You may be trail running or playing a game of ultimate frisbee, and a sudden twist or a hard impact can seriously injure your knee. What only takes a second may cost you months in recovery time. Knee injuries are one of the most common and devastating obstacles athletes and fitness enthusiasts face. They limit our performance in physical activities like running and cycling as well as many processes in our daily lives.
Whether you are in the throes of recovering from an injury or you’re simply trying to be prepared, it’s important to have an understanding of how to respond to sports injuries. While it might seem like you’ll be out of the gym for a while, this isn’t necessarily true. Here are several strategies to help you continue a workout regimen when you’re injured as well as a few ways to prevent knee injuries.
Seek Medical Advice
First, it’s important to understand the most common causes of knee pain in order to better assess what measures you’ll need to take in the recovery process. The conditions that cause knee pain include minor sprains, various forms of arthritis, and tears in the cartilage or ligaments surrounding your knee. These can be difficult to diagnose on your own, and a medical professional may need to conduct specialized physical tests as well as an x-ray in order to determine the severity of your injury.
It’s important to consult a doctor because certain injuries require surgical reconstruction for the knee to properly heal. You might also consider working with a physical therapist in order to ensure you maintain an appropriate exercise schedule throughout the healing process. While a minor sprain might heal within a few weeks, more serious conditions such as a torn ligament can take months or longer to return to a relatively normal state.
Work Out While You Heal
Rest is an important part of the recovery process, especially immediately following an injury. However, too much rest can allow your muscles to weaken. Over time, this will increase the pain caused by your knee and contribute to a limited range of motion. This will make it more difficult to begin working out again once you feel confident and can also lead to further injury.
If running is your main form of exercise, whether indoors or outside, you may feel like you have to pause your fitness routine indefinitely. However, there are many exercise options available that can help you to achieve the cardio boost you crave and maintain a healthy lifestyle with minimal impact on your knees. It’s best to avoid exercises like squats, lunges, and any activity that requires jumping, and you should only begin incorporating more intense exercises once a doctor has given their approval.
Depending on your range of motion, swimming can be a great option as it’s a low-impact activity that engages your entire body. You can also try brief, low-intensity sessions on a treadmill or a stationary bike. This can be a safer alternative than walking or biking on a trail, sidewalk, or street where you might encounter uneven surfaces and unexpected obstacles.
Most gyms offer hand bikes, which work much like a stationary bike aside from the fact that you pedal with your hands. This can be an entry-level exercise if you haven’t spent much time building your upper body strength, and you can achieve a similar level of aerobic activity as running without having to put your knees at risk.
You’ll also want to perform exercises focused on building strength in your injured knee. Many of these are simple and can be done at home, though you should introduce any increased effort gradually.
Straight Leg Raises – Lay on your back on the floor with one knee bent and that foot flat on the floor. Keep your other leg straight and slowly lift your straight leg to the height of the opposite knee. Repeat this several times with each leg to build strength in the front of your thigh.
Hamstring Curls – To strengthen the muscles on the back of your thigh, lie on your stomach and lift one heel slowly toward your buttocks. Hold this for several seconds and repeat with each leg. If it is not convenient to lie down, you can also do this exercise while standing by holding the back of a chair.
Calf Raises – To strengthen the muscles in your lower leg, stand behind a sturdy chair or couch and keep your hands on the chair for support. With your toes on the ground, slowly raise your heels as high as you can and lower them. You can also lift one foot off the floor to increase the resistance on the other foot.
While some muscle soreness is common after a workout, know that even these simple exercises can worsen your injury if not done in moderation. If any exercise creates a sudden sharp pain in your knee, you should stop and rest.
While most people who suffer a knee injury will regain full use of their knee, the psychological effects of a sports injury can be just as impactful and long lasting as the injury itself. Even after you’ve recovered physically, the fear that you might re-injure yourself can cause you to hold back or move unnaturally during a run or workout, which can lead to further injury. It is important to keep a positive mindset during the recovery process and understand that the work you put into rebuilding strength will eventually allow you to perform with confidence.
Preventing Knee Injuries
Of course, the best way to deal with knee injuries is to avoid them altogether. Though this isn’t always possible, you can do a few things to increase your chances of preventing injuries. Make sure to stretch and warm-up before exercising in order to prepare your body for activity. Wearing properly fitting and well supported shoes is crucial to maintaining a healthy range of motion and minimizing the damage done by high-impact activities like running and hiking. Staying hydrated is another step to maintaining healthy joints and promoting muscle growth. And when you are building up to more intense exercises, always introduce new levels of difficulty gradually so your body can adjust meet the challenge.
Jesse Johnson is a runner and fitness enthusiast who writes about self-improvement, stress relief, and mindfulness. When he’s not writing, he’s likely playing music or hiking deep in the woods.
photo by binkwilder