At some point we all become weekend warriors. The weight of work schedules, commuting, carpools and travel become increasingly difficult to manage. Exercise becomes relegated to early mornings or quick gym workouts that don’t have the regularity of those carefree and time-filled days of yesterday.
Other than making it harder to justify that extra piece of dessert, these infrequent workouts can make injuries more likely when we do find time to play softball, soccer or ski. When muscles and joints, especially those accustomed to the more placid demands of the elliptical or recumbent bike, are subjected to the intensity and acceleration of more dynamic sports like soccer, muscle strains can occur.
Muscle injuries are a common injury even in those that play sports at the elite level and a frequent cause of missed competition. A recent study of professional Australian footballers (the Aussie version of rugby) found hamstring injuries to be the most common injury, accounting for 12% of all injuries. Unfortunately for weekend warriors, the studies’ researchers identified increasing age as a risk factor for injury.
Now don’t despair, several other, more correctable factors were associated with muscular injury risk; muscle strength and previous injury. Surprisingly, a lack of hamstring muscle flexibility was only weakly associated with hamstring muscle injuries. However, with injuries to the upper thigh or hip flexor muscles, muscle flexibility played a more important role.
But what constitutes a strain? When does lasting soreness after a hard workout mean injury? Terms like “muscle pull” or “tear” are used to describe muscular injuries but there is little consistency with how these injuries are classified. Although it may be difficult to find common descriptive terms for muscular injury, there is consensus on how limiting these injuries can be to the professional and recreational athlete.
In general terms, muscular injuries can be lumped into three grades, depending on severity. Grade I injuries refer to mild strains without any tearing or disruption of the muscle while Grade III injuries involve extensive muscle tearing. Grade II or III injuries often require the use of crutches and months of recovery. Regardless of grade or severity, the difficulties with muscle strains can be due to their recurrent nature.
In many cases, recurrence of a muscle strain can result from inadequate healing time after the initial injury. While painful and debilitating in the first week after injury, the injured muscle can seemingly recover quickly. However, despite the lack of pain or dysfunction even a mildly strained muscle can remain vulnerable for 6-8 weeks after the initial injury. Hurrying back to soccer or softball too quickly can doom the weekend warrior to chronic problems.
So what can you do? First exercise your patience; several extra weeks of healing can make a huge difference in keeping a muscle injury in the past. Second, exercise your legs, but do so in a way that doesn’t overstress the affected muscle. The stationary bike, yes I know it can be a little boring, is usually the best place to start cardiovascular exercise. The bike can be spiced up with in and out of the seat interval training that will keep it interesting and maintain conditioning for the eventual return to sports or harder activity. Additionally, as stressed by the above research, a strong muscle is more resistant to strain so initiating a strengthening program that gradually increases the strength of the injured muscle is an important factor in treating the problem.
Stretching can play a role in the rehab process but should not be included in the first two weeks of treatment for a strained muscle as it can pull on already stressed and healing muscle fibers.
And please, if you are going to embody the label weekend warrior, doing some consistent and vigorous preparatory exercise before trying to channel your inner Mia Hamm, Kobe Bryant or Shaun White, is also good idea.