By Michael Krueger
Anyone who has trained for any amount of time has experienced discomfort before, during, or after a workout. When you are new to training, this sensation may concern you or you may just ignore it, thinking that it is simply the price you pay for finally working out.
Discomfort really isn’t anything to be concerned about, but pain is. At times, the difference may be subtle and difficult to differentiate. If you don’t learn to tell the two apart, you are either not going to progress because you are afraid that you will hurt yourself, or you really are going to hurt yourself very badly and not progress because you are unable to train.
Learn the differences, and listen to your body; with a little luck, you may avoid both pitfalls.
“Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” (DOMS) is the discomfort that arrives 24 to 48 hours after a hard workout that lets you know you’ve accomplished something. It’s caused by micro tears in your muscles that your body will quickly repair during your rest and recovery. There is no reason to fear DOMS; it’s perfectly normal.
I go a bit against conventional wisdom in that I feel there is little reason you can’t train while still a little sore. This is a personal choice, but if you bring it up among experienced lifters, you will get an earful of opinions. Some say that you should be completely recovered before returning for your next session, while others feel that if you can do your workout in your normal manner then you are recovered enough, so get to it.
My opinion is just that, my opinion. You need to see how your body responds and follow the direction it takes you. It doesn’t matter how someone else’s body recovers, only yours.
Seemingly minor injuries are the worst. This is because in reality there is no such thing as a minor injury. An injury implies damage, and if you try to train through damage, you will just become more damaged until you cannot train at all.
It’s possible to train around an injury, but it’s very difficult. The reason for this is that your body works best as one unit. If you injure your leg, you may be able to train your upper body, but a lot of accommodation is required. If you can’t use your leg, how do you get around the gym? How do you stabilize yourself while standing? How do you maintain correct posture? A leg injury will affect the way you stand and your weight distribution, so any lift you do standing will have a certain amount of dysfunction attached to it. This is a sure recipe for creating an imbalance that will probably cause another injury somewhere else.
If you injure your hand, you can probably work legs and core and continue to do cardio. This, of course, depends on the type of injury, how proficient you are at core work, what type of cardio you normally do, and whether you have someone who can assist you as needed. Sometimes, rather than getting involved in “work-arounds,” it’s best to just admit you are hurt, take some time off, and plan on coming back stronger after the injury has healed.
It’s also important to understand how and why you got injured. The usual suspects are poor form, too much weight, bad programming, and previous injuries that were improperly treated. You’ll frequently hear someone say that they have a “bad back” or a “trick knee” or some other allusion to a previous injury, which has since become a chronic problem. While some injuries can be so devastating that they do have a permanent effect on your health, fitness, and training, you can avoid the long-term effects of most injuries if you take the proper remediation. Allowing time for healing, proper rehabilitation, and a reasonable timetable for getting back into the game are absolute necessities. It’s important to address any injury caused weaknesses before you begin any hardcore progressive training. You can’t get strong if you are partially broken.
Finally, if you have a chronic injury problem, it’s important to get assessed by a physical therapist or an athletic trainer. Both can prescribe rehabilitative exercises to get you back to normal. Firefighting is obviously a physically demanding profession, so it’s important to identify and treat anything that may cause your functionality to be less than optimal.
Metabolic Systemic Injury
I use “Metabolic Systemic Injury” to indicate problems that don’t arise from trauma but affect your performance nonetheless. These problems arise from poor diet and poor recovery.
I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it: You cannot train through a poor diet. If you don’t properly fuel your body for performance, you can’t perform up to your potential. If you don’t eat for recovery, you will not have the nutrients needed to repair the damage you’ve done while training.
A diet lacking in protein, good carbohydrates, and quality fats will leave you unhealthy and unable to train up to your potential. Have you ever tried to train after a night of eating garbage foods like processed carbs and saturated fats and drinking sugary drinks or alcohol? It’s a most unpleasant experience. Not only doesn’t it feel well in the moment, it hurts to know that after all the hard work you’ve done, you’ve slowed your progression, set back your timetable to achieving your goals, and ignored your commitment to your higher self. What’s done is done; now you simply have to suffer through it and resolve not to do it again.
Nutrition is the most important part of training. If you don’t know how to eat for performance and recovery, then learn.
Firefighters are notorious for not getting enough sleep. I know that calls can come at any time of the day or night and that it is just the nature of the job. But, what about the days that you aren’t on duty?
We Americans love our television, computers, and phones. We stare at them at all hours. We play with them. We can’t live without them. What do they do for us? Well, they keep us connected in all sorts of ways–some good and important and some not so much. When it comes to our sleep, though, they also mess with our circadian rhythms and our production of melatonin, and they simply keep us up and distracted when we should be sleeping.
The screens on our electronic devices put out a bandwidth of light that affects our brains and interferes with the processes necessary to fall asleep. The mental and emotional stimulation we get from interacting with our devices also ramps us up and prevents us from relaxing and falling asleep.
We need to sleep to heal. Our body can’t repair itself if we don’t sleep. Our brains will malfunction if we don’t sleep. Some people claim to be able do just fine on very little sleep and that may be true, but how do they know? Perhaps they would be absolute dynamos if they got eight hours of sleep every night.
There are many factors that may interfere with your sleep. I know your job is one and your family may be another. But, binge watching TV shows or playing video games shouldn’t be one of them. So shut off the electronics and go to sleep.
The Whole Picture
Odds are, you will get injured at some point in your life. It may be in the gym, on the playing field, or fighting a fire. How it happens only matters inasmuch as you need to understand how you may prevent it from happening again.
No matter the cause, the prescription for recovery is the same: rest, rehab, and nutrition. It’s funny how if you follow the prescription for recovery even when you’re not injured, you may prevent a great many injuries from ever occurring.
So, address issues before they become problems, don’t ignore little tweaks until they become debilitating injuries, eat well, and get plenty of sleep
… sounds like a pretty good lifestyle to me.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]