Your best bet, of course, is to prevent injuries from happening in the first place. We asked three experts—R. Alexander Creighton, chief of sports medicine at the University of north Carolina; Jonathan L. Chang, clinical associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Southern california; and Tim McAdams, team physician for the San Francisco 49ers—to offer the most common career-ending injuries and give us their best advice on how to prevent them.
–By Taylor Kubota
This frictionless cartilage at the ends of your bones is extremely hard to replicate. “Once you injure that, we do not have a very good way to put you back the way you were before,” says Creighton. An imperfect repair can lead to arthritis, recurrent swelling and catching-and-locking-type symptoms.
The fix: Keeping off extra pounds and working out daily is the best—and only reliable—way to lessen your chances of articular cartilage problems. Also, beware of supposed protective supplements like chondroitin, since they often don’t work. “My opinion is the marketing has outpaced the science,” says McAdams.
About 50 percent of people over the age of 65 have some kind of rotator cuff tearing, and it’s seen by many experts as a natural part of aging. Painful tears can sometimes be addressed with physical therapy, but if surgery is required, it is an operation with a fairly high success rate.
Surgery and physical therapy are both successful ways to address this injury, but it can still be devastating. “Although the operation is not that difficult, it’s quite an extended rehabilitation for which full recovery may not be possible in some cases,” says Chang. A six- to nine-month recovery time—Kobe Bryant’s was more than seven months—is fairly standard.
The fix: This one is hard to prevent because most people who tear their Achilles tendon have no prior symptoms. Genetics and activity level are big factors, but cross-training with elements of yoga, biking or running may help.
These strains and tears are common in sports with lots of cutting movement, like soccer. If they aren’t aggravated, they usually repair themselves. People generally feel better after two to three weeks of recovery time, but they should wait more like four to six. If they don’t, they can end up with lingering pain for many months or even a year.
The fix: Flexibility will be a big help in avoiding this one, especially as people get older. Basic foam-roller stretches are probably going to give the best results.
Like hamstring tears, the main reason elbow tendonitis is on this list is because it’s frustrating. Although you can start to feel better pretty quickly, an important part of recovery is to progress back to your activities slowly. So don’t go play a full round of golf as soon as the pain is gone.
The fix: A good way to keep from getting tendonitis is to steer clear of any heavy lifting where your arms are positioned far away from your body. Exercises like that put too much stress on your elbow and shoulder. Gentle stretching can also help ease elbow pain.
Although this isn’t a common injury for everyday athletes, the groin pull is a brutal one. Once someone gets a groin strain, it can become chronic—an injury you never quite shake.
The fix: Flexibility is key. Start with hip stretches and then work on strengthening your core, which can also decrease the risk of groin strain. Using an ab wheel or doing planks are recommended over classic sit-ups because those can put unnecessary stress on your back.
Every year about 200,000 people tear their anterior cruciate ligament, leading to some 100,000 reconstructive surgeries. This injury will take you out for about six months or more and, after surgery, as many as one in 20 people suffer another rupture. People with repaired ACLs are also at greater risk of injuring their other knee.
The fix: Hamstring, quad and calf exercises and stretches have long been advised but may not be enough. “Now we’re realizing it’s much more than that, in terms of the control of the knee coming from the hip and the core,” says McAdams. He specifically advises hamstring curls, leg presses and hip abductor strengthening.
Join the training circuit: In one study, dieting women who did Fitness routines that combined aerobic and strengthening exercises shed up to 11 pounds in 10 weeks — and most of that was fat.
The moves: Do 30 seconds of cardio (such as jumping jacks), then 30 seconds of strength-training moves (like squats or push-ups); repeat 15 times.
Pausing to do yoga — even at your office desk — can help ease tension, reports an australian study.
The moves: Try side bends (with arms overhead and hands together, bend gently from your waist) and forward bends (reach for the floor).
Bonus: To target neck and shoulder tension, reach over your head with your right arm, hold your left ear, and gently draw your neck toward your right shoulder; hold for 10 breaths, then switch sides, says psychologist and yoga instructor Rachel Allyn, Ph.D.
“Like muscle, your skeleton needs to be stressed to stay strong,” says nutrition and exercise physiology professor Pamela Hinton, Ph.D.
The move: Jump! The impact signals bones to become stronger, says Hinton. As few as 10 jumps each day may bolster your spine and hips.
Bonus: Add jumps in different directions or on just one leg, since bones can become desensitized to repetitive motions. For upper-body protection, do a push-up between each pair of jumps.
Strengthen your core. Try trunk-balancing exercises twice weekly for 15 minutes, say researchers.
The moves: 1. Kneel on a pillow with arms 90 degrees out to the side. Comfortably twist upper body, head, and arms to the right; hold for 30 seconds. Repeat twice for each side.
2. Start on all fours, with back flat. Extend your right arm forward and your left arm back so they’re parallel to the floor. After a minute, switch sides.
Bonus: To add a challenge to the first move, close your eyes.
The best way to train your ticker in a short time is with cardio intervals, which alternate intense bursts of exercise with periods of moving at a more relaxed pace, says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., a professor and the chair of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
The move: If cycling, pedal hard for 60 seconds, keeping your pace up so you can say only a few words before getting out of breath. Then let up for 60 seconds, cycling slowly. If jogging, go at a quick clip for 60 seconds, then walk for 60. Repeat seven times.
Bonus: Make a playlist of songs that pump you up. Listening to favorites may help you disconnect from the discomfort. Also, research from the U.K. and Germany suggests jamming out to music you like can make time seem to pass more quickly.
If you want to see serious improvements in your Fitness level, you have to push your body to the limit—then do it again. The processes that makes your muscles feel sore also strengthens them, and being winded trains your body to better conserve oxygen.
Though pushing your physical boundaries is healthy, pushing them too far can be dangerous and debilitating. The key is to know when you’re overdoing it. Dr. Christopher Kaeding, professor of orthopedics at Ohio State University and head team physician for the Buckeyes, offers some insight.
Being out of breath during exercise is standard, but this common characteristic of working out can also indicate when you’re overdoing it. “When you take a break or pause, your panting should slow down within 60 seconds,” says Kaeding. In most cases, being unable to catch your breath means you pushed yourself too hard. If you’re experiencing additional symptoms—worsening shortness of breath, swelling in your feet and ankles, high fever, cough and chills, blue lips or fingertips, or wheezing—you may want to consult with your doctor, as these could be signs of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.
Any irregular chest pain experienced during exercise should be taken seriously. Chest discomfort can be indicative of a heart attack or angina—a blockage in the blood vessels of the heart that reduces blood and oxygen flow to the heart. Not all chest pain is the same, it can feel like burning, stabbing, tightness or achiness. If you’re experiencing chest or heart pain when you work out, you should talk about it with a medical professional right away.
It should be pretty obvious that throwing up after or during exercise is not a desirable result. “I’m not saying that if you push yourself so hard you throw up, you’ve done damage,” says Kaeding, “but I always think that’s a pretty good sign you may want to reassess how hard you’re pushing yourself.”
Getting nauseous or light-headed from your workout can indicate that you’re dehydrated or experiencing heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion can be treated with rest in a cool place, but, if ignored, can lead to heat stroke, which can cause brain damage, organ damage and death.
Exercising while sick is not always ill-advised. It might not be easy, but going for a run when your symptoms are situated above the neck and you’re fever-free may actually make you feel a little better. However, if you have a fever, you need to cool your jets. “If you’re febrile, if you’re over 100 degrees—definitely over 100.5 or so—you should not work out. You put yourself at some risk for viral myocarditis,” says Kaeding. Viral myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle and can be fatal. Evidence suggests that exercising while feverish increases a person’s risk of developing this dangerous disorder, as well as dehydration and overheating.
Sore muscles are to be expected after a quality workout. You may also experience some joint soreness during your workout or 20 to 30 minutes after. Beyond that, you may want to be more cautious. “If the next morning, you’re having joint pain that you can attribute or associate to your workout or activity the day before, you’ve probably pushed it too hard,” says Kaeding. Also, if the soreness is getting in the way of normal daily functioning—like going to the bathroom or putting on a shirt—you should give it some rest.
If you’re working out responsibly, you should see your performance improve or at least stay the same. If you notice your performance dropping or you feel especially exhausted by your usual workout, you might be overtraining. Kaeding says this is difficult to evaluate—some researchers are even trying to create blood tests for it—so the best thing to do for now when your performance dips is err on the side of caution and give yourself a break.
In general, doing exercises with proper form is going to give you the best results. When you’re working out, try to focus on quality, not quantity. “If you have to cheat or break form to get another rep or two in, those additional reps are not nearly as beneficial as you think,” says Kaeding. Bad form is a sign that you’ve probably reached your limit and continuing to exercise beyond that makes it more likely that you’ll injure yourself.
If your physical performance is lagging, there is a good chance that you feel a little mentally off as well. While physical activity is often linked to decreases in depression and anxiety, overtraining can increase depression, irritability and moodiness. A common sentiment amongst athletes who are overtrained is that they lose their competitive spirit and enthusiasm for their sport.
In most cases, exercise can help regulate our sleep cycle. Being active during the day can help us rest easier at night. If you’re overtraining, the opposite may occur. Pushing your body too hard can cause insomnia or oversleeping. A recent study of 27 male triathletes found that those who were put in the overload training group slept for less time and less efficiently than those in the regular workout group. Their sleep habits returned to normal as their workouts tapered off.