Spring Exercise: How to prevent injuries and stay safe after a winter inside

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After months of cold, gray winter, the first signs of spring send Chicagoans flocking outdoors for their first warm(er) weather runs, bike rides and workouts of the season. The balmy weather and sunshine are enticing, but can cause unexpected injuries for those doing too much, too soon, after too many months cooped up inside.

Whether it’s because you’ve only been doing indoor workouts or because your winter involved too much Netflix-meets-couch time, spring sports injuries can be common and can sideline the most well-intentioned weekend warrior during what's arguably the best time of the year.

With that in mind, we asked University of Chicago Medicine sports medicine experts to give us the best advice to stay safe during springtime exercise following a winter hiatus. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: Why are springtime injuries different from winter ones?

A: In the winter, we see a lot of broken bones, muscle strains and ligament injuries that happen when people fall on the ice or injure themselves doing winter activities like skiing. When the weather warms up, athletes tend to want to go back to their sports and quickly make up for the time they were inside. But increasing intensity and volume quickly can often lead to tendonitis.

Q: What can people do during the winter to prevent injuries when they head outside in the spring?

A: In order to perform at the desired level and protect ourselves from injuries, we all need to take steps to prepare for our sport. That means spending time during the off-season diversifying the types of activities we do. Let me put it another way: we need to make sure we work our bodies in different ways. It's important to help decrease the stress of a repetitive motion, which goes a long way toward preventing injuries. For people with spring sporting events lined up, make sure your winter includes exploring new exercises to activate your core and build strength on the upper and lower body. Pilates, yoga, swimming, aqua jogging and weight training are great cross-training activities to help stress the body in a different pattern. It is also a great way to motivate yourself in those gloomy winter weather days. For runners and triathletes, strength training is not intended to build the muscle mass like a weight lifter but to develop strength, power and endurance. It has been shown to improve running performance and decrease injuries.

Q: What are your top tips to help people ease into spring exercise and avoid injuries?

A: There’s a lot of options! Here’s my best five:

  1. Do a different activity every day and cross train. For example, one day you will run and the next day you will focus on strength training or another activity.
  2. Start with shorter distances (or a shorter duration for your workout) and build up progressively from there. Make sure you don’t increase your mileage by more than 10 percent a week, especially if you’re running. For example, if you ran three miles, three different times this week, your total weekly mileage is nine miles. Don’t run more than 10 total miles the following week. Build from there. Doing too much too soon means you may have to sit out the first weeks of spring nursing an injury. No one wants that.
  3. Establish a good stretching routine. And make sure it encompasses your whole body. There’s a lot of resources online if you’re not sure where to start. For whole body workouts, the seven-minute workout has been scientific validated to demonstrate benefits.
  4. Incorporate as many different activities as you can into your workday. That could mean taking the stairs at work, do a walking meeting (when it gets warmer), sitting on an exercise ball at your desk, or doing calf raises and lunges while you’re on a conference call (nobody is watching you and will not think you are an exercise freak). Short bursts throughout the day can help maintain flexibility and strength when you can't go outside. The goal is to work hard and smart with our time to help achieve our goal.
  5. Speed should be the last thing you try to tack on to your training if you just started running. Once you’re comfortable with the mileage and duration of your workout tempo runs or interval training will be next steps.

Q: Ok, so we accidentally went out and ran eight miles all at once because it was so nice out, even though we haven’t run more than three miles all winter. Now we’re limping. When is it time to go to the doctor for help?

A: My best advice is to make sure you listen to your body. Working out is not about fighting through pain. Muscle soreness and the sensation of a good workout is what we are looking for. If pain has been persistent for more than two weeks even though you’ve been resting it, icing it and limiting your physical activity, it’s time to have it looked at. Swelling and bruising could indicate a more serious injury.

To schedule an appointment with UChicago Medicine’s sports medicine team contact 1-888-824-0200 or request an appointment online.