Avoiding Injury in Your Fitness Training
I believe that injury is one of the most detrimental things to take place in the training process. Injuries wreak havoc for so many reasons, including: loss of motivation, loss of training time, fear of re-injury, neural inhibition around the pain, etc. I’ve found, in the sport of fitness, there are many avoidable injuries if people were to change some of their habits. Before I go into depth on the topic, I will admit that the complexity of what causes injury is far more than any of the issues I will highlight. Some injuries are unavoidable if you are on a path to attaining your highest available potential. That being said, I believe that there are far too many serious injuries and unhealthy bodies due to some poor industry practices that can be changed.
One of the major reasons people acquire injuries is because of their concept of intensity. The term intensity, in and of itself, is difficult to define in training. When you write a workout, is it about the intensity of the stress of the cardio respiratory system? Does it have to do with the amount of load lifted? Does it have to do with the amount of work completed? Does it have to do with the level of pain felt in the workout? Different people have a different concept of what intensity means and it is often classified in people’s minds as one of these or some combination of all of them. Instead of creating a universal definition, I will avoid the definition all together and say that the primary objective of any training program should be the progress of an individual’s goal. I realize that is a simple concept, but many people’s definition of intensity or blind faith towards pursuing that as a dose response actually STOPS them from making progress in their goals. Often times, this mind state leads to a single traumatic injury that causes a long break or a continuous/repetitive cycle of moderate intensity pain that never ends.
The way I try to reclassify the word in people’s mind is that their training process should prepare them to pursue greater levels of intensity over time. They should not be seeking to make every single training session more ‘intense’ than the previous (or more heavy, more painful, etc), but instead should increase their aggregate output (or intensity) over time as they train. This allows them to make peace with developing fundamentals, building an aerobic base to support more volume, doing technique training, etc. If you can focus on properly timing intensity in a program with the right amount of volume, it becomes an effective tool to make progress quickly or at the appropriate time in a training cycle. This would include developing proper scapular strength and advanced gymnastics skills BEFORE doing high volume kipping under fatigue, developing proper weightlifting technique prior to trying to use it as a capacity based movement, developing global aerobic adaptations before trying to utilize too much frequency of high intensity lactate based training sessions, etc.
So, you should seek to train more intensely, but you should not be a slave to intensity. It should be one variable in your training arsenal and it should be used with care and a proper mind state. It will help alleviate potential injuries from manifesting and keeping you out of the gym!
People frequently over compete in this sport. People who claim that you need to ‘practice your sport to get better at your sport’ are right in some ways and wrong in others. We do see a lot of top level athletes in the sport competing in many big competitions throughout the year, but we also see others who avoid competing anywhere but The CrossFit Games. Competition, by its nature, causes people to dig into places that training shouldn’t allow. As a result, the likelihood of injury rises and the stress to the system increases. Multiple event, multi-day competitions are generally more training volume than a normal trainee takes in a week.
In order to safely compete, you need to plan your training accordingly and select competitions that fit exactly what you are looking for as an athlete. High-level athletes, need to ask why they are competing. Are they looking for media exposure? Is it intended to help to develop them as an athlete on game day? Are they looking to win prize money? If you are a lower level athlete you must ask: Is this competition making me better at my biggest training needs? Is the design of this competition safe relative to my level of athletic development? Are the weights/movements/number of contractions something that I am exposed to on a regular basis in practice? For a recreational health client who likes the sport: Is this competition worth the risks and in support of all the things I value from my fitness program?
When you start to critically think about the layout of competitions and how often you should participate in them, I find that most people naturally compete less. Patience and of delaying gratification pays off for people who are willing to do the work prior to reaching for the prize. Most competitions, while community building and fun, are not paying people more money, making them better at snatching/gymnastics, nor making them leaner/more muscular long term, which tend to be people’s main objectives for training. In order to avoid falling into the trap of endlessly competing and risking your body in stressful situations repeatedly, find the competitions that mean something to you. Plan them into your training year so you can have time off after them, so you can taper into them, so you can prepare all the movements that will likely come up in them, etc. “Failing to plan is planning to fail” is a mantra most people should remember when it comes to competitions on many levels, but mostly to avoid unnecessary risk and increase the likelihood of long term success.
Movement is at the heart of two major reasons people are injured. The first, which is commonly advocated by the sub-communities that support CrossFit, (weightlifting, gymnastics, powerlifting, running, etc) is technique. Technique is simple in theory and a little bit more difficult to implement in practice. Simple in that you just need to improve it to the highest level you can while not impacting other training variables. Complex in the fact that it takes a lot of time and most people will never develop high levels of proficiency in any one of these areas. Developing technical precision often takes people away from their addictive behaviors like breathing hard, maintaining leanness, lifting heavy every day, competing, making ‘progress,’ etc. A major priority in your development as an athlete should be insuring that you are constantly striving for higher and higher levels of technique in all the disciplines required for your sport (or fitness) to lower your likelihood of injury.
The second is movement. The term itself is a multi-layered multi-perspective based word with so many levels of complexity that it makes it difficult to discuss. In order to understand it, you have to define mobility, stability, flexibility, movement patterns, movement quality, tissue quality, etc. Multi perspective in that you have to understand the biased perspective of physical therapists, orthopedics, bio-mechanists, chiropractors, specific skill coaches, and movement culture enthusiasts. In order to take a stance on an individual perspective, I defer to the Supreme Court case in the 60’s that notoriously coined the term, “I know it when I see it.” I feel if a coach refines their understanding of ALL of these disciplines, the subjective eye is a better way to classify the subject matter than a hierarchical breakdown of a system as complex as the human movement arsenal. Movement should be a journey you take extremely seriously and should be never ending. Because you will carry your body with you through the course of your life, even after your current training goals are long past, you should prioritize achieving the highest level of movement your goals allow. The likelihood of having ‘perfect movement’ and training at a really high level for a specialist-based sport (CrossFit is a specialist sport now, which I may delve into deeper on another blog post) is low, but it should be something you aim to improve diligently. Having improved movement quality will allow your body a buffer against movement deterioration so that you can operate well under fatigue.
Movement is too complex of a topic to go any deeper into how most people will misapply this theoretical concept, but I think most people would benefit from ensuring they are moving with more quality over time. No matter who you count as an authority or what your lens is for understanding movement, it is important to seek to improve movement. This will likely allow you to make more sustainable progress and avoid injury.
Lack of Self-Compassion
"The self-confidence of the warrior is not the self-confidence of the average man. The average man seeks certainty in the eyes of the onlooker and calls that self-confidence. The warrior seeks impeccability in his own eyes and calls that humbleness. The average man is hooked to his fellow men, while the warrior is hooked only to infinity." - Carlos Casteneda (The Teachings of Don Juan)
This is the most philosophical of the listed topics and something I feel is lost in the primarily surface world of fitness. Most people who obsess on their fitness quest are usually not focused on the task of making their bodies into their optimal selves. Instead they seek to make their bodies the most powerful machines on their specific quest. They are actually, whether they say it aloud or not, seeking validation from an external source. This validation can come in the form of sexual attention, status from fame or money, attention from groupies, justification that they are experts in their profession, or sometimes is led by darker demons. I’ve seen many people who have eating disorders or unhealthy bodies find solace in communities that support their destructive behavior instead of highlighting that even ‘healthy behaviors’ taking to the far end of the extremes can be EXTREMELY unhealthy. Instead of actually wanting to improve a skill, they want to be supported and loved for something that anyone who loves them would likely not agree to support. I believe all of these external manifestations of behavior are a result of not having a firm acceptance of one’s ‘self.’
In fitness, this generally seems to manifest in the belief that we are not good enough the way we are today physically. In order to be good enough, we need to be X% bodyfat, have a certain number of times bodyweight snatch, be able to achieve a certain gymnastics movement, and ultimately gain the acceptance of others. What people seem to be lacking is a respect for themselves and a compassion for their bodies as gifts beyond objects of control. Unfortunately the media, and some in the community who work for the wrong reasons, perpetuate this shaming and it becomes a road block for most people in attaining long term performance/health/leanness/acceptance. I believe that the people we ultimately see with the highest levels of external success over the longest periods of time with their bodies are focused on the internal desire to improve instead of seeking only the external result. They are striving to be better, perform better, and seeking to earn respect from themselves instead of focusing on how others will perceive them or hold them on a pedestal for their ‘achievements.’
While this seemingly doesn’t have anything to do with injury, I actually find it is the largest contributor. This manifests itself into injury through a number of different behaviors. I will list a few examples of how this plays out starting first with people obsessing over their nutrition to keep their abs when it is potentially causing them to under-perform. Being ‘too lean’ (individually based) often times leaves people in a depleted hormonal state and therefore unable to recover from workouts. As a result this puts them at greater risk for injuries. Second, it manifests as people competing too frequently because they are trying to appease their sponsors and fans instead of focusing on getting better, which I’ve addressed above. It could manifest as people not taking time off because they don’t want to be perceived as a ‘pussy’ or ‘mentally weak’ or ‘making excuses’ instead of understanding that everyone’s body has a limit to what it can take. While it is true that the best of the best can ‘push through,’ it is also true that most people trying to become the best of the best will break their bodies in the pursuit of matching that path. Thirdly it could cause the athlete to avoid training their weaknesses because of how other people would judge them, which ultimately makes them really good at a specific aspect of the sport and horrible at others. It also makes injury risk higher for them when they are exposed to their weaknesses on game day.
Having compassion for oneself in fitness is staying true to what you want. Learn to validate your belief of yourself and your own needs to get better at YOUR goals. Don’t blindly following someone else’s path, someone else’s words, someone else’s pressure to conform, etc. Have compassion for yourself and dedication to your path. This is the likeliest route to success on your journey. It also acts as a way to protect and preserve your body long term because the body is incredibly good at providing you feedback when enough is enough. If you can listen to your body’s recovery mechanisms with compassion, and without emotional influence it will help guide you towards progress with less injury risk.
Life is chaotic. Whether our fate is in our own hands or whether it is predestined matters not. What matters is that we perceive that we have some control over our outcomes in life (and fitness). As a result, it should be imperative to plan with purpose, to act with intention, and to use our minds to the best of their ability to make those future outcomes we desire more likely to happen.
“A warrior is a hunter. He calculates everything. That's control. Once his calculations are over, he acts. He lets go. That's abandon. A warrior is not a leaf at the mercy of the wind. No one can push him, no one can make him do things against himself or against his better judgment. A warrior is tuned to survive and he survives in the best of all possible fashions.” - Carlos Casteneda (The Teachings of Don Juan)
If you live according to above quote, you are less likely to be injured. Calculate who you hire as a coach, how you move, when you will compete, how/why you eat what you eat, when it’s time to be intense, when it’s time to love yourself, when it’s time to push yourself and your odds of injury will be reduced. But, remember, ultimately there will come a time where you need to let go and act and in that moment of acting you will have to trust that your planning was enough to skew the odds in your favor. You must relinquish control to the reality that with any pursuit of greatness comes risk, and in the world of fitness, that risk might be in the form of an injury.