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Many of you have been returning to gyms after a nearly two-year hiatus – but resuming your pre-pandemic workouts at full pelt can put you at risk of injury. Here, our go-to PTs and physios share their tips.
When it came to exercising during the (many) lockdowns, people seemingly fell into one of two camps. Some used the opportunity to start running, take up Zoom yoga or tune into a Joe Wicks’ PE lesson. But for the vast majority of us, baking sourdough loaves and watching Tiger King were more appealing ways to pass the time. Becoming less active was understandable — the stress of a global pandemic affected everyone in different ways. But now life has returned to 100mph – you’re likely back in the office, getting your steps up again and moving more – preventing injury is no mean feat.
In a survey by Public Health England, more than 40% of UK adults said they’d gained weight during the pandemic and nearly a third of people believe their general strength and fitness declined, according to the 2021 survey for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and Sport England. You’ll understand, then, why some may be ramping up new fitness routines, or attempting to become more active – risking injury in the process.
For your complete expert-led guide to preventing injury, keep reading, and don’t miss our guides to gym anxiety, reframing negative thoughts, and delayed onset muscle soreness, while you’re here.
Preventing injury: 9 tips from the experts
1. Work backwards
Dean Zweck, PT and Product Development Manager at Total Fitness, recommends deciding on a reasonable goal, setting a timeframe and then working backwards to achieve it, allowing you to build up your fitness gradually. “Identifying where you want to be (and when) will reduce your tendency to start off too fast,” he says.
Need a helping hand? Our guide to goal setting will help.
2. Always warm up first
Before you begin your workout, make sure you activate and mobilise key joints and muscle groups. “Performing targeted activation and mobility exercises before anything more strenuous will warm up your body gently and reduce the risk of injury,” says Phil Evans, Urban Body’s lead physiotherapist. “This is vital as so many of us are sedentary due to the nature of modern work, and our bodies need to wake up before any cardiovascular work can be undertaken safely.”
3. Test yourself
To have a clearer idea of where your fitness is at, test yourself. Zweck explains: “Your fitness levels will have dropped during a period of low activity, so doing a test, such as a Cooper test (a timed 12-minute run) or a 10 rep max test (where you find out the maximum amount of weight you can lift over 10 repetitions), can help you establish a baseline to gauge the level you can safely start back from.”
4. Technique is everything
Having the right technique is essential to prevent injury, so start out with exercises you know you can do well. If you’re not sure, always ask a PT to check you’re training correctly.
Our guide to the most common workout mistakes – and correct techniques – will put you on the right path.
5. Reduce the weight of your equipment
Weight training regularly has been found to reduce your risk of injury – but it’s important that you ease yourself in, if you’re a beginner or haven’t used weights in a while.
“Reduce the weight by around 50% and build it back up slowly so your muscles and joints can adapt,” says Evans. “Increasing the load by around 10% a week should see you back at your pre-lockdown weight by around week six. This gradual increase activates your muscle memory and will allow you to build strength without harming your body. The focus at this stage should be on exercise form, meaning fewer reps.”
6. Move slower
It’s also a good idea to do your exercises more slowly. “Completing your exercises with more control will not only add more strength quicker but will also protect the tendons,” says Zweck. “A good rule of thumb is to take 1-2 seconds to lift the weight on any exercise, and then 2-3 seconds to lower it.”
Zweck adds: “Not every set needs to be pushed to the limit. Stopping your exercise with the feeling that you could have done another couple of reps is a great way to still get benefits and prevent injury.”
7. Workout less frequently at first
Allowing yourself rest days and recovery time is always important, but especially when you’re getting back into exercise after a break.
Evans explains: “Reducing your normal number of sessions from five to three per week when you’re just starting back will actually help you respond to your workouts better. Our bones, muscles and tendons require between 48 and 72 hours to recover from loading, especially after running and jumping. Three sessions a week will give your tissues time to adapt to the increase in load and help to prevent injury.”
8. Condition your body for your chosen activity
It’s important to incorporate strength exercises that replicate the activity you want to do into your routine. “We often neglect the fact that we put our bodies under a lot of stress and you need the strength and joint stability to tolerate these forces,” says Mani Matharu, specialist MSK physiotherapist and Clinical Director at LDN Physio. “Spend some time on maintaining joint flexibility and improving your balance, which really help with sports that have a lot of dynamic movements.”
Similarly, when it comes to the gym, Evans recommends practising an exercise using your body weight before lifting. “This will allow your muscles to stretch in the correct way and help activate the relevant muscles,” he says. “For example, if you are about to do some weighted squats, start with some body weight squats and gradually increase the weight as your body allows.”
9. Listen to your body
Finally, one of the best things you can do to prevent injury in sport is to listen to your body. “You will no doubt ache a bit at first, but take it each day as it comes and your body will get used to it,” says Matharu. “Being out for a while means getting back into the swing of things, but it will get easier.”
Preventing injury never looked so easy.
Why am I getting injured so frequently?
“During lockdown, people were unable to participate in their regular sporting activities and they lost their sport-specific fitness, having a significant impact on their bodies with the loss of muscle, strength and stamina,” says Evans, who has previously worked with Team GB athletes. “We’ve certainly noticed an increase in return-to-sport injuries.”
Matharu has also seen a spike in injuries. “We are creatures of habit,” he says. “Disruption to our routine (which happened each time we locked down) can have poor effects on our health.”
So if you’ve noticed your fitness nosedive since 2020, you’re in very good company and mustn’t beat yourself up about it. With the right approach, you’ll be back to your old routines in no time. The trick is to stay in tune with where your body is at – that is, practice mindful movement – and to regain your fitness while preventing an injury in sport.
What puts me at risk of injury?
Good question. As we go back to our favourite classes and gym workouts, it’s dangerous to think we can pick up where we left off. “When we fail to consider our current ability and try to complete the same workouts that we had done previously, we increase our risk of injury in sport,” says Zweck.
Personal trainer and online coach Shazia Hossen agrees. “We have been very carefully programming our training programmes to avoid jumping from under-training to over-training,” she says. “However, many of us have opted to go straight into a dense regime in a bid to make up for lost time, which has invited a world of injuries.
This is because our soft tissues, including our muscles, tendons and ligaments, are more vulnerable to injury after a break from exercise. “A combination of poor technique and the use of weights that are too heavy for us exposes the body to soft tissue injury like minor pulls,” says Zweck. “Our lower back and knees are also exposed, causing some people to experience pain in these areas.”
Hossen says she’s seen a range of general muscle strains and sprains, rotator cuff injuries and shin splints. But both Evans and Zweck note that the majority of injuries they’ve seen recently have been strained tendons. These are classic return-to-sports injuries, as they are caused by overuse and doing too much too soon.
“Lifting too much weight too often can cause conditions such as Jumper’s Knee (injury to the patella tendon) and Golfer’s/Tennis Elbow (strain to the tendons around the elbow),” says Zweck. “Other common injuries when people get back to the gym are Achilles’ tendonitis and plantar fasciitis, which affect the heel and the arch of the foot and are seen when people increase the volume of running too quickly.”
Your guide to preventing injury? Sorted.