CrossFit is like any other sport or fitness methodology—we practice it, we prepare for it AND we accept the fact that it carries a risk of injury—as does running, weightlifting, bodybuilding, basketball, etc. There are, however, many things we can do to keep ourselves injury-free. Consider this a checklist to start with.
1. Warm-Up Properly
A warm-up serves two crucial purposes—it enhances performance and prevents injury. An active warm-up that includes dynamic (not static) stretching activates your muscles and increases body heat and blood flow. An increase in blood flow means that your muscles will be receiving more oxygen (which is good for performance), and an increased body temperature helps your muscles contract and relax more rapidly, making them more efficient. In addition, when your muscles are warm and receiving more blood, they are more ‘pliable’, which means that your flexibility—thus your range of motion—is increased. Your range of motion directly translates to your ability to execute a given movement, both efficiently and safely. If the WOD calls for repeated overhead squats and you have neglected to warm-up and mobilize your hips and shoulders, you’re effectively placing a lot of strain on the muscles and ligaments that surround those joints in order to perform repeated reps.
Even though your coach should lead you through an effective warm-up before class begins, it doesn’t hurt to perform your own warm-up prior to class starting. It should last a minimum of 10 minutes and include plenty of time to work on your mobility in preparation for the upcoming workout.
2. Post-WOD Mobilization and Recovery
Just as important as warming up for a workout is cooling down afterwards. During an intense training effort, metabolic waste products are lodged in your body all the way down to the individual muscle cells. The fluid that surrounds them—as well as the capillaries, veins, and lungs—needs to be flushed out before you rest. On top of that, your muscle fibers and tendons will have been damaged from the WOD, so you need to take the time to cool down, mobilize and recover appropriately in order to allow your body to repair itself.
Post-WOD mobilization, when combined with some light exercise as part of a cool-down, helps to remove waste products (like lactic acid) from the body and decreases blood pooling—if you stop exercising suddenly and don’t cool down, your heart rate slows abruptly and the additional blood that was pumping during the workout can pool in your lower body, causing dizziness and fainting. Furthermore, multiple studies claim that stretching after physical activity allows the greatest increase in muscle flexibility, which, as mentioned above, is key to improving your performance as an athlete and preventing unnecessary injuries.
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In addition to mobilization and cooling down, recovery from a workout includes nutrition and active recovery. After a particularly draining WOD, your body is crying out for the nutrients it needs to repair itself, which is why you need to drink plenty of water and gulp down that protein shake, if you have one. If you neglect to provide your body such vital nutrients, you hamper your recovery and your muscles may still be weak the next time you workout, putting yourself in a risky position to get hurt.
3. Utilize proper technique, weight and scale when necessary
These three culprits are the main reason(s) for injury in sport—not just CrossFit. We (sadly) see it all too often in the box. An athlete that has forgotten to check their ego at the door will throw on an RX weight to their bar and proceed to perform the most horrifying snatches you will ever see. No wonder they tear their rotator cuff and CrossFit gets a bad rap. Part of being a CrossFitter is understanding what weight you can move, when you can move it, and how effectively you can move it. These are important factors to consider because if ignored, it will almost certainly result in an injury.
Thankfully, there is a quick fix, and it starts with you. Have an honest conversation with yourself when you see the WOD on the whiteboard—even talk to your coach about it—as to whether you can perform each movement that is listed with the weight required both safely and efficiently. This doesn’t mean going RX if you’ve been able to hit that clean weight once or twice before. You need to be confident that you can perform multiple repetitions at that weight. If you can’t, and you know that you can’t, either lower the weight accordingly, or scale the movement entirely if you lack the flexibility and/or technique to perform it in the first place. There is no shame in doing this! You are simply moving through the progressions in a smart manner, and you’ll probably have far better technique when it comes to performing a movement as prescribed.
A final point of emphasis is to work on your skills during open gym or when you have some free time. Practice helps you learn how to move weight (and your own body) in a more efficient manner—benefiting your overall performance and reducing the risk of injury.
4. Avoiding overtraining/listen to your body
As I’ve mentioned above, your body undergoes tremendous strain during a WOD, and it needs all the elements of proper recovery (nutrients, mobilization and rest) to properly repair itself; If that means taking a day or two away from training entirely, than so be it. People often make the mistake of assuming that they need to train every day of the week in order to be successful in this sport and achieve their fitness goals. False. Rest and active recovery gives your muscle fibers (and connective tissues) time to heal and repair themselves, resulting in an overall stronger muscle. This is the process in which you get stronger, so continually putting stress on them by working out everyday will actually do more harm than good. It will result in weaker muscles that are more prone to excessive damage and injury.
As such, it’s crucial that you listen to what your body is telling you. Now, there is a difference between the types of pain you may experience in a workout. Lactic acid build-up, gasping for air and muscle fatigue are common symptoms associated with a CrossFit WOD, but it may be the case that these symptoms are generated by your brain and have nothing to do with the state of your body at that time. Your brain assumes that you’re pushing yourself too hard and regulates your performance accordingly, when in reality you could continue to push at such a level for an extended period of time. On the other hand, when you feel sharp, distinctive muscular/joint pain, dizziness or an inability to breathe, these are clear signs that something is wrong and you need to stop immediately. It makes NO sense to push through pain that is becoming increasingly more severe in order to hit a PR. You’re not at the Games, you’re not getting paid to workout, and you will hurt yourself.
5. Be aware of the ‘little’ injuries
Don’t ignore or overlook those little nagging injuries—the sprains, rips, or muscle flares—if you do, they could lead to far bigger ones. Much as you should avoid overtraining to prevent serious injury, you need to be aware of the value in taking one or two days off to let those small injuries subside. If you don’t swallow your ego and refuse to take a few days off, that small injury might develop into a serious one that puts you on the sideline for a month or more.
Listen to what your body is telling you, and adjust accordingly from WOD to WOD, day to day. Follow this checklist, and make it a point to keep yourself healthy and free from injury. Doing so will mean that you can continue to enjoy CrossFit (and life) for years to come—which is the most important thing anyway!
Photo courtesy of Fábio de Albuquerque Vilalba/CC BY-NC 2.0