The biggest mistake recreational athletes make

Posted on February 23, 2015

(Last Updated On: March 27, 2016)

If you hadn’t worked out in a while, a year, six months, it could even only be a couple weeks, then you went into the gym, did a bunch of squatting, maybe some lunges, how would you expect to feel the next few days?

In pain.

The biggest mistake recreational athletes make is not giving their sport(s) the same level of acknowledgment as they do squatting. Or whatever gym workout.

I recently had someone email me a client inquiry. One of their goals is to be able to spontaneously take part in things like bicycling, going for a run, squash, etc. To do these things intensely; without having to worry about injuring themselves, their knees flaring up, you get the idea. To condense my response, it was, “That’s impossible.”

This is not because of this person’s history or due to anything unique about them. To up and go do a random activity, intensely -this often means sporting esque things- is to deliberately increase your odds of incurring an issue. That issue could be intense soreness the next few days, or an injury.

If you’re in a rec league and you haven’t played in a while -maybe it’s that month break you get between seasons, maybe you’ve been busy, maybe you were on vacation- and you go play as if you hadn’t just taken some time off, you’re asking for it. If I had to attribute the cause behind most recreational athletic issues I see, this would be it. And it’s not one time. It’s a cycle.

  • X activity seems to be causing issues.
  • Take a break from X.
  • …Few weeks go by…
  • Go do X activity again for a couple of hours.
  • “Why am I still having issues? I took time off?”
  • Take another break from X.
  • …Few more weeks go by; read around the internet; implement some exercises…
  • Go do X activity again for a couple of hours.
  • Take another break from X. Usually it’s a long break this time.
  • Maybe a few months go by. Some physical therapy gets thrown in the mix. A doctor visit or two.
  • Go do X again.
  • “My body is broken. I’m old. I just can’t do it anymore.”

Maybe some time off is what you needed, maybe some corrective exercises were what you needed, but you then took a few weeks off and squatted intensely after not doing it for a while. And you did it again. Then you took a few months off and squatted! Why on earth would you NOT be in pain? In fact, with the longer lay off, barring very particular overuse issues, you’d expect MORE pain.

You never took the time to build up, consistently.

Just like you shouldn’t go into the gym after a layoff and attempt to lift the same weights you were lifting beforehand. Just like you should slowly increase the intensity of your workouts. So to should you do this with other physical activity.

This isn’t as fun as merely saying, “Let’s go play football today.” Or when your friend texts you, “Hey, we need an extra tonight, you in?” and you say yes, even though you haven’t played indoor soccer in 15 years. Or randomly going on an 8 mile hike and feeling wonderful the next few days anyways. Or playing an extra two games of racquetball even though you usually only play two.

But this is how it works. These are the rules. A body not acclimated to football, or hiking, or a certain amount of these activities, is a body which is at best going to be ticked off, and it’s more likely going to be royally pissed, if you all of a sudden do these things without prepping it. If you randomly double the weight you’ve been squatting, you wouldn’t be shocked if something bad happened. So why are you surprised when you randomly double the amount of racquetball you’ve been playing?

Doing basically any activity you haven’t been doing regularly -that’s a couple times a week; not once a month, or every week or two, or “when I feel like it”- at a reasonable intensity is cause to be cautious. I don’t mean you’ve been lifting your legs so watch out for running. I mean you’ve been doing X lift for your legs, so watch out even for Y lift for your legs. You’ve been squatting as a leg workout, but you should still watch out if you are about to implement split squatting. The body adapts this specifically.

Roughly every month I have clients start some new exercises. In comparison to what the person has been doing, I always try to do these new exercises with 1) Less volume 2) Less intensity. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been squatting for a year and move to leg pressing. It doesn’t matter if we move from flat bench pressing to incline pressing. Any new activity is implemented cautiously and progressively. This gives the person time to learn the movement, get used to it, and avoid soreness. It also gives us a couple days to see how the person reacts.

If in a couple days the person comes back to me and goes, “My lower back felt a bit sore after last session,” I know that new thing we did needs to be examined closely. And it’s better to introduce something lightly and find the person had a minor issue, than to introduce something in a balls to the wall manner and find out the person can’t move for three days afterwards.

Because soreness is not a sign you really worked your muscles last session. Soreness is a sign of working your body in a way it’s not used to. In a way it didn’t like. The more trained you are in a specific movement or area, the less sore you get even though you’re better able to work that movement. You’re able to do it more intensely, more regularly, more efficiently. Getting sore, especially regularly, is a sure fire sign something is wrong.

“Going for a run” every now and then is a great way to be really sore every now and then. To have a bad relationship with exercise. And get a stress fracture.

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Pain