow without rounding the back. Bending the knees slightly will permit greater range of motion, but again, do so only if able to keep the spinal column in proper alignment. Weight control is vital to avoiding low back pain. The more weight that is carried around the middle, the greater the pull on the low back.

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