How to Get Back Into Working Out After an Injury

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You’ve finally found a fitness routine that feels great, body and mind. You’re staying consistent and seeing progress, whatever that means for you. Then it happens: Suddenly or slowly, you get hurt and have to spend some time on the sidelines.

If movement is a vital part of your life, injuries that take you away from it can be physically and mentally tough. Trust me, I know—I’m a recreational runner who’s dealt with everything from knee pain to stress fractures. The topic is such an important one to me that I cowrote a book (Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries) and cohost a podcast (The Injured Athletes Club) on it.

The emotional challenges of sports and fitness injuries—a shaken sense of identity, a loss of community, a disruption in your normal stress-coping mechanisms, and a fear of getting hurt again, among others—make the process of resuming your routine even more fraught and uncertain. But while every person and injury is different, there are some common principles to guide you back to play. Follow them, and you just might find yourself in a better spot than where you started.

1. Get official clearance to start back up again.

Even if you don’t think your injury is that serious, it’s a good idea to get some personalized advice on managing both your recovery and your return, Meghan Bishop, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon in New Jersey, tells SELF. This will help you determine an approximate timeline for recovery, as well as help you figure out what might have caused your injury in the first place—so you can both address underlying causes and ease back in safely, she says.

Your “hype squad” can include medical pros in a variety of fields, including sports medicine, physical therapy, personal training, sports dietetics, and mental health therapy, Amanda Katz, a certified personal trainer and running coach in New York City, tells SELF. These pros can offer individualized guidance on the types of movement you can and should be doing as you heal to promote recovery and prepare for your return to your main activity.

Exactly where to begin and how quickly to ramp back up depends on a wide variety of factors—the nature of your injury, how long you’ve been away, and how much stress you’re under, for instance. That’s one reason it’s super helpful to get individualized advice, rather than rely on generalized tips on social media, Katz says.

Of course, lots of people face barriers to accessing physical or mental health care—costs can be high, even with insurance, and quick appointments can be hard to come by. But investing as much time and cash as you can, even if it’s seeing a doctor or PT for an appointment or two, can prevent you from developing a bigger (and more expensive) problem later on, she says.

2. Track your pain…

Listening to your body can be tricky when you’re coming back from an injury. You might wonder: Is that niggle normal or a cry for help? “When you’re injured, your brain has gone into a protective mode,” certified mental performance consultant Carrie Jackson, my podcast cohost and book coauthor, tells SELF. “You’re often hyper-tuned into every sensation you feel in [that] part of your body.”

To keep tabs on your pain without freaking out, Jackson recommends keeping a pain log. Each time you feel something, make a note of when it happened, where it happened, how severe on a scale of 1 to 10, and notes about the quality (for instance, if it was sharp, stabbing, aching, or throbbing). Share this with your medical team for advice on how to handle each type of pain—or, even better, talk with them beforehand about what you might expect to feel and how to know when it’s a problem.

3. …And learn to tease out “normal sore” from “big problem.”

Starting back up again probably won’t be completely discomfort-free: In general, some soreness is normal as you restart exercises you haven’t done for a while. This could include some minor sensations at the site of your injury or a more general ache in the other muscles involved in your workout.

What you want to look out for is pain that starts before your session—either lingering from your last routine or just due to daily activities—and carries into the next day or beyond, Dr. Bishop says. Also keep an eye out for swelling in the previously injured area, which is usually due to inflammation. Both are signs you might be pushing it a little too hard and need more time to heal.

Also, watch for discomfort that changes how you move. “If pain is causing you to compensate in other areas and walk differently or do any of your exercises differently, then it’s probably not healed yet and you could potentially injure something else,” Dr. Bishop says. For instance, if you’re limping because your hip hurts when you run, you could wind up putting extra pressure on the wrong part of your foot; if ankle pain is messing with your squat form, you might wind up with aching knees.

4. Practice patience.

Resist the urge to pick up where you left off before the injury. “You don’t want to do too much too soon,” Dr. Bishop says. “The goal is to be able to ease your way back into activities over a period of a few weeks.” This means dropping the amount of weight you’re lifting, the number of reps and sets, the mileage and pace of your runs, and the frequency and duration of your workouts. Then increase them gradually, Dr. Bishop says.

Again, your hype squad can give you a more personalized framework for this progression. But one good rule of thumb is not to add back volume (the amount you’re working out) and intensity (how hard you’re doing it) at the same time, Dr. Bishop says. Stagger it so that one week, for example, you’re adding an extra 20-minute workout; the next week, you might add more weight or faster intervals.

5. Get serious about cross-training.

Yes, you’re thrilled you get to go back to what you love. But, no, it shouldn’t be the only thing you do: It’s so, so important to cross-train, Dr. Bishop says. This simply just refers to any activity different from your main exercise (say, cycling if you’re a runner, swimming if you’re a cyclist, or walking if you’re a weightlifter).

Cross-training can build your base of strength and endurance while getting your body moving in different ways and directions. You can prevent future injuries by counteracting some of the wear and tear of repetitive modalities like running and cycling, and you can also explore alternative forms of movement if they do occur and you’re sidelined from your main mode again. Consider building in at least one or two cross-training workouts a week. But make sure you schedule plenty of rest days to give your body time to absorb all the hard work you’re doing too, Katz says.

6. And make time for strength training.

Strength training promotes recovery and can reduce your risk of getting hurt again. Take injuries like tendinitis and tendinopathy: “Tendons need to be loaded to be able to heal,” Dr. Bishop says. “You can’t necessarily just rest during this time.” Otherwise, when you get back to your routine, the pain is likely to return. Strength and mobility exercises prescribed by a doctor or PT can also address any underlying tightness, imbalance, or other biomechanical issues that contributed to your injury in the first place.

This doesn’t have to mean long, heavy lifts—again, a pro can advise you on the best routine for your scenario, but it could mean sprinkling a few bodyweight or resistance-band movements throughout the day, dedicating two 30-minute slots to hitting the weight room per week, or both.

7. Fuel your return.

Your body needs energy and nutrients to heal, both during the acute phase of your recovery and as you return to activity, Emily Barnhart, RD, a board-certified sports dietitian who focuses on injury recovery, tells SELF. This can be difficult for lots of exercisers who may feel pulled to restrict their eating when they’re not working out as they normally do.

Underfueling can hamper your recovery—and leave you at risk of getting hurt even more. Many exercise-related injuries (especially bone-related ones) actually occur, in part, because of a condition called relative energy deficiency in sport (REDs), the result of a mismatch between how much you’re eating and how much energy you’re expending. Warning signs include irregular or missing periods for people who menstruate, crappy sleep, low energy, a worse-than-normal mood, and digestive problems. “These are all red flags that you should talk to your doctor,” Barnhart says.

To prevent low energy, eat consistently throughout the day and include all the major food groups—carbs, protein, and healthy fats. Getting plenty of fiber and many different colors of fruits and veggies helps too. A sports dietitian can offer more guidance, but nailing the basics goes a long way in promoting a smooth return to movement, Barnhart says.

8. Compare with compassion.

It’s human nature to compare: But if you start to feel consumed by envy, hopelessness, or the belief you’re “behind” where you’re “supposed to be” in your comeback, take a moment to honor that. “When you feel those moments of desperation, you have to breathe into them,” Jackson says. “Remind yourself to be determined, not desperate; to embody patience, not panic. Remind yourself that your recovery never goes as fast as you want it to because you don’t want to be injured in the first place.”

Remember that the only time and place you have any control over is right here, right now. Rather than stressing about whether you’ll be back to where you were before or where your friends are, bring yourself back to the present moment and recommit to taking the next step forward, Jackson says.

One way to do this? Consider taking a break from social media, which can often cause you to compare your lowest moments to others’ highlight reels, worsening your mood, Katz says. Then take a close look at whether your feeds are serving you. “Start with unfollowing or muting accounts that make you feel less-than in any capacity, whether that is body image or your sport,” she says. “Once you’ve curated that part, diversify your feed and diversify your hobbies. This is a great opportunity to make sure that we have outlets outside of fitness to call on.”

9. Set new goals—and make a big deal about achieving them.

Strive for new milestones related to recovery, Jackson says. This might be walking without crutches or a boot, doing an overhead press without shoulder pain, or returning to a group fitness class (with appropriate modifications, of course). “It’s easy to always look at how far you have to go versus looking at how far you’ve come,” Jackson says. “Celebrate those milestones as really big wins.” Do something special for yourself when you hit one—anything from a gold star on your calendar to a new workout ’fit to a spa day with your friends.

Recognize too that stacking these small wins can still take you to some incredible places. If you address the underlying causes of injury with strength training and rehab, take care of your body with good food and adequate sleep, and do the mental work of reframing the experience, you might be able to set your sights even higher in the future, Katz says.

In fact, that’s something she learned firsthand after her own injury two summers ago. “The setback is a setup for my next thing,” she says. “It’s not rushed; it’s not on our timeline, and to accept that is a win. But that was something I kept on repeating to myself—the setback is a setup.”


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