Publisher’s note: Before starting any new exercise program, check with your doctor. Stop immediately if you feel pain.
(CNN) — Soft tissue injuries are the bane of any physically active person. They are the most common injuries in sports, can be difficult to heal and often recur, according to Sports Medicine Australia. Knowing how to prevent them is essential to staying healthy and active.
The soft tissues they support, connect, and surround bones and internal organs, and include muscles, tendons, ligaments, fat, skin, and blood vessels. The most common soft tissue injuries occur to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Think of injuries like hamstring strains, tennis elbow, or ankle sprains. These conditions usually occur while exercising or playing sports, although they are sometimes caused by unknown incidents.
Soft tissue injuries are usually traumatic or repetitive. That is, they can occur suddenly (for example, an ankle that bends when stepping off a sidewalk) or due to overuse. While traumatic injuries are the most dramatic, repetitive ones are more common, said Mike Matthews, a personal trainer in Ocala, Fla., and host of “Muscle for Life”a popular fitness podcast.
“Repetitive soft tissue injuries occur when a tissue sustains more damage than it can heal over a period of time,” Matthews said. “The ultimate cause of all repetitive soft tissue injuries is simply doing too much too soon.”
Therefore, to avoid repetitive injury, take a measured approach to exercise and sport. Forget the weekend warrior approach where you sit idle all week and then run 15 miles on the weekend.
“The key is moderation,” says orthopedic physical therapist Scott Cheatham, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
It is also important to slowly acclimate the body to a given activity. “The only proven way to reduce the risk of repetitive soft tissue injury is to gradually increase training volume and intensity over time,” Matthews said.
A good rule of thumb: don’t increase your training volume by more than 10% per week. And every four to eight weeks, give your body a break by significantly reducing the volume and intensity of your workouts. “This ‘three steps forward, one step back’ approach takes discipline and isn’t always fun,” says Matthews, “but it’s the best way to make your body stronger and more durable.”
Cross training is another good idea, which supports the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Since the body’s soft tissues work differently or even rest when cycling versus swimming or tennis, it’s an easy preventative measure.
Diet, stress and sleep can also increase the risk
However, to avoid soft tissue injuries it is not enough to train. Research suggests that major changes in the environment can also affect injury risk, according to Cheatham, such as poor diet, stress and lack of sleep. If you sleep less than seven hours a night for more than two weeks, the risk of suffering a musculoskeletal injury is multiplied by 1.7, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports. So eat right, get enough sleep, and maybe skip hard workouts when your stress levels are high.
And what about stretching? The stretching, warm-up, post-workout eating and other practices have long been promoted to help prevent injury, but there’s no evidence to support these moves, Matthews said. Still, building a strong core is always helpful, said physical therapist Aime Maranan, owner of Skillz Physical Therapy in Evanston, Illinois.
“If your core muscles aren’t strong enough to handle hours of training, their strength will go down, then your spinal stability will go down, and then your nerves and soft tissues will get irritated,” he said. “It’s a domino effect.”
Core exercises like the plank or tabletop position, where you lie on your back with your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle, are good. The exercise known as quadruped is also useful. This exercise consists of getting on your hands and knees, contracting your trunk, and alternating an extension of your right arm and left leg with an extension of your left arm and right leg.
However, these exercises must be done correctly or, ironically, they could lead to muscle injury. So consult a professional before doing them on your own to make sure you’re doing them the right way. It could be your physical therapist, chiropractor, personal trainer or fitness instructor.
Take injuries seriously
If you are injured despite your best precautions, take it seriously. “Even when people realize they have a soft-tissue injury, they often continue with their program like it was nothing, hoping it will get better with time,” Matthews said. “Most of the time, it just gets worse and worse until it hurts enough that the person just can’t train because of the pain.”
Instead of ignoring that muscle or ligament strain, see a qualified healthcare professional and realize that it will take anywhere from a few weeks to a month or more to recover, depending on the severity of the injury, your age, and other factors. The most important thing is that you complete the entire rehab process so another injury doesn’t occur, says Cheatham. Nothing to stop when you start to feel better.
A positive mindset is also key to a speedy recovery. “If you think you’re not going to get better, you won’t. If you think you’re going to get hurt again, you’re going to get hurt again,” says Maranan. “Start with your mindset, then religiously doing your home workouts and post-workout recovery routine.” And remember, stay tuned to do it the right way.