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6 Ways to Keep Overuse Injuries From Disrupting Your Workouts

June 10, 2022 - Katie McCallum

Overuse injuries are fairly common, but you may not know exactly when and why these injuries manifest or how to avoid them.

Unlike a broken bone or sprained ankle, which cause immediate pain and can almost always be traced to a specific event, overuse injuries are more subtle. That makes them easier to brush off, at least at first.

Similar to these acute injuries, though, overuse injuries result in pain and can cause frustrating setbacks in your workout routine.

In other words, overuse injuries are something any active adult wants to avoid.

What is an overuse injury?

Overuse injuries develop when joints or muscles get, well, overused — that is, stressed by the load, frequency or repetitiveness of an exercise or activity.

The major types of overuse injuries include:

  • Bursitis – inflammation in the fluid-filled sacs, called bursas, that provide cushion in the joints
  • Tendonitis – irritation and inflammation in a tendon, which connects muscle to bone
  • Stress fracture – tiny cracks that form in bone, typically weight-bearing bones in the lower leg and foot

When any of these injuries develop, they result in irritation, weakness or persistent pain.

They also can have more far-reaching effects.

"In an attempt to avoid movements that cause pain or to compensate for weakness in a joint or muscle, people with overuse injuries often develop maladaptive behaviors that can cause other issues and be hard to unlearn," explains Dr. David Braunreiter, sports medicine specialist at Houston Methodist.

Additionally, continuing to challenge some types of injuries with more exercise can lead to severe consequences. Left untreated, for instance, Achilles tendonitis can lead to Achilles tendon rupture, which almost always requires surgery.

"Any time you have persistent pain — especially if it's localized to a particular joint or muscle and isn't just diffuse, generalized soreness — it's important to get it checked out," recommends Dr. Braunreiter. "A sports medicine doctor can identify the cause and recommend a treatment plan."

Your doctor can also help you understand how to correct the underlying problem that caused your injury so you can avoid repeating it.

Where do overuse injuries occur most frequently?

Overuse injuries can develop just about anywhere in the body, but Dr. Braunreiter says they most commonly occur in the joints you use the most. This includes the:

  • Knees (runner's knee, jumper's knee, IT band syndrome)
  • Legs (shin splints, stress fractures)
  • Feet/heels (Achilles tendonitis, stress fractures)
  • Hips (IT band syndrome, stress fractures)
  • Back (musculature strain, herniated disk)
  • Shoulders (rotator cuff tendonitis, shoulder impingement syndrome)
  • Elbows (tennis elbow)

Which overuse injuries are most common?

The potential sites and types of overuse injuries to be aware of might differ from person to person, since every type of exercise has its own unique demands it asks of the body.

"It's very activity dependent," says Dr. Braunreiter. "Someone who lifts weights is going to be prone to a different set of issues than a runner."

For example, a person trying to increase the weight of their overhead presses may have a higher risk of developing shoulder bursitis, while someone who runs several times a week may be more susceptible to shin splints or runner's knee. (Related: The 6 Most Common Running Injuries & How to Prevent Them)

6 ways to avoid developing an overuse injury

The best way to avoid an overuse injury is to know the exercise errors most likely to cause them. They include:

  • Doing too much too quick
  • Not recovering fully between workouts
  • Performing an activity using improper form
  • A lack of variety in your workout routine

With this in mind, here are tips for staying injury-free from workout to workout:

1. Don't rush things

"Whether it's ramping up the mileage too quickly or over lifting, asking more out of your body than what it's currently capable of is one of the most common ways to develop an overuse injury," warns Dr. Braunreiter.

Yes, you need to challenge your body if you want to run faster or lift heavier, but this isn't a process that should be rushed. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to safely work toward your goal.

You can reduce your risk of overuse injury by following the 10% rule: Increase your workout intensity — distance run, weight lifted — by no more than 10% each week.

2. Make time for active recovery

"If you don't give your body an opportunity to recover and regenerate after heavy workouts, you start to enter the territory of overtraining, which can reduce your physical performance and lead to overuse injuries," explains Dr. Braunreiter.

But exercise recovery doesn't have to mean resting completely.

"There's no harm in being active on a recovery day," says Dr. Braunreiter.

Active recovery is the light activity that can help prevent muscle soreness but doesn't stress your body as much as a heavy workout does.

Examples of active recovery include:

  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Walking
  • Yoga or Pilates
  • Light body weight exercises
  • Stretching

3. Watch your form

When powerful or repetitive movements are performed incorrectly, they increase your risk of overuse injury.

"While running, a lack of proper form can cause rubbing and friction in the joints, which ultimately lead to irritation, inflammation and pain," says Dr. Braunreiter. "For resistance exercise, irritation is usually the result of improperly loading the muscle, or overloading it."

Proper form varies depending on the particular exercise, but here are a few common mistakes people make during almost any workout:

  • Hunching or arching your back
  • Letting your knees turn inward
  • Straining your neck
  • Not engaging your core
  • Flaring your elbows

4. Add variety to your workouts

It's easy for your workout routine to literally become routine. But variety matters.

"You might have a particular activity you really enjoy or a specific training goal in mind, but you still need to pick some different exercises to incorporate in your routine," recommends Dr. Braunreiter. "Variety is really important for reducing your risk of injury."

For starters, doing a different type of exercise — like yoga or Pilates — instead of going for yet another run can help give your legs a chance to recover while still getting in a workout.

Variety can also come in the form of complementary exercises, ones that help engage muscles you don't typically use in your other workouts or challenge your muscles in a different manner. This can help provide more strength and support, giving you better control of your body. (Related: 4 Reasons to Add Strength Training to Your Workout Routine)

"Complementary exercises also help improve your performance," Dr. Braunreiter adds. "For instance, you might make yourself a better runner by building strength in your legs in a different way than would otherwise happen if you just ran every day."

Lastly, when you repeat the same workouts over and over, it's easy to slack off and fall into improper form. Variety can change that.

"If you're lost in the redundancy of your movements and not focused on mechanics, your form can suffer and lead to injury," explains Dr. Braunreiter. "Variety can help you stay engaged in your workouts."

5. Keep a healthy lifestyle

Your body is only as powerful and durable as you develop it — and sleep, nutrition and hydration are critical for that.

Without adequate sleep and hydration, your performance suffers and your risk of overuse injury increases.

"It's well documented that the body's most powerful restorative processes occur when you're asleep and hinge on being well hydrated," adds Dr. Braunreiter.

You also need to fortify your body with nutritious foods. Otherwise, you won't perform or recover as effectively.

"You can't take a Lamborghini to the cheapest gas place and put regular gas in it, and your body operates the same way," adds Dr. Braunreiter. "Regularly eating junk food and processed foods isn't going to do your body any favors."

6. Respect your aging body

Again, while you may refer to it as your workout routine, it's one that needs to adjust with age.

"As you get older, your body needs more time to recover," says Dr. Braunreiter.

You also start to feel the wear and tear that happens over time.

"The cartilage and tendons in our joints don't have the same resilience as an adult that they do when we're younger," explains Dr. Braunreiter. "This makes it such that they can stretch and tear with less stress."

You may even have arthritis or other medical conditions that affect what your workouts should look like.

"Overuse does not cause arthritis, but it may irritate it," says Dr. Braunreiter. "You still want, and need, to be active, but overuse concerns are something to keep at the back of your mind as you plan your workouts."

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