Make getting fit, and staying fit, top of your New Year’s resolutions with our expert-led guide to staying injury free when starting a new workout routine.
Getting fitter and healthier seems to always top the New Year’s resolutions lists when 1st of January rolls around.
Yet, despite our best intentions, these resolutions rarely last. In fact, most are ditched by the second Friday of January, known as Quitter’s Day, which just so happens to also be Friday the 13th this year. Talk about cursed.
Waning willpower is a common cause, but all too often so is injury. Buoyed by a surge of “new year, new you” motivation, people tend to exercise with renewed vigor.
The problem is that if you’re not building up your training intensity gradually, fueling your workouts adequately and resting sufficiently, you could do yourself more harm than good.
The most common reasons people get injured in January are too much running and too much gym. “Injuries in the new year can be generally grouped under the umbrella term of overuse,” explains Lucas Taylor, strength and conditioning coach and Regional Lead at Technique Health & Fitness.
Plantar fasciitis (afflicting the foot), Achilles tendinitis (ankle), trochanteric bursitis (hip) and iliotibial band syndrome (knee) top the list of diagnoses when people come limping through Lucas’ door.
For the upper body, it’s tennis and golfer’s elbow and impingement of the shoulder due to repetitive overhead work in the weights room or group exercise studio. Lucas is keen to stress that being physically active carries huge long-term benefits for muscle strength, tendon elasticity, bone health, and much more.
“But exercise can also cause small micro-traumas to these structures,” he says. “Without sufficient rest between workouts, there’s a much greater risk for these muscles, tendons, and bones to break down.”
Along with overuse, fatigue due to poor sleep, or being poorly fueled and low on energy, can also escalate the likelihood of a spell on the sidelines, says George Caines, Master Trainer and Head of Education at fitness company Wattbike.
“An effective warm-up and cool-down routine can act as a shield to protect you from all of the above,” he adds. But without them you’re a walking, talking injury just waiting to happen.
To reduce your risk of injury in the weights room, variety is the spice of life.
“Think about splitting your workouts into upper and lower body days, or push/pull/legs sessions, so that the fatigued muscles, tendons, and joints have at least 48 hours to rest and recover,” Caines says.
“And remember, the 1.25 kg and 2.5 kg weight plates are there for a reason.” Increase resistance and training volume gradually to ensure progression rather than injury-enforced regression.
A varied approach to cardio can reduce the risk of running injuries too. “Off-feet cross-training, such as cycling and rowing, are great low-impact alternatives to running,” says Caines. “This helps to deload your muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments by being non-weight bearing while boosting your physical robustness.”
The Australian Army, for one, are keen advocates of this varied, cross-training approach following a 2010 study in which the soldiers drastically reduced their running mileage and switched to cycling. Over 12 weeks participants saw a 91% decrease in lower limb injuries, with no detrimental effects on running output.
We’re not saying you should retire your running shoes just yet. “The majority of your training should still be oriented around your end goal,” says Caines. But think about keeping your training varied to broaden and strengthen your fitness foundations.
Among high-performance sports teams, tracking sleep and heart rate variability (HRV) – the variation in time between each heartbeat – is an effective way to minimize the risk of overtraining and injury.
If you use a smartwatch or similar wearable, such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch or Eight Sleep mattress, you can follow their lead.
“Simply put, when your HRV value is low, your body is still in a state of recovery and not ready for an intense bout of exercise,” explains Taylor. “When the HRV value is high, you are ready to take on a more demanding activity.”
Sleep is another obvious – yet commonly overlooked – tool to reduce injury risk. “Eight hours of sleep is the recommended amount for most,” says Taylor. “This allows enough time for your body and brain to repair, rebuild and learn motor pathway skills that make exercise more efficient.”
Eight hours is optimal – but quality beats quantity. Again, technology can help track your night’s kip, indicating whether you are well rested enough for a marathon workout or if you’d be better off unwinding with a nourishing breakfast and morning vinyasa.
For Caines, training smarter means making sure you're warming up and cooling down properly. Before you work out, Caines says an effective warm-up should gradually increase your heart rate, which in turn dilates your capillaries, leading to increased muscle elasticity.
“An effective cool-down,” he adds, “safely reduces your heart rate gradually, rather than suddenly, helping circulate waste products away from the muscles, while replenishing oxygen and nutrients to aid better recovery.”
As with exercise generally, be patient, don’t cut corners and build up your fitness gradually to keep those resolutions on track all year round.
Before any workout, whether weightlifting or cardio, George Caines recommends using these moves to prime your body’s best injury-preventing muscle groups: the glutes, hamstrings and core.
Targets: Glutes and hamstrings
2-3 sets | 5-15 reps
Lie on your back with feet hip-width apart on the floor and knees bent. Drive your hips off the floor, squeezing your glutes hard, then lower slowly under control. Caines says: “For progression, reduce stability. Add a wobble cushion under your feet, perform the move on a gym ball or target one leg at a time.”
Targets: Core stability, glutes and hamstrings
2-3 sets | 5-15 reps
From standing, take a big step back with one leg and lower into a deep lunge, keeping your body upright. Reverse the move to stand, then repeat on the other side. Caines says: “Focus on keeping everything neat and tidy. Move with purpose and control, focusing on the main muscle groups you’re targeting.”
Targets: Glutes and hamstrings
2-3 sets | 8-12 reps
Lie face down with a mini resistance band wrapped around your mid foot and the opposite ankle. Keep the leg with the band around the foot static as you bring the other heel towards your bum, pulling against the resistance. Hold and slowly return. Caines says: “You won’t need much resistance to feel this – it should start to warm up your hamstrings and glutes quickly. Embrace the heat.”
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