Overuse injuries can be the bane of physically active people, from elite athletes to weekend warriors. Excessive, repeated stress on tendons, bones and joints over weeks or months can lead to painful knees, shin splints, tennis elbow and other overuse injuries. Most of these problems stem from the "terrible toos": trying to do too much, too hard, too soon. Not getting enough rest and using poor technique or equipment can also make you vulnerable.
You can prevent overuse injuries by following some common-sense guidelines and listening to your body.
Common overuse injuries
Unlike the sudden pain of a torn ligament or sprained ankle, overuse injuries develop slowly and show up more subtly. At first you might feel minor pain or tenderness in the affected area just after you exercise. Eventually the pain becomes chronic and may keep you from participating in your sport or everyday activities.
Common overuse injuries include:
- Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) — Pain and weakness at the outside of the elbow
- Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis) — Pain and weakness at the inside of the elbow
- Swimmer's shoulder (rotator-cuff tendinitis) — Pain with overhead activity, problems sleeping on the shoulder, weakness of the shoulder
- Runner's knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome) — Pain around or underneath the kneecap, made worse with running, jumping or cycling, going up or down stairs, and sitting with knees bent
- Shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome) — Leg pain associated with running
- Achilles tendinitis — Ankle pain associated with running, dancing or jumping
- Plantar fasciitis — Heel or foot pain that's often worse with your first steps of the day
- Stress fractures — Pain in the foot, lower leg, hip or other area that's made worse with weight-bearing activity
Limits and common sense
To avoid overuse injuries without sacrificing your commitment to fitness, follow these guidelines:
- Increase your workouts gradually. Observe the 10 percent rule — don't increase your workout time or distance by more than 10 percent each week. If you're currently running 10 miles a week, add one mile or less a week to your total.
- Warm up, cool down and stretch. Warm up for five minutes before your activity by exercising at a low intensity, then do some slow stretches that you hold for about 30 seconds. After exercise, cool down for five minutes, then stretch again.
- Rest when needed. Fatigue may increase your chance of injury, so allow time for your body to recover and heal. Include rest days and easy days in your schedule.
- Cross-train with other activities. Pursue a variety of exercises to give your joints and muscles a break. If your main focus is an aerobic exercise such as running, incorporate strength training into your routine — and vice versa.
- Learn proper technique. Take lessons or work with a coach or trainer to learn the correct techniques — especially if you're learning a new sport or using a new piece of equipment.
- Get the right equipment. Choose the appropriate shoes for your activity, and replace them when they're worn out. Consider using orthotics or a heel cushion if you experience foot pain. Running shoes should be well cushioned.
- Pay attention to evenly working your muscles Strengthen muscles on both sides of your body to avoid imbalances.
Above all, listen to your body. Don't ignore pain — it signals that you may be heading for injury. Remember, it's better to take a day or two off than to find yourself laid up for several weeks waiting for an injury to heal.