Injuries suck. There’s no getting around that. They limit what you can do to train. They impact your mental health. And, they often find a way to creep into areas of your life that you didn’t even know they could. It’s common for us to hear “I didn’t know how much I used my (insert injured body part) until I injured it!”
While you can work out injured, there are also some factors to keep in mind so you can heal. Sometimes it’s okay to push things and other times a rest day is better. But “listening to your body” can be a difficult thing to do. The body often tells you one thing while your heart tells you something else. How are you supposed to know the difference? It’s complicated – no doubt about that – but here are a few key points to know.
First off, continue to train. Yes, you’ll want to take a day off (that means a full 24 hours) after an injury. But, after that, additional rest is worse for you. Exercise that respects the injury will increase blood flow. Increasing the blood flow to the injured area will help the injury heal faster by rebuilding molecules and providing nutrients while washing out inflammatory chemicals and waste products. Increased blood flow can also give you an endorphin rush. Since an injury is equal parts physical and mental, the endorphin rush is an invaluable part of the healing process.
Continuing to train while injured can be tricky. Being able to determine when something is “too much” versus knowing when you can push yourself can be difficult. Knowing when to step on the gas and when to step on the brake can be very helpful. We call this the “traffic light rule.”
The traffic light rule of thumb is based on the 0-10 scale of pain. 0 is no pain and 10 is pain that warrants a trip to the emergency room. A green light corresponds to a 0-3 (light) pain level. Green means go. It means that all activity within this discomfort level is okay and will not adversely affect the healing process.
Yellow is a 4-5 (moderate) level of pain. Pain at this level should serve as a warning. Pay close attention to what you are doing and consider slowing down or changing the activity. At this level of pain you are not doing any damage or adversely affecting the healing process, but you are getting close.
Anything greater than a 5/10 is a red light. This indicates that the load you are putting on the tissues is too much and that you should stop. If you continue, you will prolong the healing process.
Not everyone likes the 0-10 pain scale and we understand that differentiating between levels can be difficult. If this is you, throw out the pain scale and use words to describe what your body is feeling instead. A mild level of discomfort corresponds to a green light, moderate pain to a yellow light, and pain that is preventing you from doing daily activities to a red light. Stopping at that mild (green) level of discomfort works best in the long run for those with a high pain tolerance.
One important aspect to note is that these pain levels apply during activity, immediately after activity, and 24 hours after activity. If you injure your hamstring and go for a 3 mile run without discomfort, but wake up the next day limping, you did too much. Sometimes, especially with more chronic injuries, it takes awhile for the body to perceive and express pain. That is why it is crucial to wait the full 24 hours to assess how your body tolerated the activity.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss ‘athlete brain’ in this article. Athlete brain is the overwhelming desire to push yourself to see what you can accomplish and to “go for it” – regardless of whether you should or not. Athletes struggle more often with holding themselves back. If you identify with athlete brain and you’re injured, stop and think – Am I doing this workout because I want to right now or because it’s the best thing for my body in the long run?
It’s okay to take a rest day. It’s okay to take two rest days. It’s okay to take an entire week off when you go on vacation. Can resting be hard for someone who has an athlete brain? Overwhelmingly, yes. Separating yourself from the injury can be helpful for those with an athlete brain. You are not your injury. In no way is your worth or your athletic ability based upon whether or not you get the extra workout in or finish the workout that you started. Your long term health and respecting your body’s needs are more important than an individual workout.
When you get that gut feeling that something isn’t the best thing for your body right now, listen. Don’t let your athlete brain convince you it is okay. Odds are, you will regret it. The worst thing that can happen when you take a rest day is that you feel better the next day because you allowed your body to recover and rebuild. And – maybe, just maybe – you’ll even be able to get a better workout in.
In conclusion, continuing to do some form of exercise when you’re injured is crucial, but rest isn’t the enemy. Sometimes rest is exactly what we need. When injured, following the traffic light indicator is a great way to heal while continuing to train. If you’re constantly bouncing back and forth between being limited and not being limited by an injury, it’s time to find an expert to help you no longer be limited in what you can do in the gym.