As an overweight person who trains regularly, I’ve pulled a lot of muscles over the years. Here are the ones I’ve encountered and what I did to keep moving.
WARNING: Advice on these pages are taken from my own personal experience and do not constitute professional advice. Everyone’s experience and ability is different as is everyone’s treatment for, and recovery from, an injury. If you experience an injury during a sports activity, please seek professional medical advice before proceeding to treatment or commencing training. Before starting on any new physical activity it is a good idea to consult a Doctor. It may also be beneficial to work with a Coach or a Guide to develop the necessary skills to support such activity.
I was in the middle of the road, crossing it on the walk back to my work after the lunchtime Gym Session when I collapsed. A sudden sharp pain burned across my lower back and I suddenly couldn’t stand up. I lurched towards a nearby lamp post and hugged it in an attempt to stay upright until someone from a delivery van stopped to help.
On that occasion the Doctor concluded that I had overworked my upper body in the gym which had weakened my stomach muscles. This put extra strain on my back trying to keep me upright and the muscles in the lower back pulled up. With minor pain killers and rest I was up and about again in a week. Over the years I’ve had to deal with pulled calves and hamstrings, steadily weakening knees and, yes, lots of other episodes of lower back pain.
The root cause is often the same. Training whilst being overweight. I’ve learnt to accept these as a hazard of my passion. What the Doctors and Physio’s have taught me over several visits is how to overcome these and get moving again.
Know your limits and work within them
As they say, prevention is better than the cure and the best way to prevent pulled muscles and strains is as follows:
- Stretch and warm up before exercise
- Know your limits and train within them
- Stretch and warm down after exercise
The occasion of my first pulling the muscles in my lower back came after a year of inactivity and a job overseas which involved lots of restaurant food and alcoholic drinks. I had gained a significant amount of weight and my fitness had almost completely disappeared. On my return to training, a sense of guilt and unease about my declining fitness had me trying to train at the fitness level I had been at 12 months previous. This was way beyond the capabilities of my new body.
I now find it’s best to cover some light exercise to gauge the level I am at any time I start a new training program. It’s ok to be less fit than you used to be. The fact that you have started training again should be enough to encourage you.
My last post entitled It’s A Stretch But You Can Do It gives a detailed description of the daily routine I use to get my muscles ready for exercise. This is one of two aspects of the warm up. The next is to raise the heart rate a wee bit and get the circulation going. This can be done simply by a small very gentle jog for 100m or so, or doing the warm up exercises the big events tend to organize before the start of big road races.
A good Warm Up:
- Loosens the muscles
- Kick starts the circulation which will keep muscles supplied with oxygen during your activity
- Helps reduce the strain associated with the rise from Resting to Working Heart Rate by initiating this before the activity begins
Warming down is normally a much gentler repeat of the warm up exercises. This helps the muscles relax from the strain of the activity. I also find a bath and some deep breathing helps a lot.
Regulate your heart and lungs during activities
During the activity try to work below your Max Heart Rate (See my post entitled Putting Your Heart Into Your Dreams). Try and regulate your breathing. Slow deep breaths are better than quick shallow breaths for feeding the muscles with oxygen.
In addition, slow deep breaths have a tendency to slow your heart rate giving you more of a margin to work in between your current heart rate and Max Heart Rate.
Never work through pain
Never push through the pain. Learn to recognize the normal discomfort of pushing yourself physically and stop if you feel any pain beyond that.
If you are training hard, there will be a certain amount of acceptable and manageable discomfort. Your heart may be pounding, lungs bursting as you draw in heavy, deep breaths and muscles may ache slightly as lactic acid starts to build in them as a result of your exertion. You can find out a bit more about Lactic acid here. These are all feelings you will already be, or will become, familiar with as your training progresses.
Occasionally however, muscles can suddenly pull. You will normally then feel a sharp pain which could be accompanied by a lack of free movement or even a loss of support in the affected area. This is likely an indication that a muscle group has gone beyond the rigours of physical activity and has become damaged in some way. Pushing on through the pain will only increase the damage.
Remember also that your heart is a muscle which gets put under strain with the rest of your muscles when you train. You would be well advised to be familiar with the symptoms of heart distress such as chest pains, excessive breathlessness or dizziness. The British Heart Foundation has some more detailed advice on symptoms of heart problems and what to do if you encounter them. You can read their advice here.
Apply Hot/Cold Treatment
Whenever I start jogging again after resting for a while, I tend to pull the muscles at the back of my legs. My calves (at the bottom of my legs) are the most common to go but I have also pulled a hamstring (at the top) especially if opening my stride or sprinting.
As with any pulled muscles, rest is essential until the pain has completely subsided. Hot and cold treatment is another method I find helpful. Apply some heat pad or cream (I use a cream called Deep Relief but most people are familiar with Deep Heat) over the inflamed muscle. A few hours later, apply an ice pack. This can be a bag of frozen veg (Remember to ask Mum first 🙂 )
- Never apply an ice pack directly to the skin. Keep either a layer of clothing or a towel between the two.
- Apply for about 20 minutes.
Foam Roller Massage
It is also helpful to deliver some form of deep massage to the affected area. A great way to do this for calves and hamstrings is with the use of a Foam Roller. A Foam Roller is a tubular device about 4ft long normally with some form of dimples or indentations on the outer surface to help massage muscles.
- Place the Foam Roller on the ground and sit with your legs over it.
- Cross your good leg over your bad leg with the bad leg resting on top of the Foam Roller.
- Position yourself so that the Foam Roller is sitting below the bottom of the affected muscle.
- With your hands out behind you raise your bottom off the ground so that your weight is being supported by the Foam Roller.
- Push yourself forward over the Foam Roller.
- Your affected muscle will now be pushed into and rolling over the Foam Roller which will deliver a deep massage to that muscle.
Use Elasticated Supports
Before leaving calves and hamstrings, it’s worth discussing support as you ease back into training. There are lots of different types of elasticated support for the different parts of the legs like the ones shown below.
For overall support of all the muscles in the legs, you can get a set of Support Leggings. These are tight fitting leggings with a slightly elasticated material and they provide some support over both your legs. I am wearing support leggings in the stretch video below.
As far as my knees are concerned, there has been a steady decline in the strength of them over a number of years. On the final day of the Everest Base Camp Trek in 2016 I needed one elasticated support on one of my knees. Now, if I’m going for a jog or onto the hills, I need 2 quite heavy neoprene Knee Supports like the ones shown below. I need one on each leg. It’s not so much that my knees are particularly sore, just that they are getting steadily weaker which means it is very hard to balance on rough terrain or steep descents.
Again, if your knees become sore or swollen, hot and cold treatment as described for the calves and hamstrings can bring down the swelling and ease the pain.
Regularly stretch your back and hips
Lower Back Pain has been something of an ongoing problem for me. This is normally due to an inflammation of the muscles in the Sacro-Iliac Joints in my hips and the most effective pain relief I have come across is through stretching exercises that my Physio worked with me. They are described in the Lower Back and Figure 4 Sections of the post It’s A Stretch But You Can Do It. You can also see a demo in the video below.
It is worth noting that back pain can radiate down into your legs and actually be the source of pulled hamstrings or calves. When my physio introduced me to the Back Stretches I have discussed, these exercises ended an ongoing spate of pulled calves and hamstrings I had been experiencing throughout the summer.
Use Trekking Poles
If you are trekking as opposed to jogging, a set of Trekking Poles will help support your back and your knees. Adjustable is better so that they can be shortened for ascents and lengthened for descents and folded away when not in use.
A couple of things I have come across when using trekking poles:
- My personal experience with trekking poles with built in springs to absorb impacts has been dire. They just fall apart on me and I don’t find any benefit in the shock absorbing action
- Never attempt to scramble with Trekking Poles. Always pack them away until you are able to walk on the trail again (Sounds obvious but it is an issue I have come across)
- Always remember to still use your legs, especially on a descent. I had a tendency at one time just to lean on my poles and then step down. All this does is decrease your natural ability to balance.
- If your lifestyle is such that you are mostly sitting down at work or rest, try and do a few short walks during the week without trekking poles. For a few years my only walking was on the hills with trekking poles. The rest of the time I was sitting down. Over time I started to find that I could not walk very far unsupported.
- Remember trekking poles are not walking sticks. That is to say they are designed to help someone with healthy legs and upper body in rough terrain. If you find you need them just to stay upright, it’s time to take a rest if you can or, if this is a longer term problem, seek medical advice.
So there you have the extent of my own aches, pulls and sprains and what I have done or used to keep moving. I hope you don’t suffer nearly as many as I have but also hope this has been useful if you have done.
It’s not easy taking on difficult physical activities when you’re overweight. You need to keep convincing yourself that you can do it through injury and bad training days and especially when those around you aren’t so sure. On the event you need to ignore the surprised and concerned looks from other participants and believe in yourself even when you have problems. I experienced all of this on my way to Everest Base Camp. Read about the barriers to self belief and how I overcame them in my next post here.
Learning to carry your weight can be just as amazing as managing to lose it. Learn how by reading this series, Worth Your Weight In Gold, from the start here.
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