Anne (Holly) Johnson, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Mass General, says patients across all fitness levels often make the mistake of accelerating their workout too aggressively.

Whether you are looking to get back in shape or take your existing workout regimen to the next level this summer, you should take certain precautions.

“If you’re beginning from a very low-level baseline, slowly increasing your activity is the safest way to proceed.”

Anne (Holly) Johnson, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital Foot & Ankle Center, says patients across all fitness levels often make the mistake of accelerating their workout too aggressively. As a result, they suffer injuries like plantar fasciitis (a common cause of heel pain), Achilles tendonitis and other tendon problems in the foot and ankle.

“Exercise should be a part of everyone’s daily life and routine,” notes Dr. Johnson, who captained the Harvard University women’s ice hockey team and was the team doctor for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Olympic Ice Hockey team. “But to do it safely, you have to be disciplined.”

The Dangers of ‘Going from 0 to 100’

On one end of the fitness spectrum are people who aren’t in great shape and haven’t exercised regularly in a while. They are finally ready to make a healthy life change and eager to start an impactful workout regimen. The danger is, their body may not be ready for it. In this case, they need to avoid the temptation to “go from 0 to 100 in a very short time,” Dr. Johnson says.

Anne (Holly) Johnson, MD
Anne (Holly) Johnson, MD

“If you’re beginning from a very low-level baseline, slowly increasing your activity is the safest way to proceed,” she explains. “Also, take the time to recover between workouts. It’s critical to rest if you’re having new aches and pains.”

Dr. Johnson says that if you haven’t run before or haven’t run in a long time, you could begin with a half-mile jog and then increase the distance a half mile every other day. Each time you increase your distance, you should be “starting from a zero-pain position.”

While it can be frustrating to feel restrained in your workouts, it is even more frustrating to get sidelined for an extended period due to injury. Dr. Johnson adds that if you don’t have much experience exercising, seek out professional guidance from an athletic trainer or physical therapist.

Workout Warriors at Risk

On the other end of the fitness spectrum are those who exercise all the time. They are already in great shape but want to get in even better shape or prepare for an upcoming race. Rather than moving forward gradually, they bump up their training regimen (e.g. going on much longer runs) too quickly.

“Even if you’re not having pain during a workout, overuse injuries often become symptomatic the next day,” Dr. Johnson says.

In addition to the injuries mentioned above, this group is vulnerable to overuse injuries such as stress fractures (small cracks) in the foot and ankle because they are pushing themselves too hard.

“Even if you’re not having pain during a workout, overuse injuries often become symptomatic the next day,” Dr. Johnson says. “If you start feeling aches and pains after increasing your workout, it’s very important to take a day off to rest and let your body recover before working out again.”

Many workout warriors find it hard to heed this advice. Dr. Johnson often sees injuries in high-mileage runners who will do almost anything to get in their daily run. Outside of rest, there is one option that can help prevent injuries in this group: cross-training.

“For runners experiencing a tendon problem, cross-training in the form of swimming, biking or some other nonimpact exercise can give them the endorphin rush they’re seeking while allowing them to nurse their running injury,” Dr. Johnson says. “If a runner has really serious issues, I’ll tell them, ‘If you want to run later in life, you need to be cross-training three, four days a week. Otherwise, you’ll be done [with running] in five years.'”

Don’t try to fight through the pain.  Living by the adage of “no pain, no gain” will only lead to more injuries.

Playing It Smart

No matter what your fitness goals, Dr. Johnson says following these simple recommendations can help reduce your injury risk:

  • Warm up before a workout with a short, brisk walk, jumping jacks, high knees or other brief exercises to get your muscles ready. Stretch afterwards to help sore muscles and tendons recover.
  • Apply ice to sore areas after your workout. Keep it on for 20 minutes—that generally allows the ice to penetrate the targeted area without over-freezing the skin or tissues.
  • Don’t try to fight through the pain. Living by the adage of “no pain, no gain” will only lead to more injuries.
  • If approved by your doctor, you may try oral anti-inflammatory medications (e.g. ibuprofen) occasionally to reduce pain and swelling following a workout. However, don’t use these medications to mask any symptoms that may be a sign of overuse.

As you get active this summer, be sure to do it the right way by increasing activity gradually, resting when needed and always listening to your body.

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