I love the Olympics! Every two years, we get to watch the best of the best compete for the ultimate prize in the sporting world—Olympic Gold. I am in awe of these athletes, who have devoted their lives to their sport, and who have trained for years just to be competing at this level.
Olympic athletes in any sport are finely tuned machines, trained to perform at their peak during the Games. Most of us who will never stand at the top of a bobsled run or take to the ice don’t realize is that there is a fine line between peak condition and breaking down. This breakdown is the stuff of overuse injuries; something we amateur hackers have in common with Olympians.
There are, however, a few differences between an Olympic athlete having an overuse injury and one of us mere mortals popping a hamstring on our Saturday morning run. First, top athletes are so finely tuned and in touch with their bodies, that they can see an overuse injury coming, and can proactively slow down or change their training to avoid a full blown disaster. Second, any athlete who is good enough to be in the Olympics has a posse of trainers, coaches, massage therapists, and (yes!) acupuncturists to keep them injury-free.
We won’t worry too much about the Olympians getting injured, as they’ve pretty much got it covered. However, if you’re active in your favorite sport, training for an upcoming event, or just trying to stay in shape, how do you deal with the aches, pains, and annoyance of an overuse injury?
From my years as an active participant in about a dozen sports, and from my years as an acupuncturist treating athletes, here are a couple of insights:
-Stretch and warm up. In Chinese medicine, warmth equals flow. By stretching a little and starting slowly, you’re getting the flow started in your muscles. No Olympic athlete takes to the ice, slopes, or half pipe without warming up first. Cold, tight muscles are prime targets for injuries.
-If it hurts, stop now. From personal experience, I have found that no good ever comes from trying to play through the pain. Continuing through the pain only causes muscle pulls, tendonitis, and stress fractures.
-Let the glue dry. If you stop participating because you’re feeling pain, take the time off to let your injury heal. Several years ago, I treated a woman who was an ultra distance runner. She had an upcoming 100 mile race, and was experiencing some foot pain. I treated her with acupuncture, and her foot was improving beautifully. She was well-trained, and had ample time to rest before the race, but instead decided to test the foot out with a 50-mile training run. Ultimately, she was well enough to get to the start line of her 100-miler, but she had to drop out because her foot didn’t hold up. If she had taken a week or so off to let her foot heal, I believe that she would have finished her race.
-Use the right equipment for your sport, and make sure it fits correctly. Bike seats that are the wrong height, worn down running shoes, and borrowed hockey skates all have the potential to cause injuries if used long enough. If you’re going to do the sport, invest in the right gear.
-Know the signs of an overuse injury in the making. It’s pretty clear when you sprain your ankle that you’re out of commission for a couple of weeks. Overuse injuries, however, can be a little trickier. Are you really getting injured or just suffering the common aches, pains, and sore muscles that go with your active lifestyle? A couple of signs that you may be nursing an overuse injury include, pain that lasts hours or days after your workout, swelling, reduced range of motion, and weakness in a muscle or joint. If you’re favoring a certain part of your body, the potential for injury is pretty high.
Where does the Chinese medicine come in? As an acupuncturist, I’ve spent many hours treating people with overuse injuries—from competitive athletes to the weekend gladiators. Acupuncture is really effective to speed the healing of injuries and to relieve pain. However, with a little foresight and self-care, most of those injuries didn’t have to happen.