Part of the appeal of outdoor recreation is the presence of risk. Whether you’re dropping onto single track or hucking over a ledge, you may be embracing the presence of nature, but you are also tickling the edge of danger. (Ok, some of you give it a full-on noogie.) However, even at your most dangerous level, perhaps exactly because of the elevated risk, you take extra steps to ensure that you still come home at the end of the day. Helmets, ropes, and scouting all keep you in the green. Just as you approach your sport with a pleasant rush of adrenaline sidled up to a healthy dose of caution, consider offering your body the same respect. While you cannot guarantee that you will never experience an injury, you can certainly do everything in your power to reduce your risk.
Before you head into your next big adventure, get to know your body. Stepping back and surveying can save you time, pain, and money (unless you have killer insurance; in that case, go ape). Qualified professionals use objective assessments such as the Functional Movement Screen (disclosure: this is one of my preferred methods), the Overhead Squat Assessment, muscle testing, and various forms of postural assessments. These tests examine how you move through a given range of motion in order to determine where you are weak, tight, unstable, and strong. If you haven’t been through a movement assessment, I highly recommend the experience, especially if you are prone to overuse injuries.
In the meantime, at home you can do a quick survey. Standing on two feet, can you bend forward and touch your toes (mobility and hip mechanics)? Can you hold a good plank for 15 seconds (core, shoulder stability)? Can you stand on one foot, with control, for 10 seconds (stability)? Anywhere that you display significant dysfunction or asymmetry opens you up to an increased risk for damage, whether it is on a training run or while mulching your flowers. Over time, particularly any time you increase intensity, the vicious cycle of compensation, damage, pain, compensation winds tighter and tighter until you are shut down. Scout ahead and make a plan. Avoid the rocks.
Check your gear
Bikes and shoes will either give you freedom or extreme discomfort. Finding the right fit is the key factor. I frequently meet with athletes who have met with various doctors, only to learn that their shoes posed the major problem. Bike fit is no less crucial. If you have never been fitted, allow me to address a few things: 1) The saddle doesn’t have to hurt. 2) Low back pain is not normal. 3) Hand numbness is not acceptable. A little bit of time and money on the front end will pay dividends in the long run. Once we have ruled out gear as the compounding factor, looking into other problem sources (see #1) becomes more reliable.
Do the maintenance
You wax your surfboard, pump your tires, and lay out your rope. These chores are tedious, yet hardly time consuming and always worth the increased performance that results. Of course, as your equipment gets older you have to increase the amount of maintenance work, but I think you get the metaphor now.
Finding balance between mobility and stability contributes to keeping your body in its best condition. Strength comes into play, but without the foundation of optimal joint movement (a product of stability and mobility), strength results may become compromised. Based on your self-testing (or, ahem, visit to a qualified professional), you would be well served by dedicating five minutes each day to focused drills. To improve hip mobility, squeeze your glute while you stretch your hip flexor and quad. To work on balance, stand on one foot while playing catch with your kid. To improve your plank, start with kneeling planks performed in short sets of 10 seconds on, five seconds off (view our perfect plank video). Continue to progress until you can hold a plank on your toes. I like to work on short sets that force you to find good form multiple times rather than trying to force one long hold where all you practice is suffering. Whatever it is, make it a consistent part of your day. Rather than it being a further demand on your time, think of it as a way of extending the life of, well, YOU.
Can you spit?
Many years ago, in my whitewater days, I was given a sage piece of advice: “When you scout a rapid that scares you, spit. If you can’t spit, don’t run the rapid.” The day came that I looked at Hollywood Rapid, raging at some unearthly flood stage and, barely able to get around my parched lips, I muttered “See ya.” In truth, I’m pretty sure I could have run the rapid; but the cost of failure was decidedly final. I didn’t trust myself to be able to do what I needed to do, so I walked away. Being pushed to expand your capabilities is the glory of being active, but with that should come respect for your limits.
Beyond picking appropriate levels at which to participate (if you are 5k ready, you probably shouldn’t come out for the marathon); you should be cognizant of what level you are at from day to day and week to week. Race on race day, train on training day, rest on rest day. Never vice versa. (A co-worker and pro triathlete has it tattooed on his wrists: “Hard Days Hard.” “Easy Days Easy”.) Guaranteed, the most common explanation that I hear for “My calf hurts” is something within the general theme of “I did something I don’t normally do at a speed/intensity/gradient that I’m not used to.” It’s ok, we all do it. Sometimes a little push can do wonders for our fitness and motivation; however, when it comes to laying your body on the line, know when it is okay to walk away. Then go train until you CAN meet the challenge.
There are 23 other hours in the day
The time that you spend active usually represents such a small percentage of your daily living that discussing injury prevention solely on that sport is like talking about the tree instead of the forest. We all know of the dangers of sitting at desks all day so I will spare you. Set an alarm for every 50 minutes to remind you to stand up and walk around. If you have a standing desk, you are not off of the hook. The most important thing that I have ever learned with regard to effective physical therapy is that, without good posture, nothing else will hold. Ears aligned over shoulders, shoulders aligned over hips, hips over knees, knees over ankles. Feet evenly balanced on the ground. Avoid sucking in just as much as slouching. Ideally, as you stand, you are at relative ease without having to brace or squeeze anything. With a small degree of attention throughout the day, you will enter your adventure already better prepared, thus set up for reducing your risk for injury.
To make it through an entire season without an issue is a gift, but it is a gift that often takes a little prep work and a touch of luck. The luck will run its own course, but the work, the work will have to come from you.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”- Benjamin Franklin