It happens every year: after a long winter, the warm and sunny weather inspires people all over New York City to increase their activity levels. While that is a completely natural urge, these sudden increases in physical activity can put you at risk for an overuse or overtraining injury. Those who are suddenly engaging in more exercise are advised to take it slow, says Dr. Adam B. Cohen, a sports medicine expert and orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt.
“People who have not been active all winter are eager to get outside once spring and summer hit, and many of them enthusiastically start running or cycling or playing tennis,” he says. “Those people sometimes learn the hard way that the body needs to build up strength and endurance in order to avoid injury.”
Recovery time matters
Working out or exercising actually causes minor injury to muscles and tissue, Dr. Cohen explains; the body’s reaction is to rebuild and get stronger, but that will only happen if a recovery period is allowed. Abruptly starting a new activity without allowing rest days can cause a lot of pain.
“Typically, I see patients who haven’t run for a while, but have decided they’re going to start running again. They go outside and run a few miles and don’t feel bad, so they run the next day, and they run again the following day — before you know it, they can’t even get out of bed or they have trouble going up and down stairs because they have overdone it.”
Knee injuries are common
Overuse strains and joint injuries from training too hard or jumping into an exercise routine too quickly are the most common reasons patients seek help from an orthopedic doctor, Dr. Cohen says. These types of injuries can affect any area of the body — including the elbow, shoulder, hamstring, and Achilles tendon — but more often than not, they affect the knee.
“The number one injury I see related to overtraining is knee pain — generally speaking, it’s called runner’s knee,” Dr. Cohen says. “This occurs when athletes are training for a competition or someone who hasn’t exercised starts to, and they train beyond their ability to recover.”
Protect yourself against overuse injuries
Dr. Cohen provides these tips to avoiding and preventing injuries from overtraining or overuse:
- Mix it up. Cross-training, or engaging in a variety of different exercises or activities, allows people to get great workouts focusing on different joints and muscle groups, helping them to recover better.
- Warm up. Walk a bit before you run to get the blood flowing through the body and to the muscles, which will prevent injury.
- Stretch. While it’s not necessary prior to a run (stretching too much when not warmed up can actually impact performance), it’s a great idea to incorporate flexibility training into your routine as an activity. “Once or twice a week, spend a half hour doing yoga or Pilates — they’re activities that get your muscles and joints in ideal condition so when you do exercise or go running, your body is more efficient. Gentle stretching following an activity, when your body is already warmed up, is also beneficial,” Dr. Cohen says.
- Frequency, duration and speed: Pick one. The most common ways to vary workouts are how often they are happening, how far or long they go and how fast they are done. “Some people like to increase all three at once, but we tell people that you only want to increase any one of those at any one time,” Dr. Cohen says.
Treat injuries with RICE
If you feel muscle or joint pain, the classic RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) should help. At the first twinge of pain, Dr. Cohen recommends rest. “Your body is telling you something, and you need to listen to it. That means stopping the activity,” he says. Ice and compression can also help, as can over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. If these methods do not help relieve the pain, it’s important to call your doctor or orthopedist to get it checked out. Physical therapy may also be prescribed to help with rehabilitation.
To make an appointment with a sports medicine specialist, call 1-855-411-LWNY (5969) or visit the Mount Sinai Roosevelt Orthopedics and Sports Medicine website.