How to Stay Fit with an Injury

Keeping the Momentum Going When You Get Hurt
Getting injured doesn't need to derail your weight loss efforts. Take control of your recovery and stay on track with these trainer-backed tips.
working out with an injury

Nothing kills momentum like an injury.

You’ve spent weeks in the gym and you’re finally seeing progress. Then one day, your body decides it’s had enough and an elbow gives out or a knee gets crazy and suddenly you’re out of commission.

You can just see all your hard work floating out the window. Or worse yet, you’re dealing with chronic pain—an injury that goes beyond sprain or strain. Maybe the doctor has even suggested surgery (and you’ve secretly suggested you’d rather get locked in a room with twenty screaming, nap-deprived two-year-olds…).

The good news is, you’re not alone. Millions of people struggle with how to maintain or begin a fitness regime while dealing with injury.

It is possible to be healthy and hurt, explains Jordan Gomez, NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), certified professional trainer in Charlotte, North Carolina. It just takes some thought, patience, and a plan. When combined, these components can help you traverse the valley of injury without undoing the work you did when you were at 100%.

1. Track and Identify

When pain shows up, you have to listen. The problem is, you don’t always understand what that pain is telling you. For example: your lower back may be hurting, but how did it happen? Where did it come from? And what can you do to make it stop?

The answer can likely be found by looking more closely at your exercise habits. A lot of us are used to logging our food intake with various apps, but Gomez suggests you log your workouts too.

“Tracking your workouts is super important,” she says. “It’s normal to feel muscle pain when you start a new program. But is this DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) or is it something more? If it’s something more, you might need to modify your workout. So writing everything down will help you pinpoint the problem and might even direct you to a solution. Are your shoulders sore because of the exercise you were doing yesterday? Then maybe you need to change up your plan. Tracking your exercise and how you feel can help you understand what’s happening and why.”

2. Don’t Forget Nutrition

So the doctor says this is more than a muscle strain or sprain, and you need to lay off the high impact exercise, at least for a while. This is normally the cue for panic over weight gain, remember that you’re still in control exercise’s powerful counterpart: diet.

“Nutrition is key,” says Gomez. “A lot of people quit training when they get injured. They stop going to the gym and aren’t exercising as much. They start to feel sluggish and then they make poor food decisions. It builds on itself. When you’re eating bad, you’re going to feel bad. You’re already frustrated about being hurt and you can’t go to the gym, but don’t let it break down the other components of your healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be that way! You can maintain your weight and physique even though you aren’t working out. You just have to compensate with nutrition.”

In other words, working out less and burning fewer calories means being more careful about what goes in your mouth.

3. Help the Healing

Recovery is an active process, and it’s not going to happen by itself! Gomez refers to a method known as RICE. “Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Using the RICE method can really help, but if you aren’t experiencing relief from RICE in a week or so, you definitely need to get to the doctor.”

Another component to healing is creating strength. “I have my clients start with core and flexibility work. That’s the front and the back of your core—not just the six pack area!” Gomez laughs. “Cross-training can help if you can manage an incorporation of different activities. You have to branch out and do what you can do, but track it and monitor your results and then progress from there.”

Gomez recommends yoga, Pilates, and water aerobics as low-impact exercises that can help you in recovery. Experts and coaches in each of these disciplines can help you with modifications for your specific injury, but the movement will help build your core and make you stronger while your body is on the mend.

“General flexibility makes a huge difference,” Gomez promises. “Just because you aren’t doing a bunch of crazy box jumps and burpees doesn’t mean you aren’t progressing. Progression isn’t all uphill, it comes in waves.”

4. Get a New Plan

“It’s possible to be fit with a chronic injury!” Gomez says. “You have to figure out what works for you. A lot of people get hurt and they think they have to quit and rest. Their rest turns into giving up. When recovering, people have a tendency to go slow and gentle. If you can only walk right now, then you walk as much as your body can handle, but you have to add to your program. Don’t just stick with that one mile walk around the pond with your dog. Your body will get used to it and you’ll plateau and then you’ll be right back where you started.”

The bottom line is to keep moving. Don’t take up residence on the couch. Try core work you may have ignored in the past, and monitor your diet. An injury doesn’t equal failure and it doesn’t mean you won’t reach your personal goals. Your body will mend and it can be stronger for the changes you’ve gone through. Gomez likes to think of it this way: “There are some pretty amazing athletes out there. Men and woman missing limbs running races or competing from wheelchairs. Their bodies are finely tuned machines. Of course there are things they can’t do! But they found a way to get around it and have become incredible competitors. You can too. You just have to discover a way to get past what you’re dealing with too.”

Make it WayBetter

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say! Help prevent future injury by making sure you have proper form during exercises and paying attention when your body doesn't seem to like what you're doing.