Exercise: how do I push myself without damaging myself?
February 23, 2011 10:35 AM   Subscribe

I strain a muscle too frequently when I exercise. How am I supposed to get stronger?

Lost 45 pounds, looking to lose 20 more, though my priority is to get leaner and stronger. I lost the 45 through long walks and common-sense dietary changes. After neglecting the walks during winter, I've taken up using a treadmill every day. I have not been sedentary, but this is the first focused exercise I've had in a few months. My body does not seem to be taking it well, which frustrates me, as I WANT to be able to keep this up. In most ways, I feel the healthiest I have in years. Sleep, skin, energy level, regularity, outlook on life, and the shape of my ass are all doing great.

I am down with the idea of pushing myself, and I know I need to do so in order to build muscle, stamina, etc. My sleep is amazing when I thoroughly tire myself out every once in a while.

The problem is that every time I extend myself, either through intensity or duration of workout, I end up with a minor strain* that makes exercising more difficult, or impossible, in the short term. I don't mean general muscle soreness (which I also have, but it feels appropriate), I mean very specific twinges, bigger pains, and stiffness that feels inappropriate and something I am liable to make worse.

These are not issues that show up during a workout, but the next day. If anything feels "off" while I'm walking, I slow or stop.

I don't feel like I'm asking too much of my body. I warm up first, increase speed and grade very gradually, and do not stay on for massive amounts of time. I have been using the treadmill about 5 days a week, generally for about 45 minutes, or 30 minutes twice. This is brisk to very fast walking. I've tried adding occasional bursts of running, but have cut that out until I am stronger or lighter (knees were painful and stiff the next day).

I do plan to mix it up with different exercises soon - I know walking alone is not the best way to condition the whole body. Still, I feel I should be able to do a whole hell of a lot of it without feeling frail. People in NYC do it every day.

I'm 34, female, and healthy. I'm not on any medications and my nutrition is great. I don't take vitamins, but if anyone has suggestions, I'd gladly look into it. Ive heard magnesium and potassium can help with muscle cramps. I wouldn't call these cramps, but might supplements help? Could they hurt?

What can I do to make my body stronger? What am I doing wrong here? How does one properly exhaust oneself without doing damage? I really feel like I'm missing something other people must know. Not to take reality tv as gospel, but how is it possible for the obese, sedentary people on Biggest Loser to jump right into running, without similar issues? All they seem to suffer is exhaustion and muscle soreness.

*Upper/lower back have occasionally felt tight and agonizing for day or so. I do not mess around with back pain. I was careful, laid off the exercise, and these issues cleared up quickly. The more irritating problem is an intermittent tightness in my left calf. This is not a charley horse nor spasm. It responds well to massage, heat, Icy Hot, and ibuprofen, but it is not going away, and it's been bothering me for about 5 days.

I'm not limping, but it is getting in the way of my workout. I don't know whether it's best to rest the muscle and let it heal, or gently "work through" it. I did lay off the treadmill for the last 48 hours, then took a gentle half-hour walk this morning which felt good. The tightness eased but never disappeared completely. Am I making this worse or better?

I'm not asking for specific medical advice on this (though any help is welcome), but if anyone can tell me what this is called, I'd be grateful. I'm more than willing to google it myself, I just dont know what it is. "Shin splints" seem to have a broader definition than I thought, so that's my best guess. Oh, and I have good sneakers, and there's nothing freaky about my feet or stride.
posted by jessicapierce to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Cross train. You need to rest your legs when they hurt, and that means not using them for a few days or even a week or two. So ride a bike or swim instead.

It annoys me when I hurt myself running, but there is only one thing you can do to avoid making it worse -- something else.
posted by jrockway at 10:41 AM on February 23, 2011

This is more general advice, but have you considered seeing a physical therapist who specializes in sports medicine or even the specific exercise you do (running I guess)? They may have tips for how to minimize the risks and recover more quickly.

Otherwise, I think what you're finding is pretty much par for the course when you are getting back into an exercise routine. But I will say that, when doing repetitive exercise like this you have a higher risk of hurting yourself. I do a sort of simplified/scaled-down Crossfit workout, and on the days that they call for 100 push-ups followed by 100 pull-ups or whatever, I will often scale those down to a level I can handle, or even change the workout if I know my body just can't manage it. On the other hand, I think the benefit to working out within a system like Crossfit is that you have constant variation and (when the exercises are done safely within your ability) this means you are less likely to be working the same parts of your body all the time (although sometimes, their programming is perverse...). I think one of the potentially bad things about running, especially on a treadmill, is that you are working the same parts of your body repetitively all the time. This can be tough on some people.

Short answer: see a professional for some good advice, try changing things up if possible.
posted by dubitable at 10:43 AM on February 23, 2011

I'd institute a more thorough warm up and stretch regime as well as warm down. Get your heart rate up with some basic aerobic (let's say an eliptical) before doing a good stretch and then you can do your more strenuous excersize. Augment your diet (look into vitamins/supplements) but at the end of the day, nature will limit how much your body can take.
posted by Hurst at 10:44 AM on February 23, 2011

Not to take reality tv as gospel, but how is it possible for the obese, sedentary people on Biggest Loser to jump right into running, without similar issues

They dont. You should read this. But the long and short of it is, they do get injuries and the trainers make them work out anyway, even if the doctor has said they can't/shouldn't.

Its hard to tell from your description whether you're actually getting injured or if you're just experiencing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (which is completely normal)
posted by missmagenta at 10:44 AM on February 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

You might have "good" shoes but are they right for your feet? If you go to a running-specific store (not a shoe store or sporting goods store) they can help you find the right shoe for your foot width, arch, etc.

Make sure you loosen up before you go full speed (even walking). Do some stretches and start off at a slower than normal pace.
posted by ghharr at 10:46 AM on February 23, 2011

Massage always helps. Google foam roller and you'll find a bunch of videos on how to massage yourself. Also gentle stretching between workouts never hurts.
posted by creasy boy at 10:53 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're probably just pushing yourself too fast. You need to let the body adapt by adding time/difficulty gradually, like 10% per week.

The Biggest Loser should be viewed as a what not to do kinda thing.

You should probably replace some of that cardio with strength training, which provides amazing benefits.
posted by callmejay at 10:56 AM on February 23, 2011

A lot of elite runners, by the way, have trainers. A significant part of their job is telling the athletes to stop pushing so hard.
posted by callmejay at 10:57 AM on February 23, 2011

It's difficult to get a good sense of exactly what your physical complaints are. You don't say how overweight you are or how long you've been doing this. The solution may be to rest as needed but keep working your way up slowly until you're where you want to be. Being able to walk for awhile every day is certainly not an unreasonable short-term goal for a 34-year old woman.

That said, there may be something about the way you're walking that is causing you discomfort. A running coach might be able to take a look and give you some specific advice. Or there may be something inadequate about your diet and rest. Very broadly speaking, a well-balanced diet with plenty of protein and proper hydration is important, as is a good night's sleep. Massage is a good idea.

Also, you say your priority is to "get leaner and stronger." While daily treadmill walks are an excellent start and can lead to positive body changes like you've already seen, there are ultimately far more efficient ways to make yourself leaner and especially stronger, even at your current level of ability, i.e. higher-intensity conditioning and strength training, combined with the right diet. There's no need to wait until you reach a certain level of walking/running proficiency before you "advance" to stuff like lifting weights. You could do that and see positive benefits from it right now, and it would probably help with your walking, too.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 11:00 AM on February 23, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the link missmagenta, that is eye-opening in a "duh, should have realized" sort of way.

"Its hard to tell from your description whether you're actually getting injured or if you're just experiencing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (which is completely normal)"

Not familiar with that but will read up (thanks again!).

This is all about learning my own limits and when to respect them / press against them. I guess I just have o get better at reading my own signals. It's just infuriating to feel virtuous and powerful one day, and crippled the next.
posted by jessicapierce at 11:00 AM on February 23, 2011

Response by poster: "It's difficult to get a good sense of exactly what your physical complaints are. You don't say how overweight you are or how long you've been doing this. The solution may be to rest as needed but keep working your way up slowly until you're where you want to be. Being able to walk for awhile every day is certainly not an unreasonable short-term goal for a 34-year old woman."

I'm approximately 20 pounds overweight, and have been at this treadmill business for about 3 weeks. The previous 45-pound loss happened over about the past 6 months.

I guess I am just stymied as to why such a reasonable-sounding, gentle exercise plan should be causing me problems. Especially considering that I took those 45 pounds off by doing just what you said - walking for a while every day. I had no such problems during that time, though logically I should have, because I was carrying that much extra mass around.

The total per-week time I am spending walking now is about 1.5x what it was then, and I am usually going a bit faster (due to easily being able to force myself to, via treadmill). Is there something vastly different about treadmill vs. outdoor walking? Is the forced regularity of stride/speed something that's much more punishing?
posted by jessicapierce at 11:07 AM on February 23, 2011

Walking/running inherently involves repeated impacts on your body. Many people, especially overweight people, have difficulties when they increase the amount that they're doing. However, the body generally adapts over time to the stresses placed on it, provided the circumstances are there for recovering from the stress -- like consistency, incremental increases, adequate nutrition and rest. And 3 weeks isn't a very long time, so you'll probably see improvement if you just stick with it.

But again, there may be something about your movement that needs to be fixed, which someone could best tell you in person, there may be something inadequate about your nutrition, and I think your best bet as far as remaining uninjured and reaching your goals would involve rounding out your routine (i.e. with strength training) sooner rather than later.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 11:14 AM on February 23, 2011

You might just have tight calves, especially if you've been sitting most of the time. If so, it'll probably lessen as you go along, but you might benefit from doing some gentle mobility work/stretches to loosen them up. The massage idea is also great: a lot of people use foam rollers or tennis/lacrosse balls for this, as described here.
posted by vorfeed at 11:17 AM on February 23, 2011

Congratulations on your weight loss! You've made amazing progress!

Are you stretching or doing any yoga at all? The New York Times recently reported on research showing that stretching before you exercise isn't good--and may be bad--but most folks seem to think stretching afterwards, once your muscles are warm, can be very helpful.

You have to ramp up, also--it sounds like you took some time off of walking and then increased your intensity pretty quickly. That's a really good way of getting hurt!

You might try taking a break from the treadmill and going for a longer walk around town. Still brisk, but outside. It might help.

Massages are good, too.

Finally, have you heard of foam rolling? Google for it. It can be a great way to reduce soreness and help those twinges.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:21 AM on February 23, 2011

I totally feel you! I am not overweight, but I also suffer frequent little twinges that make me take frustrating days off of my daily exercise routine. The way I've coped is by ramping up very, very, very slowly (it took me, literally, years to get up to running just 4 miles) and just being a total baby about taking time off whenever anything goes wrong. In the long run, I believe this will enable me to continue exercising, even if it means I'm out of commission for several days every few weeks. I hate it, but I accept it as the best way to be in the game for the long term.

That said, I do have some specific suggestions for you.

1) Ditch the treadmill and walk outside. Walking can be surprisingly stressful on the body -- in fact, I have found that long walks can be even more punishing than runs. Walking on a treadmill might compound the difficulty because it forces you into an abnormally steady (and possibly too quick) pace and repetitive, constrained motions. Walking outside will let you more naturally vary your pace, the length of your strides, etc.

2) Cross train. Biking and swimming are great, and you might like the elliptical.

3) Avoid yoga. Even though I almost always recommend yoga here, I think that in your case you want to stay away unless you KNOW you have a fabulous instructor. There are just too many yoga classes out there that improperly push students' limits and fail to offer good oversight.

4) Ramp up ridiculously slowly. Even if this means swimming two laps one day, three laps the next day, and you feel really stupid about it, do not push yourself at first. In fact, I'd wager to say that feeling a little lame about how little you did is actually a requirement and a sign that you're doing it right. Trust me, this will pay off.

5) Take many, many rests in intervals. This is related to ramping up slowly. Don't do 45 minutes on the treadmill or a 45 minute swim. Walk fast for 5 minutes, then rest or walk slowly for 5, then walk again. When you start jogging, take frequent walk breaks. This is not lame; science proves it's the way to go!

6) In summary, be the tortoise, not the hare! You have your whole life to build up strength, slowly.
posted by yarly at 11:35 AM on February 23, 2011

Hi jp! We knew each other in another life and on another website.

My suggestion is to either walk barefoot, or get a pair of the barefoot-simulating shoes. I had calf problems when I used to run, and after a few runs in the Nike Frees, they went right away. You really sense anything weird in your stride (which squishy shoes can mask), you feel the surface much better, and it's good exercise for your feet.
posted by donblood at 11:51 AM on February 23, 2011

Just from personal experience, 45 minutes every day on a treadmill would destroy my knees. I run, rather than walk, but running on a treadmill is a lot harder on my knees than running on the sidewalk or on grass.

I'd consider resuming the walks, if possible.
posted by electroboy at 12:05 PM on February 23, 2011

I just started going to a chiropractor (for a herniated disc) who also has a physiotherapist in his practice and they do coordinated work. Right now we're working on my back but I was having problems with working out too (leg pain, possibly piriformis syndrome, when walking on a treadmill) and the next step is that they're going to do a gait analysis. I wonder if you'd benefit from having someone look at your gait on a treadmill and checking out the placement of your feet, etc.
posted by media_itoku at 12:32 PM on February 23, 2011

First, congrats on deciding to make this change in your life and all the progress you have achieved so far.

I recommend cross training. But, I will differ from what others have said. They offered suggestions of other forms of cardio. I think you should add some resistance training. If you choose complex exercises, do super sets, and really challenge yourself you can keep your heart rate up there and burn plenty of calories.

Second, when you do cardio, why not do HIIT? There has been plenty of research showing it to be more effective at burning fat than endurance cardio. It takes less time and puts less stress on your joints. Now, HIIT in a treadmill is asking for disaster, but I do it a few times a week on a gym bike or in the pool. Google around and you will find lots of great information. I recommend it because of their is less risk of injury. Long endurance runs means more impact on your joints. And you can do a really good, effective HIIT session in 20 minutes.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:33 PM on February 23, 2011

I went through a similar issue last year. After lots of pain, I sought out a physical therapist, who - after months of treatment - essentially told me that running just isn't for me (turns out I have posterior tibial tendinitis and some issues with the shape of my feet - something undiagnosed my entire life).

My point is that the idea that anyone can become an amazing runner just isn't accurate, and there's no shame if it's not working for your body.

I sold my treadmill and bought an exercise bike, and have continued to lose weight at the same pace as before - with no pain.
posted by designmartini at 12:46 PM on February 23, 2011

Cross training with an emphasis on core strengthening is what helped me the most. Well, that and switching from running to ellipticaling. It also can't hurt to have a good running store analyze your stride just in case it's a little wonky.

As others have mentioned, foam rollers post-workout are extremely awesome!

the LOL BUTTS bunny is staring at me from across the office as i type this.
posted by elizardbits at 2:00 PM on February 23, 2011

I'm not a doctor, etc., etc., but I have been running for a number of years at this point (maybe 10 or so?) including races ranging from a 5K to a marathon. I have a slightly curved spine, which causes my hips to tilt out of alignment, which makes one of my legs seem shorter than the other. A lot of the time, especially when I up a workout routine or something (or when I haven't really worked out for a month for whatever reason), my back absolutely kills me when I start back up. Over the years I've learned to manage this a bit better by doing some basic, basic exercises: The Plank, The Bridge, and the side plank on both sides. I do those 2 or 3 times a week and have found them to be very effective in controlling back pain. I agree that it's super important to not screw up your back, and these few, static exercises help to build up strength quite effectively, at least for me. Especially if you work in a job where you sit most of the day (as I do), then it's really easy to let these muscles grow weak; when that happens, they don't do a good job of stabilizing your body when you do other activities (such as vigorous walking even). And because they're so weak, you're more likely to get hurt. I'd also check out this page of yoga stretches. I do them after each workout I do (especially the triangle pose, sage twist pose, the half spinal twist, and the locust pose). They've helped to stretch out my hips, which can be an important factor in lower back pain/injuries.

As for your calfs, since you mention you are female, do you wear high heels frequently, and/or have you for a long time? Or any shoe with a substantial heel height? Over time, those types of shoes cause your calf muscle to grow shorter and tighter; when you switch to running shoes or just regular sneakers, you might be putting a lot of strain on a muscle that is used to being shorter. If that's not what's going on, I'm really not sure. I've never really had that particular problem with those muscles, although they do tend to be sore for a few days after adding a ton of mileage or a really hard run or something. I will say (and this is definitely something not everybody will agree with), but when I ran cross country and when I was training for the marathon, I learned to stay away from heat w/r/t muscles soreness almost entirely. Ice is the way to go. It reduces soreness the next day; when I'd finish a long training run I'd sit in a full, freezing cold bathtub until the water heated up. It helped me, and lots of pro athletes swear by things like this (which is why you competitive athletes with their shoulders in ice baths and things). I do have to say, the things you mention as helping (heath, massage, ibuprofen) make it sound like it's muscle soreness; since you note it doesn't feel like a cramp or charley horse, that's what it seems like based on what you said. If it were me (and you shouldn't necessarily take my advice on this, random internet stranger that I am) then I'd take a day or two off and keep going. Some soreness here and there is fine; chronic soreness that won't go away is a sign that something else is going on, either with your technique/routine or in your body.

On stretching, I never stretch before working out, and I haven't for years. I just start out a little easier and do a really thorough stretching session afterwards (incorporating several of the yoga poses mentioned above). Opinions on the effectiveness of stretching before/after/both diverge widely, so this is just what works for me.

Other than that collection of possibly completely unhelpful and random thoughts, I'd say to do a bit of strength training. Personally, I stick to very simple, whole body exercises that activate several muscle groups instead of using gym machines that isolate one or two particular muscles (and I am by no means a superman or anything; I'm 5'10" and weigh 175 and have been described as 'husky' since I was old enough to wear jeans). I like the classic squat, done with no weights; the classic push up (which also helps build up those back/core muscles that help out later!); and the basic pull up (which I suck at but am working on). All of those except the pull up can be done at home with absolutely no equipment.

I really hope some of that helps! Way to go on how far you've come, and keep up the good work!!
posted by scdjpowell at 5:29 PM on February 23, 2011

I'm a woman of a similar age, over the past two years I've gone from sedentary to active. I've suffered from some strains recently and found them quite frustrating as I didnt really know how to deal with them. 5 days doesnt sound unusual, last time I pulled/strained something (quad area) it took more like 8-10 days to calm down.

I've been working my way through watching the Mobilitywod videos Vorfeed linked upthread, its aimed at Crossfitters so Kelly is often talking about stuff thats relevant to lifting barbells (which I'm not doing - maybe one day). Even though alot of what he says goes over my head, I've found it really helpful to listen to a physio chatting away about the way the body works and demonstrating how to stretch it. I've gotten a feel for what to do about niggly aches and strains that I had no idea how to manage previously (ice, compression, massage). I've learned some stretches that work the areas of the body I feel I need to work on and I understand what I'm stretching and why rather than just copying the stretches that get thrown out at the end of an exercise class because thats all I know how to do.

Foam rolling is indeed awesome, I've been doing it since that big strain and it feels like its helped alot in avoiding doing it again.
posted by Ness at 1:33 AM on February 24, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the help, I truly appreciate it. Am still reading through the comments, and will definitely implement a lot of these ideas.

To clarify, though I kinda thought my post was clear on this: I am not a runner and have no aspirations toward that. Brief bursts of running/jogging are likely all I will ever add to my walks, for heart rate/boredom reasons. But I am 99% a walker. I am assuming the running advice generally still applies, so thank you!

I wear heels no more than twice a week, never for extended periods, in part because of disgusting calf-atrophy knowledge.

All the suggestions on how to improve my workout are of course welcome, but again, if anyone can help with IDing this damn calf issue, I'd really appreciate that. Adamantly, this is NOT muscle soreness. I am familiar with the full range of that pain, up to the stiff agony that makes one look elderly the next day. I could believe the back issues were mostly due to overworked muscles, but this calf thing is some sort of minor injury or trauma. It's just different.

Something has just occurred to me: my understanding of a muscle spasm is that it is a fast, drastic thing. I've seen people get charley horses, and have had the occasional weird spasm in my foot (ages ago, not related to current issue). This calf problem is much milder and long-lasting: it has been happening for 6 days now, and when it happens, the pain and tightness last for 10-30 minutes (it feels varying degrees of "tight" pretty much all the time, but there is a level of extreme worseness that comes and goes). Could this also count as a spasm?

p.s. hi donblood! under what secret name might I know ye?
posted by jessicapierce at 11:47 AM on February 24, 2011

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