How to Stay Fit When You're Injured

When you're sidelined, taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health.

athlete holding injured foot in gym
Photo: Whyframe/Shutterstock

If you're an avid exerciser, you've likely experienced an injury at one point or another. Whether it's caused by overexerting yourself during a workout or by an unlucky accident outside the gym, it's zero fun to give up something that makes you feel so good.

Many people don't realize that dealing with an injury is just as mental as it is physical, and whether you have to take two days or two months off from your usual schedule, it's important to prioritize both during your recovery. That's why being injured sucks even more than you think.

"When people get injured and are unable to perform or excel at their sport, they lose a little bit of their identity," says Lauren Lou D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist. This is why rehabilitation for athletes or people who love to work out is so complex. It's important to realize that the mental and social pieces are just as important as the physical in successfully rehabbing an injury."

While the physical aspects of taking time off can be tough, the emotional aspect of feeling sidelined is the biggest challenge, according to Frank Benedetto, P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist who is board certified in sports and orthopedics. "Most media coverage highlights the physical benefits of exercising frequently, but we also experience an enormous emotional benefit."

The mental health benefits of exercise include less stress, higher confidence, and even better creativity. And while it takes two to four weeks to lose strength and conditioning, says Benedetto, the mental impact of removing exercise from your routine happens almost immediately.

That said, having a plan for when you need to take some time off can make your life a lot easier. Here's what rehab pros recommend doing to care for both your mental and physical health when you're dealing with an injury.

How to Train If You're Injured

If you're sidelined for a day or two...

The mental: Use your time off wisely.

Missing a workout or two is a bummer, but it's important to remind yourself it's not the end of the world, according to Bonnie Marks, Psy.D., a senior psychologist at NYU Langone Health. One of the best tools you can use, she says, is positive self-talk. Telling yourself something like, "It's temporary, I can deal with it" or "I'm still strong" can go a long way toward putting things in perspective.

Aside from that, try using the time productively to plan your next training session, reach out to others who you know have dealt with similar injuries to get their advice, or connect with a physical therapist or trainer to learn about how to prevent the injury you're currently dealing with.

To replace the mental release you get from your workouts, try using relaxation methods like meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, suggests Marks.

The physical: Treat it as recovery time.

Luckily, taking a day or two off from exercise is no big deal, even if it's unplanned. "I think it's important to think of a few days off as crucial to rehab a minor injury — not only to prevent a more significant injury that would result in even more missed time — but also as the recovery that's important for performance," says Lou.

"A lot of athletes think about training as making gains and rest as missed gains, but it's not completely true. The body needs rest and recovery in order to maximize the benefit from training and working out." Simply think of this time as some extra rest and recovery so you can crush your next workout when you're feeling better.

If you're sidelined for a week or two...

The mental: See it as an opportunity to cross-train.

Taking a week or two off from your workout of choice isn't ideal. "It can be really tough mentally for athletes and people who love to work out to be sidelined for a chunk of time," says Lou. But there's a simple way to make yourself feel productive: "This is a great time to cross-train or to make time to train a specific strength or skill that will help with overall performance goals but gets forgotten during periods of training."

For example: If you're a weightlifter and you've injured your wrist, maybe now is a good time to do some cardio workouts you wouldn't normally have time for. Or if you're a runner with a sprained ankle, you could work on upper body strength and core strength in the weight room. Whatever you decide to do, it's critical to set specific and achievable goals to stay focused and motivated, says Lou.

The physical: Fix the problem.

If you're forced to take time off for more than a few days for a non-acute injury, it usually means your body is trying to tell you something. "In my opinion, it's most important to understand that you can't build strength on an injury and without proper healing time," says Krystina Czaja, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network.

"Most importantly, you should never ignore pain," she says. "Pain is the way your body communicates that you are at risk for an injury." Provided you don't have a traumatic injury, like a broken bone or wound, pain that's preventing you from working out usually means your body has been compensating for weakness, says Czaja. "You should not just focus on the pain, but rather on addressing the cause of the pain."

Some smart ways to do this according to Czaja include self-myofascial release through foam rolling, using a lacrosse or tennis ball on tender areas, and doing gentle exercises that avoid the injured area. If you're not sure what to do, it's a good idea to check in with a physical therapist.

If you're sidelined for a month or two (or longer)...

The mental: Stay positive, ask for support, and take action.

"Significant time off can be psychologically and emotionally distressing," says Marks. Four crucial things to keep in mind:

  1. Mental health is equally important to physical recovery.
  2. Social support is key.
  3. You can't get back to full fitness on your will alone, but a positive outlook has been shown to significantly aid recovery.
  4. You can do something every day to work toward rehabilitation.

"Taking action, even simply by doing PT exercises or cooking a healthy meal, can reduce feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem while simultaneously contributing to physical recovery," she adds. (Experts also recommend incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your healthy meals when you're healing from an injury.

The physical: Ask for an alternative.

If you're going to be out of commission for a significant chunk of time, a good physical therapist will provide you with alternatives and substitutions to your usual workout, says Benedetto.

Unless you have an injury that affects your whole body, there is almost always something else you can do to stay active. "Walking, swimming, and yoga are great general choices but nearly any workout can be modified around pain with the right strategy," he adds. With the help of a professional, you can work toward maintaining strength and conditioning, so that you're ready to get back into action when the time comes. (You should also work on your mobility to prevent future injuries.)

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