Returning to exercise after injury

Your bounce-back guide

“How long does it take to get back to exercise after an injury?

I have strained my back and don’t know when I should return to exercising. I’m worried that the exercises I did before are unsafe, and I don’t know what to do instead.” 

Recently, someone asked me this. First off, I get the frustration and the worry. (Seriously, with my herniated disc, I feel vulnerable and like it’s taking FOREVER to come right!)

When something like back pain flares up or an injury hits you from left field, not being able to exercise as you used to and not knowing when it’s safe to recommence with exercise can be confusing and disheartening.

And although I know on the one hand you’re itching to get back into it, so you don’t lose all the good gains you’ve made, hold the breaks a moment longer – injuries are no joke. They are your body’s way of sounding an alarm telling you something’s wrong, so we shouldn’t start back full speed ahead immediately.

Instead, making a clever comeback to exercise or any form of activity, such as running, yoga, tennis, or the like, after taking time off due to injury requires a gradual approach.

Instead of frustrating and punishing yourself about how quickly you ought to be able to get back to normal but can’t, try a little self-compassion by asking yourself this:

Isn’t it better and kinder to myself to make slow, pain-free progress towards building a healthy exercise base so I don’t risk another injury? Rather than jumping too vigorously back into my exercise routine and possibly experiencing setbacks that lead to more pain or another injury?

Sure, when an injury first happens, it’s only natural to experience anger, frustration and perhaps even sadness that you can’t do what you once did. You may wonder what you did wrong or how you could have prevented it. Often, it’s not that you did or didn’t do something; it’s just lousy luck and the natural ageing process. And understandably, you may even ask the unanswerable question, “Why me?” In this case, giving yourself a day or two for a pity party can be helpful. After that, it’s time to pick yourself up, refocus and create a new plan. Attitude is everything, so will you let this injury get you down or turn it into an opportunity? If you’ve read this far, it’s clear that you may want to choose the latter. So let’s look at several ways that you can make a start on your comeback! 

Bounce Back and Move Forward

  1. Set a new goal. You might not be able to do the 5K you signed up to run next month, but that doesn’t mean becoming a couch potato is your destiny. Instead, consider signing up for another race a few months out and put today’s efforts into rehabbing the injury. Rather than dreading the exercises that will help you recover, view them as the next physical challenge to conquer.
  2. Get creative or try something new. If the doctor says you can’t power walk for the next three weeks, are there other activities you can try? What about biking, the elliptical or even water walking? Can you do seated workouts? Ask your doctor for specific guidelines for what you can and can’t do. As always, listen to your body. You don’t want to push through pain, but it’s good to experiment to find pain-free activities. And if your Personal Trainer is anything like me, they’ll love the opportunity to get creative and find workarounds and modifications to your exercise program.
  3. Keep things in perspective. Although activity is essential, it’s just one small part of your life. Unless it’s a career-ending injury, you’ll likely look back at this ten years from now as a minor blip on the radar and not something that changed your life forever. (That said, without breaking my foot while running a half-marathon, I never would have made an effort to learn to swim and go on to complete a triathlon, both of which have been somewhat life-changing for me.) But, in truth, feeling down—and then staying down—won’t change the outcome. Instead, find other non-physical ways to challenge yourself. Use your recovery time as an opportunity for personal growth in other areas.
  4. Track your progress. When it seems like you’re not improving, it helps to have a visual reminder. Create a motivational chart that records your gains in strength, things you could do this week that you couldn’t do previously, increases in cardio endurance and other improvements. Brainstorming ways to motivate yourself is a great way to stretch your inner resourcefulness!
  5. Remember what matters most when it comes to health. If losing or maintaining weight is one of your most significant reasons for exercising, never fear. Keep in mind that the majority of weight loss progress comes from diet, not exercise. Even if you can’t exercise, you can still lose weight—or at least avoid gaining back the weight you’ve lost—if you make consistently healthy food choices and track your food daily. Progress might be slower, so adjust your expectations, but keep moving forward.   
  6. Focus on the future. Like it or not, you can’t change the past. There is no point in dwelling on how far you could run six months ago or how much weight you could bench when you were in your twenties or thirties (and, dare I say it, forties). Instead, assess where you are and develop a plan to move toward new health and fitness goals. Will you let an injury dampen your attitude and define your success, or will you rise above it and come out stronger on the other side? The choice is simple.
  7. Find a sound support system. It’s not always easy to deal with life’s ups and downs alone. However, friends, family and even co-workers cheer you on when things go well and pick you up when they don’t. The support of others after an injury could be just what you need to get motivated and begin again.

Practical Tips for Recovery

  • See your doctor for a proper diagnosis. If your injury is accompanied by pain, swelling or the inability to do your daily tasks without difficulty, it’s essential to get it checked out. Second-guessing what’s wrong often leads to procrastination, and by doing that, you risk delaying treatment and worse outcomes.
  • Remember that rest is not a treatment. If your doctor has prescribed specific exercises to help you heal, you need more than staying off your feet. Inactivity is usually worse than following a recovery plan that includes modified activity, so follow your doctor’s recommendations.
  • Take it slow. Let’s say that you’ve been away from exercise for a few weeks, and then when you woke up this morning, your knee suddenly felt so much better. That’s great news! However, that doesn’t mean trying to walk five kilometres this afternoon. Proceed cautiously and resist the urge to pick up where you left off. Instead, slowly build up the intensity and duration of your workouts, just like when you first started exercising.
  • Deal with the root cause of the injury. Talk to your exercise professional. Was it a freak accident, or did it happen while performing a specific activity or movement? Your training professional may be able to help. For example, one way to find muscle imbalance or weakness is to undergo a movement analysis test or muscle output sEMG (surface electromyography); the latter gives a window into your muscle’s functioning beneath the skin. A certified personal trainer should perform both of these tests. The results will not only help your trainer to write you a better exercise program, but it could also reveal areas that would benefit from further investigation by your doctor or specialist. Either way, by getting to the source of the problem, you can make a plan to correct it and reduce the chance of recurrence.

In Sum

The right mindset and a specific action plan will set you up for success, regardless of how significantly your injury has set you back. So, be flexible and patient because success is still within your reach!

Sharon Tomkins

Sharon is a New Zealand qualified Health Coach and Personal Trainer, as well as an ICF Certified Coach and Accredited Coaching Supervisor. Sharon was awarded the 'Health & Wellness Coach of the Year' 2022, by The Health Coaches Australia & New Zealand Association.
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