When we talk about training, we tend to get caught up in topics related to exercise selection, exercise progression, training cycle design, or other planning and periodization factors. Within these discussions the focus is generally centered on what you can do to cause changes in the body which lead to a positive result.
This is logical, seeing as we all want to get stronger, run faster, jump higher, and all that jazz. The problem is that if all we focus on are loading factors within the context of what is needed to drive adaptation, we might end up overlooking the most important factor that affects our ability to train, perform, and stay motivated to train.
So, what is the number one priority that athletes need to focus on? The most important thing that an athlete can do if they want to perform at their best is to stay healthy and injury free.
For many of you, this may be an obvious factor to consider, but some don’t quite understand the implications of injury and sickness as they relate to someone’s long term physical development and mental state. Today we’ll briefly cover some reasons why you need to make staying healthy and injury free a priority in your training, as well as some ideas for how you can go about doing this.
Sickness & Injury Are Progress Killers
Getting sick or injured will invariably make it harder for you to progress over the long term. If we think about training in the absence of any training gaps, you would progressively overload over time, and your body would respond by dedicating resources to adapt to the training stress. Over time, your baseline of performance would rise as well as your performance ceiling, such that by the end of a 4 year block of training both your best and worst performances are better than what they would have been at the start of your training.
If you get sick or injured, this long term progression gets hindered because you have to take breaks, and during these breaks your capacity to stress the body is severely reduced. While you can still perform some training with certain types of minor injuries, it will not be a potent enough stress load to cause significant positive change until the injury is healed. Once healed, you may still be close to or even below your previous performance baseline, and it will take time to get back to where you were before your training was disrupted.
If you consider the fact that training time is a scarce resource, any time that is dedicated to rehabbing an injury is time that is lost which could have otherwise been dedicated to raising both your performance baseline and ceiling. If you only get sick or injured once every few years, this can be minimal enough to not hurt your progress too much.
If though you end up with just one injury and one period of sickness each season, this can become a much larger problem over the long term as you can end up losing months of training time which you will never get back. Also, just because you heal from an injury or sickness does not always mean that you end up back where you started. Sometimes, we come back from an injury or sickness and are performing worse than we were before the issue originally arose.
If we narrow our scope to just looking at the impact of soft tissue injuries, the problem that exists is that once injured, your likelihood of future injury increases. As soft tissue is remodeled after an injury, changes in the tissue such as accumulation of scar tissue can predispose you to reinjury because the remodeled tissue is not as elastic nor as resilient as healthy tissue which was never injured.
This means that the best way to prevent injury is to never get injured in the first place. Obviously this is easier said than done, but if you are someone who has never had a soft tissue injury, consider this a gift and something that is well worth preserving.
If instead you have been injured before, you need to make every effort possible to make sure that you do not overstress these areas to the point that they become prone to reinjury. While it may be challenging to do so, it is possible, but you need to be very disciplined with how your training is set up, and allow yourself extra recovery for areas of the body that have given you trouble in the past.
Strategies for Prevention
Since preventing injury or sickness gives us better probabilities for improving at whatever we are training for, we need to place a heavy emphasis on prevention when we think about training plans and recovery habits. Here we will discuss a few ideas for how you can best prevent injury or sickness as you train toward your goals.
Sleep & Recovery Are Keys To Success
If you want to stay healthy, you need to focus diligently on getting high quality, high quantity sleep. Also, your training program needs to allow for ample recovery so you can show up to your training sessions in a good physical state of readiness.
Do your best to ensure that you have consistent sleep schedules, and that you do things which allow for optimal sleep quality. For example, you do not want to go to bed at 1am one day, 10pm the next, and 2am the following day. This will throw your circadian rhythm off, and you will not be able to reliably predict how you will recover from training. Aim to fall asleep around the same time every night, and minimize any situations which may disrupt this pattern such as heavy partying or playing video games deep into the night.
Since sleep quality is as or more important than the quantity of your sleep, you should also practice good habits on a daily basis so that your pre-bed routine allows for good quality sleep. You should avoid staring at screens such as your phone, computer, or TV within an hour or more of when you want to fall asleep. Instead of watching a YouTube video or TV show, consider listening to it instead. Also, avoid listening to loud, stimulating music when it is getting close to your bed time. Consider instead listening to something that is calming, or simply remove all visual and auditory stimuli so your brain can settle and your body prepare for sleep.
I like to do some foam rolling, percussion massage, and light stretching before bed with the lights off. This helps get me relaxed and out of my own head, and if done regularly this can be a signal to the body that you may be preparing to sleep. Just like we want to have consistent sleep schedules, keeping a consistent pre-bed routine can be useful for regulating the sleep schedule you want to have.
Pay Attention To Density Of Stress
Another way to reduce the risk of injuries or sickness is to make sure that you are aware of density of the stress in your program. For example, a 6 day program with 4 days of fast sprinting has a higher density of stress than a 6 day program with one day of sprinting fast. Similarly, high densities of high volumes of work can set the body up for failure at some point if these dense periods of stress exist without enough recovery.
Start out with lower densities of highly stressful training and see how your body adapts. If you see improvement, you can stick with that training setup until your improvement stagnates. If you do end up adding in more days of high intensity training, be very careful to pay attention to any problem areas or signs of upper respiratory illness, cutting down your training loads when soft tissue or illness related symptoms begin to appear.
Often a future injury will present first as a sensation of discomfort or excess tension, and these signs should be heeded and dealt with. Sickness can initially present as a feeling of being run down, your throat being scratchy, or feeling like your heart rate won’t settle down post workout along with a general feeling of being unwell.
If these warning signs pop up, consider reducing training load, adding in extra days of rest, or changing exercises to something that does aggravate whatever issue it is that you are dealing with. If caught early, these issues can be taken care of without leading to a serious training gap as a result of serious injury or illness.
Optimize Your Body’s Environment Through Nutrition
Lastly, we can set ourselves up for success by making sure our body’s internal environment is optimized for handling stress through what we eat. For example if you are low on vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium, you might end up more likely to get sick as compared to if you had healthy levels of these nutrients.
If you chronically under-eat relative to the caloric demands from your training, you may end up at a higher risk of injury as tissues are not able to be repaired properly if the material used for repair is not available in high enough quantities. Make sure that you are eating enough protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
Make sure you are also eating sources of food that provide you with enough micronutrients and antioxidants so that your bodily processes can function properly. Micronutrients are often used as cofactors for various recovery related processes in the body, and a shortage of micronutrients may leave you with a reduced ability to recover, even if macronutrient intake and recovery qualities are in a good place. Berries, leafy greens, and high quality meat are all good sources of various nutrients your body needs. Focus first on building a healthy diet before you move to supplementation, with vitamin D being one of your first priorities when it comes to supplementation.
As you can see, injury and sickness need to be avoided at all costs so that you can train consistently and reap the benefits of high quality, consistent training.
If you can manage the densities of your training stress, make sure your recovery habits are of a high quality, and that your diet ensures you are taking in enough macro and micro nutrients to allow for proper recovery.
If you see signs that an injury or sickness may be brewing, take the appropriate steps to shift or reduce stress loads and maximize recovery. If you can stop a problem early, you may get away with minimal impact on your training. If instead you ignore the signs and lack the discipline to take the steps necessary to stay healthy, you may be digging your own grave with regards to your long term development and ultimate performance in sport.