How to Walk the Tightrope of Recovery
by Dr. Erin Boynton
Tell me if this sounds familiar. After months of recovery, your injury starts to feel better. You can't hit as hard as you used to, but you're getting stronger every week. Then comes game day. After weeks of being sidelined, you're back on the court. You look ready. You feel ready. But two hours into your first match, you hear an ugly pop and, right away, you know--you're injured. Again. Those weeks you spent in recovery? Wasted. You're back to zero.
Stories like these are all-too-familiar to elite coaches and athletes. Too many of us don't take the the proper steps or the proper time to recover, and others just aren't sure what to do. After all, the tightrope of recovery is hard to walk. Push too hard too fast, and you can end up re-injuring yourself. Spend all day in bed, and your muscles stiffen and atrophy, making a proper recovery near-impossible. So what do you do? How do you get back in the game and stay there?
Well, like all journeys, recovery is a process, and you need to take it step by step. Here's how:
1. Change the way you move
Healing begins with changing the way you move. What caused the injury in the first place? You see, repetitive motions (like serves and forehands) and faulty movement patterns (like poorly executed squats) create imbalances in the body. Left unresolved, these imbalances become injuries. So changing the way you move must be part of the solution.
2. Stress the tissue enough, but not too much
Motion is an crucial part of recovery, as it helps the healing tissues line up properly along the sites of stress. However, too much motion can rupture the healing tissues. Hence, the principle: enough, but not too much. It's a tricky balance, but your body will help guide the way. Remember: pain is the body's voice, and if what you're doing hurts, back off. Likewise, swelling is also a sign to stop.
3. Start with simple motion, and then add complex motion
Start simply by moving the affected area in linear planes of motion: front to back and side to side. Then, once you're comfortable and pain-free moving the in the linear plane, you can slowly add more complex, rotational movement.
For example, if you're working on a lunge, it's best to start with a simple, straight-forward lunge. Then, you can progress to a lateral lunge, and, finally, a lunge with rotation.
4. Gradually increase the load
Once you can comfortably go through the full range of motion your activity demands--raising and swinging your arm for a serve, as an example--then you begin strengthening by gradually increasing the load. Start with isometric exercises, then progress to concentric exercises.
The slow-and-steady principle also applies to sports-specific movements. So, if you're a tennis player, start by serving at the service line with a maximum of 50% effort. Then, once you can easily do this without pain, you can move to 3/4 court and kick up the intensity by 10-15%, until, eventually, you're behind the baseline serving at maximum intensity. Just remember--don't rush it. As you progress, your muscles will grow stronger and more coordinated, but it takes time.
5. Listen to your body
Recovery timelines vary from injury to injury and person to person. Sure, there are general guidelines, but no hard-and-fast rules. And so, it may sound flaky, but the best guideline is your body. How do you feel? Is there pain? Swelling? If so, step back. If not, proceed with care and caution.