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How do you know you’re fit enough to return to sport?

You are training well, and you are physically fit, but suddenly injury hits. A pain in your calf, knee, hip or back could seriously affect your ability to continue to train in your chosen sport. Injury, whether from an accident or not, can really set you back, and a reduction in fitness is unfortunately extremely quick to follow. Just a week off training and your performance drops significantly. After a month off, you need to almost start again from scratch.

So, how do you know when you can start training again? Following an injury, you must stop training or taking part in sport and rest, so that you don't do any further damage that could result in a much longer recovery period and even more time away from your chosen sport.

Early treatment

It is really important to first think about early treatment. If you have had an accident you should get early medical intervention to check the severity of the injury. X-rays or other medical investigations may be key to determine the exact damage caused.

Some injuries can heal faster or easier than others - for example, a broken rib, a broken small toe, or damaged coccyx just need time to repair by themselves in most cases. Your medical professional will be able to advise further on the extent of your injury and what further treatment or rest time may be required.

If your injury is muscular, then the RICE method (rest, ice, compression and elevation) are highly recommended. You should do this repeatedly until all the swelling has gone, being careful not to cause an ice burn. The RICE method will help to decrease inflammation, pain or swelling caused by the injury and will aid healing and recovery. If you don't find any improvement after using this method, then you should contact a medical professional for advice.

Diagnosis

The correct diagnosis is the most important first step in dealing with an injury and is essential to ensure the most effective treatment is undertaken. For non-urgent injuries, the first stop should be your pharmacist, followed by your GP for more difficult injuries, or long-term issues, and finally Accident and Emergency for more severe injuries or accidents.

Other specialists to consider consulting are chiropractors, sports massage therapists and physiotherapists for further treatment and advice. They can also assist with the identification and treatment of multiple injuries and give further advice regarding exercises to strengthen the area affected.

Yoga and/or Pilates can also be extremely beneficial for increasing core fitness, flexibility and movement to the body, and for reducing the risk of further injury. The importance of the core for strength and body control cannot be under-estimated. The use of a support or brace to provide additional protection to the site of the injury can also be extremely beneficial to ensure that further damage is not caused, whether that is with the re-introduction of training, or from general movement and day-to-day activities.

Reintroducing training

Once the swelling, bruising or pain has ceased, and after following all medical advice, exploratory light training can be re-introduced. You should not expect to be able to go straight back in to a high-intensity workout, or a full training plan, but you should first try very gentle training, only gradually introducing longer sessions providing that no further pain or discomfort is experienced relating to your injury.

If you are following a training plan, or are using the services of a coach, then you should discuss getting back into training with them and consider scaling back your plans until you are completely injury free. A gradual increase in training load, and a long rehabilitation, are far more time-effective than hitting it hard, becoming injured again and having to sit out the rest of the year.

If you have a specific event that you are working towards, then it may be extremely tempting to increase training more significantly or to push yourself for the event. However, you should err on the side of caution wherever possible and should check with a medical professional or coaching professional about your plans beforehand.

Remember that missing one 5 Km run, one bike ride, or one training session isn’t going to make a massive difference to your fitness overnight. More light or moderate exercise over several days and/or weeks are far more effective in helping you to return to fitness.

Cross-training can also be very beneficial. For example, knee injuries suffer greatly from running, however, swimming is a lighter impact sport, and cycling can provide a great cardiovascular workout, without the same stress on your body. You should take medical advice regarding suitable cross-training opportunities, as some are better than others for particular injuries - for example, breaststroke can affect knees in some cases, much more than front crawl or backstroke, due to the kick out of the leg during the stroke.

If you are introducing cycling as a new activity, then a good bike fit can also be extremely beneficial to ensure that your knee is correctly positioned to avoid further stress on the affected area.

Remember, however, that gentle activity is good - even breathing exercises can be carried out if you are bed bound!

So, a gradual return to exercise and training with alternative cross-training opportunities, and not plunging in too fast, with proper muscular support and damage limitation are the most effective ways to test whether you are indeed ready to return to sport. Enjoy your training!