Thinking of starting a new physical activity program or ramping up your current training routine? If so, you may be at risk of an overuse injury — which could ultimately prevent you from being active. Find out what can cause an overuse injury and how to safely increase your activity level.
Common causes of overuse injury
An overuse injury is any type of muscle or joint injury, such as tendinitis or a stress fracture, that's caused by repetitive trauma. An overuse injury typically stems from:
- Training errors. Training errors can occur when you take on too much physical activity too quickly. Going too fast, exercising for too long or simply doing too much of one type of activity can strain your muscles and lead to an overuse injury.
- Technique errors. Improper technique also can take its toll on your body. If you use poor form as you do a set of strength training exercises, swing a golf club or throw a baseball, for example, you may overload certain muscles and cause an overuse injury.
Risk factors for overuse injury
Although an overuse injury can happen to anyone, you may be more prone to this type of injury if you have certain medical conditions. Overuse injuries are also more likely to occur as you get older — especially if you don't recognize the impact aging can have on your body and modify your routine accordingly.
For these reasons, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a new activity or ramping up your current routine. Your doctor may offer tips to help make physical activity safer for you. If you have a muscle weakness in your hip, for example, your doctor may show you exercises to address the problem and prevent knee pain.
Avoiding overuse injury
Most overuse injuries are avoidable. To prevent an overuse injury:
Use proper form and gear. Whether you're starting a new activity or you've been playing a sport for a long time, consider taking lessons. Using the correct technique is crucial to preventing overuse injuries.
Also make sure you wear proper shoes for the activity. Consider replacing your shoes for every 250 to 500 miles you walk or run — or at least twice a year if you regularly exercise.
Pace yourself. If you're starting a new fitness program, avoid becoming a weekend warrior. Compressing your physical activity for the week into two days can lead to an overuse injury.
Instead, aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. If you don't have time for a full 30 minutes, you can break it down into smaller blocks of activity throughout the day. It's also a good idea to take time to warm up before physical activity and cool down afterward.
- Gradually increase your activity level. When changing the intensity or duration of a physical activity, do so gradually. For example, if you want to increase the amount of weight you're using while strength training, increase it by no more than 10 percent each week until you reach your new goal.
Mix up your routine with cross-training. Instead of focusing on one type of exercise, build variety into your fitness program. Incorporating a variety of low-impact activities — such as walking, biking, swimming and water jogging — can help prevent overuse injuries by allowing your body to use different muscle groups and not overload any one particular group.
And be sure to include strength training for the major muscle groups in your arms, legs and core at least twice a week.
Recovering from overuse injury
If you suspect that you have an overuse injury, consult your doctor. He or she will likely ask you to take a break from the activity that caused the injury, but you may be able to perform alternative training as long as it does not stress the involved body part.
Be sure to tell your doctor if you've recently made changes in your workout technique, intensity, duration, frequency or types of exercises. Identifying the cause of your overuse injury will help you correct the problem and avoid repeating it.
When you think the overuse injury has healed, ask your doctor to check that you've completely regained strength, motion, flexibility and balance before beginning the activity again. When you return to your activity, pay special attention to proper technique to avoid future injuries.
Playing it safe
Don't allow an overuse injury to prevent you from being physically active. By working with your doctor, listening to your body and pacing yourself, you can avoid this common setback and safely increase your activity level.