Whether you got shin splints from running or tore your ACL while muscling your way to a slam dunk, you’ve been on the bench for a while. Now, you’re itching to get moving again.
Even if you’re fired up to jump back in full force as soon as possible, that’s not always the best idea. Your comeback game-plan should include these steps.
1. Get your doctor's OK.
Are you ready -- really? You might think so, but it's important to talk to your doctor before you lace up your sneakers. Even if you think the answer has to be yes.
If you've been working with a physical therapist or another sports medicine professional, ask them, too. Your therapist should have taught you specific moves to strengthen and stretch the injured area.
You shouldn't return to your sport or activity until the pain, swelling, and stiffness have improved a lot. Pushing yourself too soon could make your recovery take longer or make your injury worse, so be sure you get the green light from an expert.
2. Mentally prep yourself.
Once your doc and therapist have cleared you, spend a little time thinking about why you got injured and what, if anything, you might be able to do to differently the next time around.
Did you push your body beyond its limits? Wear the right protective gear? Take enough time for rest and recovery? You might not have done anything "wrong," but sometimes there's a lesson to be learned from your mishap.
Now's also a good time to focus on staying positive. Most injuries are temporary, so it makes sense to remind yourself that you will be able to return to the sport or activity you enjoyed. It’s just going to take some time to regain the speed and strength you had.
3. Start slow.
Maybe you used to run 5 miles a day or were the star of your local softball league. You'll likely be able to get back to where you were, but you need to be patient.
A good guideline is to start at about 50% of your "normal" level, and increase only 10% to 15% each week -- assuming your symptoms don't flare-up during or after each session.
For example, if you used to run 5 miles, you might walk 2.5 miles and add a little more distance each week as you progress to jogging and then running.
You also need to take time to warm up before your activity, cool down after, and stretch. Warm-ups and cool-downs should last about 3-5 minutes, or for however long your doctor or physical therapist recommended.
4. Branch out.
Cross-training -- doing a variety of activities that work different parts of your body -- is key. It helps you stay fit while the part of your body that’s injured regains strength. It can also help you avoid getting injured again.
If you hurt your knee while biking, for instance, consider adding a low-impact activity such as swimming to your routine. Or if you fell and hurt your wrist going for a match-point shot in tennis, hiking or another lower-body activity lets your injury heal while you keep moving.
5. Listen to your body.
A little discomfort is OK. A lot is not. If you feel a slight pain while exercising, pushing past it can help you make gains. But you should never be in agony, and you should feel better soon after you stop moving.
If the pain is very bad, or if it lasts for an hour or more after you've completed your exercise, take that as a sign that you've gone too far. You may have to rest for 1 to 3 days before you try again. And when you do, keep it at a less-intense level so you feel good during and after your workout.