Injuries are an inevitable part of sports. Anyone who has been an athlete for long has suffered an injury.
I have had most any injury you can think of and understand how frustrating and demoralizing an injury can be. For that same reason though, I know how important it is to work around an injury. I frequently have athletes come to tell me they cannot work out because they have a sprained ankle or a broken wrist. There are some injuries that you really cannot work around, but those are more the exception than the rule.
I have had athletes training the day after many injuries. Are they squatting on a broken leg? No, but they can still get in work. Having an athlete train around an injury is going to have a huge impact on their entire rehabilitative process.
Here are three reasons why athletes should train around injuries.
1. Feeling a part of the team
Coming back from an injury involves more than just the physical process. The mental and emotional side of rehab is equally as important.
There are sports psychiatrists whose entire practice centers around helping athletes cope with the emotional and mental loss of an injury and encouraging them that they will be able to come back from it. I believe that training around an injury can be a huge part of this rehab process.
When an athlete gets hurt they lose a major part of their identity. Many struggle because they no longer feel a part of the team. Having athletes train around their injury can help with this.
I had a baseball player who broke his wrist during the preseason. I talked with his parents and had him still come in during this time and we trained around his injured wrist. We did single-arm work on his good side and were creative with how to load his lower body to maintain strength in his legs. There may be some isolation with not doing the exact same workout his teammates are, but he is still able to be with them and train with his teammates as they prepare together for the season.”
2. Reducing atrophy/detraining in healthy limbs
Muscular size and strength take a long time to build up, but it does not take long to lose those gains.
When I first began working at Charlotte Christian, any athlete who got hurt would go to the athletic training room during their lifting time for treatment. This is in no way a knock on the treatment that athletes get in the training room, but it is solely focused on the injury not the rest of the athlete’s body.
If an athlete breaks their leg they can still do upper-body work so that a leg injury doesn’t lead to a shoulder injury, because they were inactive for six weeks. Training the other leg is also just as important. Most everyone knows an athlete who has torn their ACL rehabbed and torn their other ACL the following year. This is not exclusively because of detraining, but when you take a year to focus on the injured side many times the healthy side gets neglected. Training around injuries can prevent these sorts of issues from happening.
I had our starting quarterback go down Week 1 with a broken collarbone. He was expected to be back a few weeks prior to playoffs. He was rehabbing and trying to do everything he could to be back. I had him in my weight-training class, so instead of having him sit there and wait 6-8 weeks I had him train around the injury. The collarbone was broken on his non-throwing shoulder but he was still unable to throw. So instead we did arm-care on his throwing arm to prevent any loss of strength or stability. I had him perform lower-body lifts holding a weight in his good arm or with a weight belt to maintain strength in his legs, while not loading his shoulder. He was able to come back Week 8 and lead his team to the state title.
3. Reducing atrophy/detraining in injured Limbs
Training around injuries does not only mean training the unaffected limbs. With many injuries, you can safely train the limb that is hurt by being creative.
It is important to understand that just because someone’s ankle is broken does not mean that the muscles of the knee and hip need to be inactive. This is going to be crucial for reducing the time needed to return to play, which at the end of the day is the ultimate goal.
Now there are some injuries that will eliminate that limb entirely at least for a time. For example, if an athlete tears their ACL, I would leave any training of that leg to their physical therapist, because the tear was likely caused by dysfunction at the hip or ankle and any good PT is going to address those issues.
Training around the injury though can actually still help those muscles to maintain strength. The reason for this is that most strength adaptations come from the nervous system. I tell my athletes that any of them can lift a car, their brain just won’t let them.
What we are doing when we are training is teaching your brain to allow the body to do more. Obviously, this is simplistic and there is more to training adaptation than that, but the principles hold up. For this reason, training one side of your body actually strengthens the other side. There is a scientific principle called the cross-education effect, where if an individual trains only one side of their body the other side actually is able to get stronger and even hypertrophy (increase in size).
A recent meta-analysis in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that cross-education in unilateral exercise produces, on average, an 11.9% increase in contralateral strength. This means the leg that did not get trained increased by almost 12% in strength. Obviously, it is not equal to the side that gets trained directly, but it is a significant increase. This is one of the most important reasons to train around an injury, because reducing atrophy and detraining will reduce the time it takes to come back from an injury. Most any rehab protocol is going to require you to hit certain strength criteria on the injured side. If we can reduce the loss in strength we will have reduced the time before our athletes can get back on the field.
Training around an injury takes a lot of experience and understanding of the human body, so I understand why many doctors don’t even mention it. The benefits though can be monumental for an injured athlete. There are no set rules when training around an injury; every injury is different and every athlete is different.
When trying to train around an injury it is important to talk with a professional to prevent compounding the injury that is already there. If you are an Injured athlete or the parent of one I would highly recommend talking to your physical therapist about how to safely train around your injury.