It’s amazing how often athletes get part of the way through their injury recovery and then stop before they’ve completed more advanced exercises.
They stop because the injury is now pain-free, but it really hasn’t been tested yet.
And without advanced exercises, the injury isn’t prepared for the sudden, unexpected and higher loads of the sporting world.
So the story usually goes “I returned to training, it felt good so I pushed it…then twang!”
In this post, we detail the easy steps you can take to design your own advanced exercises and finish your recovery.
It’ll give you better performance, more resilience and less risk of reinjury.
Here’s the problem with bailing early on your injury rehab program.
Below is an example of a strength exercise targeting various components of running in isolation: a single leg TRX row.
It strengthens quads, requires core for control and glutes and back muscles for bracing.
You’ll need to use your advanced exercises to bring all the components together in context, requiring coordiantion and specific movement patterns.
Phase 3: advanced exercises that start to look like your sport
Load the injured tissue during complex movements
Start by selecting movement patterns that mimic your sporting demands – it should look like kicking a football, for example.
Think about the speed and force behind these movements – kicking a ball is high speed but low force.
Then reduce the intensity of the exercise by controlling the load with less speed, range and/or complexity of the movement.
That reduction in speed should be to a point that the injury doesn’t cause “bad” symptoms, like pain and sharpness, but “good” symptoms like tightness are OK.
If it still feels uncomfortable with less speed, you might need to reduce the range as well.
Once you’ve changed one parameter of any advanced exercises, it’s as simple as gradually increasing that parameter back to its full capacity.
If you slowed it down, gradually speed it up. If you reduced the range, gradually stretch it out again.
Be guided by your symptoms and any soreness after the exercise for your rate of progression.
It’s important to note that increasing ANY parameter won’t work – it has to be the target parameter for your sport.
The action of kicking a ball can be slowed down, but if you upgrade the loading over time so you’re pushing big resistance, it’s not helping.
You’re preparing your leg to slowly kick a very heavy ball, but that doesn’t match your sport at all.
For a running sport, here’s an exercise that’s a nice interim step from regular strength work to advanced exercises:
Obviously you’ll need to be fit to return to competition.
Nothing will replace “match” fitness but the closer you are to peak fitness, the better your chances of a successful return.
And much like advanced exercises for strength and technique, cardio needs to be as closely matched as possible.
If you’ve got a leg injury, you might switch to bike instead of running.
But bike fitness doesn’t correlate to run fitness – you’re fitter but your running performance won’t improve much.
So we take a similar approach to designing advanced exercises for strength and technique.
What do you need to do for your sport? Sprinting and change of direction/cutting.
What’s a little easier but similar? Slow down the run and take out the change of direction.
If you’ve had to slow it down too much, you can always run slow for time on your feet and add bike to augment the return of your overall fitness.
It’s important to focus on good technique with your fitness work.
Running with a limp might get the heart rate up but it creates a whole range of issues that will need to be fixed before your successful return.
For movement patterns, you’ll need to work on correct technique separately, not during high intensity fitness sessions.
Practicing how to kick again is great to refine your loading patterns, but doing it during a sprint session encourages sloppy technique affected by fatigue.
Although the game itself will be fatigue affected, you’ll need to reacquire your technique first before you can add stressors like fatigue.
Which brings us to phase 4…
Phase 4 – Combine your advanced exercises with sport-specific stressors
This phase focuses on your successful return to full participation, with every element of your performance overlapping and operating concurrently.
It combines advanced exercises, done at full speed and intensity, with fatigue and decision-making in a complex unpredictable environment with other players involved.
It’s highly specific to your sport, your injury and duration of your recovery so there are no generic programs.
But we can provide some guidelines that work for all sports.
Firstly, take more time than you feel necessary to return to full loading as we’re often overly optimistic with self assessment.
Second, get technique feedback from a trusted source (eg. experienced coach, not a friend and fellow player) to spot any missing links in your advanced exercises prior to full training loads.
This technique assessment should be done with fatigue, decision making and a changing environment.
For example, pivoting to the left while sprinting isn’t that hard. Suddenly deciding to pivot left because another player moved right, then pivoting while avoiding an opponent, is far more realistic.
Lastly, get back to full training for at least a few weeks before taking part in a game environment.
Once you return to full training loads, you can build quickly if you have experience and a good strength base. But if you were off for longer and/or have less experience, you might need a month before taking the field in a game.
When you do return to game time, go on as a substitute with 10min left in the game. That way, everyone else is fatigued and you don’t have to last more than 10 minutes.
Each game, you can start a little earlier and go a little longer. But don’t under-estimate how long it take to regain your match fitness.
For runners who don’t have a game environment, your rebuild is governed by a number of factors.
More experience, less time off and better strength all help you get back faster.