How to Train After an Injury or Illness

Air Force physical therapy
Master Sgt. Dawn Traurig, 92nd Medical Operations Squadron superintendent, demonstrates the use of a resistance band March 16, 2015, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nicolo J. Daniello)

After an illness or injury, it is often difficult to regain the same level of fitness you worked so hard to achieve. You may feel like your body has failed you and you are just not yourself when unable to train each day. Everyone’s situation is different, but in general, you need to start your training slow and be patient. Here are a few rules you should follow with common issues people face when bouncing back after illness or injury:

1 – If you have a serious illness – rest and recover.  Illnesses that require hospital time, long treatments (anti-biotics, chemotherapy, etc) are obviously going to wreak havoc on your body and immune system.  Give yourself a break and think minimalist. Do the very basics of breathing, walking and stretching. Help the body fight the stress of healing by allowing yourself to heal. Once you get the green light to start training again, the biggest piece of advice to go gently back into training and make your workouts just a little harder than walking and stretching. Maybe add in some calisthenics, light weights, and very moderate cardio options (some cardio options ideas).

2 - Can you work around your injury?  Ask yourself if you can still do upper body exercises if you have a lower body injury or still run and lift legs if you have an upper body injury. Sometimes that is possible and helps you to not lose much overall conditioning and cardiovascular endurance. Consider using isolation exercises or isolation weight machines when a joint, bone, or muscle is injured to allow yourself to still exercise, but eliminate any stress or movement from the injured area.  Also consider doing non-impact cardio options instead of running or rucking if pain or injury is in the lower back or legs.  Swimming, rowing, biking, or elliptical trainers may be a good option for you when suffering from something as tendonitis or even post -surgery.

3 - Be a good patient and have patience. Be careful not to re-injure or relapse. Do not start back too soon and too intensely as your efforts for a speedy recovery can backfire and put you back into the hospital. Especially if recovering from serious illness like pneumonia or cancer / chemo-treatment, a relapse or injury from working muscles that are not ready yet can lead to a longer convalescing period. 

Common Ailments and Injuries Affecting Training Sessions Here are some ideas when dealing with common ailments that force us to take recovery days or work around injuries:

Head Cold / Sinuses vs Chest Cold – When congestion of the head causes all the common cold symptoms, you have a choice. You can eat well, hydrate, and rest. Or, you can still train and even train quite hard with these kind of head colds. However, once a fever starts likely in the sinuses or your ears may be infected and even turn to a strep that will require medications typically and TIME OFF from training. Overdoing it and stressing out the body too much while even slightly ill with a head cold can lead to bigger problems that cause infections or move to the lungs and get even more serious.

When the chest is congested, you need to back off from harder training programs - PERIOD. If training makes you cough and the lungs are producing mucus, you can overwork your heart and lungs when your lungs are congested. This can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia if you do not allow the body to recover and rest for a few days.  Besides, it is best to avoid people in a gym if coughing, but you should even lay off exercises other than stretching and light joint movements (mobility) when the chest cold is serious.

Upper Body Injury (Shoulder Injury) – The shoulder is a very commonly injured joint. If you have such an injury it will prevent many movements such are pushups, dips, overhead presses, swimming, and lifting. Depending on the muscle injured, you may be able to get away with isolating the pushing or pulling muscles of the upper body and avoid pain. But you can always work the other arm and shoulder, run, do leg workouts, and even swim with fins (no arms), and tread water (no arms). Running may hurt the shoulder immediately after injury, but you can still focus on many of the non-impact cardio activities to stay in shape during the recovery period.

Knee or Leg Injury – Any lower body injury will typically force you to reduce or stop running, but once again, the non-impact cardio options are available to stay in shape and even maintain your current running conditioning. Some have even gotten better at running by reducing running and focusing of other cardio options mainly giving the body a chance to recover from the impact of running and still challenging the heart and lungs with tough workouts like intervals and sprints. There is no excuse in not working the upper body muscles and core still when recovering from a leg injury. Those are all fair game and will keep you sane while forced from running and tougher leg workouts for a while.

When In Doubt – Treat Yourself Like a Beginner When it is time to get back to moving either after recovery from illness / injury or after a long period of time from exercise, find the easiest workout you have ever done and make it easier. Do this for at least the first week or longer if you are still sore from very light movements from stretching, walking, and light calisthenics / dumbbell work.  There is no specific time or recommendation of progressing back into training. Some say, for every week you do not train, make that the number of weeks you have to progress to where you left off.  Some are more aggressive and say for every month you are off of training, take a week to rebuild before you push yourself with the same intensive before illness or injury.  Both make sense, however, there is no “one size fits all” and you have to gauge your progress, effort level, and abilities as you get moving again. The goal is not only to recover to where you left off, but to also not get injured again or relapse with a more serious illness.

Related Video – Tactical Fitness Report - Recovery from Serious Illness and Injury Podcast


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