Injury Recovery Myths: Rest is Not Your Enemy

Posted in Injury Recovery   |   By

Jeremy Gesicki

December 17, 2018

Dedicated athletes aren't afraid of pushing themselves. They feel the burn with pride, have incredible pain tolerance, and aren't afraid of getting injured trying to top their own best stats. Athletes are notorious for taking a tumble and bouncing right back up with a cheerful declaration of "I'm fine!" to anyone worried nearby.  It's not the fall or even the injury that athletes fear, but the time spent in recovery. Almost all athletes who work hard to maintain their peak condition and continue to improve their abilities are most afraid of being told to rest by a doctor. Even a single day on the couch feels wasted and dangerous. You think you can feel your muscles starting to deteriorate and that first week, you may become convinced that without some hard exercise, you'll "go to pot" almost immediately.

This is a fear shared by almost all dedicated athletes and, fortunately, it's also one of the biggest myths in the athletic community.  It is thought that even a short break from your daily exercise routine can put your fighting form in jeopardy and cause you to spend months trying to regain your peak condition even after recovery is complete. To combat this, athletes often push themselves too hard during recovery, putting themselves at risk of re-injury and, most commonly, slowing the healing process by unnecessarily taxing energy away from the healing tissue. 

One Day Won't Kill You

But the fact of the matter is that rest isn't the end of all your hard work conditioning. In fact, in a different context, many athletes already know that a single day of rest is actually good for your physical development. Muscles that have been pulverized by intense exercise that spend a day dedicating energy to mending will come back bigger and stronger than before, and even better than if you exercised hard every single day.

Rest is a crucial component of effective physical training because it allows you to make the most of the work you put your body through. Just like sleep can help you remember recently studied facts, temporary rest actually makes you stronger when spaced correctly with intense exercise.

Think about that for a moment. A single day of sitting on the couch eating protein-rich salads and watching TV is good for your muscles. Now let's talk about what you're really afraid of.

Peak Condition is Delicate, But Conditioning is Not

The biggest fear that athletes have relating to rest and recovery is the loss of peak condition. Your physical condition is at its peak when your nutrition, energy, and exercise routine are allowing you to perform at the best possible level your body is capable of. Being in peak condition will enable athletes to beat their best scores, respond beautifully to practice scenarios, and exercise in perfect form. However, it takes constant hard work to maintain peak condition.

Maintaining Peak Condition

You have to eat right, sleep right, and of course, train constantly to get your body into its ideal state. When you get injured, your peak condition routine will get interrupted. You will lose your peak status just the same as if a family holiday of rich foods and obligatory social time can throw you off your game. You will not regain your peak condition until you can return to your optimized daily routine. But that doesn't mean you'll immediately go to pot.

Conditioning vs. Peak Condition

In order to achieve your peak condition, no doubt you spend a lot of time conditioning your body for strength, agility, and endurance. You have worked out for hours, possibly spending years building a solid core of muscles and enhancing the health of all the soft inner parts of your body. You eat right, exercise often, and build strength every day. All that muscle strength and good health aren't going to disappear in a few weeks of recovery. You may lose a small amount of muscle during rest, but you will still be strong and toned enough to get right back in when your injury is healed. You may burn a few fewer calories through sweat during recovery, but nothing you can't handle when you're back in the gym.

The fact of the matter is that if you are already a machine when it comes to exercise, your body isn't going to suddenly become pudgy and weak during recovery and you will likely have no problem getting back into condition when cleared by your doctor.

Why Rest is Part of Recovery

Now let's look at how rest really works when you're recovering. Many athletes know better, but they still think of recovery as the same thing as living a sedentary lifestyle. You worry that the food you eat isn't being burned by exercise so maybe you'll get fat. But ask yourself, why does the doctor tell you to take a break and focus on light exercise even if you can isolate the injury and work out the rest of your body?

The answer, of course, is that healing takes calories. The reason both sleep and waking physical rest are a key part of recovery is that excessive exercise will steal the energy your body needs to mend damaged tissue and build new strong cells that are ready to serve. Athletes often wind up thwarting their own desire to recover quickly by exercising too much during recovery, causing the healing process to slow down instead. Your blood flow needs to prioritize the injury, not muscles you want to pump up and your body needs the calories you eat to contribute to the healing.

Bed Rest is Dead, Relative Rest is the Answer

That said, you don't actually have to keep your entire body still during recovery, just don't overtax it while you're trying to heal quickly. Many athletes especially fear the possibility that they will be told to 'bedrest' or rest their entire bodies during the recovery of a single joint or limb. Fortunately, this trend in medical advice is fading out as new research arises. It has been found that complete immobilization of most injuries is actually not ideal. Even fractures are better off if you do not put on a cast that completely immobilizes the limb or joint.

Relative Rest is the Natural Solution

For this reason, the advice of 'bed rest' has been almost universally replaced with the concept of 'relative rest'. Relative rest is what all athletes have instinctually known was true; You can absolutely work out the rest of your body while leaving one damaged part alone to heal. This can allow you to keep up with low-impact conditioning exercises to keep that muscle tone you're so worried about without jeopardizing your healing process or risking reinjury.

Braces with Relative Rest

The best way to achieve relative rest is with the use of a supportive brace. While complete immobilization is not ideal, a brace can offer support and protection with varying degrees of immobilization. And you can take the brace off when you're done exercising and ready to kick back on the couch with your foot or arm propped up safely on a pillow.

Staying Mobile Without High Stress

One of the key factors in the relative rest strategy is mobility. As you recover, do your best to keep your injury mobile. Controlling the swelling will allow you to maintain a range of motion for a damaged joint and careful treatment can allow you to do slow and gentle mobility exercises. Anyone who has recovered from a sprained ankle or pulled hamstring knows the risk of letting your tissues grow back without stretching them out. An immobilized hamstring injury, for instance, may heal shorter and therefore force you to work harder to regain your original flexibility and mobility.

Sports Braces and Stretching

Instead, use braces for support and regularly stretch your injury to safe and comfortable limits as it heals. This will ensure that the tissue remains loose, healthy, and will grow back capable of the range of motion you desire. It can also promote blood flow and even accelerate healing. However, the key is not overworking your healing tissue which is at a very high risk of reinjury.

This is especially true for injuries caused by progressive strain that may have weakened the tissue surrounding where the injury occurred. Your tissue will need time to recover, and while mobility is very important, it's vital that your mobility exercises add little to no extra stress to the injury itself and you allow the tissue time and energy to heal. This means seeking out low-stress exercises that focus primarily on simply keeping your injury mobile.

Easing Back Into Training

Finally, you will start to feel as though your injury is ready to get back into training. Wait. Check with your doctor and give it at least three more days of relative rest before you start easing yourself back into your favorite training routine. Give the tissue time to knit fully back together before adding any intense stresses. Be sure to reintroduce your previously injured muscles, bones, or joints back into the routine slowly and pay attention to any signs of discomfort. 

With patience, strategy, and the right brace for the job you should soon see the results of your recovery. Remember that rest is not the enemy. You will not lose all your form and conditioning in a few weeks but resting correctly can shorten the time you will spend waiting on recovery. And when you are finally feeling better, peak condition is once again just around the corner.

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