I’ve become an expert in distinguishing injuries from the discomfort that comes with training – mainly because injuries have stopped me in my tracks so many times. (I’m a case study of what happens when a swimmer attempts land activities with no guidance.) Every major sports injury I suffered resulted from doing too much, too soon.
Case in point: after my second baby, I figured my body would bounce back quickly like it did the first time (I was running two weeks after delivering). I ramped up my training intensity without bothering to strengthen my abdominal muscles, and midway through a seven-mile run, a searing pain in my lower back radiated down my right side. I hobbled in to see a sports injury therapist a few days later, and was diagnosed with a damaged sacroiliac joint – the result of hormones relaxing the ligaments in my lower back and pelvis during pregnancy. I was out of commission for months.
So how do you stop the cycles of injuries? What warning signs should you never ignore? Rather than try to answer those questions myself, I sat down with a sports injury expert: Izette Swan, co-owner of Real Rehab Sports + Physical Therapy in Seattle.
Dana: How do you tell the difference between soreness and injury?
Izette: If you’re just picking up a sport for the first time or increasing intensity, you’ll probably feel some soreness in new muscles as they wake up and start working. Muscle soreness generally peaks after about 48 hours, then it gradually gets better as your muscles adapt to the new activity. When that pain doesn’t go away after 3-5 days or gets worse, you should seek professional advice.
Dana: What happens if I’m out running and something hurts?
Izette: There are lots of different kinds of pain; sometimes it’s obvious. You were sprinting and strained a muscle, you tripped and sprained your ankle, or your leg just starts hurting. Either way, stop running immediately so you don’t do additional damage. Once you get home, rest and ice (elevate if you’ve hurt your leg) for about three days. If you strained a muscle, you can switch to heat and some gentle stretching after three days. If the pain doesn’t go away after five days, get it checked out. In Washington State, you generally don’t need a referral to see a physical therapist, so that makes it easier to stay on top of injuries (of course, check your insurance benefits first).
Dana: What should I look for in a sports medicine doctor or physical therapist?
Izette: Physical therapy is fascinating; I think of myself as a detective of the body. I recommend looking for doctors, physical therapists and massage therapists who try to determine the root cause of the injury – because it may not be where the pain is. We can do some symptom treatment to calm down the injury, but it’s important to look beyond that to see why the injury happened.
Dana: What recommendations do you have for people trying a new sport for the first time – bicycling, trying Crossfit or training for a 10K?
Izette: First and foremost, make sure your equipment fits you and is in working order – you don’t want to hop on a six-year-old bike without checking the tires and gears first, and a bad fit can lead to pain and numbness. Remember that beginning a new exercise regimen is a process, and you need to give your body time to adapt.
Crossfit, for example, is very technical. You need to learn how your body moves, pay attention to the movements, and don’t lift too much too fast. For people picking up running, start with new shoes and then do a run/walk three to four times a week. Run for one minute and walk four minutes (for a total of 20-30 minutes). Once you can do that with no pain or shortness of breath, move up to a two minute run and three minute walk for 20-30 minutes. Then you can increase to three minutes of running and two minutes of walking, then four minutes of running and one minute of walking. After you’re comfortable with that, you can run for longer periods. Once you can comfortably run five miles, you can start adding in speed work or hill intervals.
Dana: Any final recommendations?
Izette: Ease into new activities, make sure you have gear that fits you, pay attention to pains that last more than five days and make sure you can run five miles comfortably before adding speed work.
Izette Swan is co-owner of Real Rehab Sports + Physical Therapy where the physical therapists are also athletes and pride themselves as being experts in the diagnosis and treatment of sports injuries. Their services include: running gait analysis and running training, orthotic fitting, biomechanical bike fitting and metabolic efficiency testing.
Dana Robertson Halter is a lifelong athlete and mother of 6-year-old Cassandra and 4-year-old McKenna. Dana started swimming competitively at six, began racing triathlons after college, switched to bike racing in 2004 because triathlons were too lonely, and then went back to racing solo (marathons) after having her first child in 2009. Dana makes time for exercise and wellness because it keeps her body and brain strong — and it provides a healthy outlet for her competitive spirit. Dana works as a Communications Manager for LifeWise and lives in Ballard with her family and two Australian Shepherds.