How Long Should I Rest an Injury?

When I worked in college athletics, every year I would give a pre-season chat to go over rules and expectations. One very important thing that I tried to emphasize was:

It is much easier for me to fix something small when it first begins. You might not even need time off from running. If we ignore a niggle and it turns into something big, I might not be able to fix it quickly and you might have to stop running for days, weeks or months.

Here is an example of how this might play out:

Susie is running 35-40 miles per week. She starts to feel a tightness in her left hip, but after she runs for half a mile, the tightness goes away. She assumes this means that once her body is warmed up and loosened up, the muscle isn’t tight anymore. What Susie doesn’t know is that the muscle isn’t loosening up, but rather after about half a mile, she has settled into a compensatory gait. Her body is just finding a different way to run that doesn’t feel tight. After a week of running this way (including an 8 mile long run on the weekend) her low back hurts when she gets in and out of her car and her left hamstring is also starting to hurt. Her back, hip and hamstring will all feel distractingly tight when she tries to go to sleep at night and stretching just doesn’t seem to help. She is losing sleep, shortening her runs and feeling slower.

Sally is also running 25-40 miles per week. She starts to feel a tightness in her left hip that she doesn’t know how to fix so she reaches out to an athletic trainer (AT). The AT assesses Sally’s range of motion, strength and does some functional tests. She determines that Sally’s issues could be fixed with some very easy corrective exercises that Sally can do with the supervision of the AT until she feels confident doing them on her own. Sally’s hip tightness is gone in a day or two and her training continues to progress.

Now, of course, there will be some injuries that can’t be fixed in a few days with exercises. Sometimes we might think we have a terribly tight muscle that we just can’t stretch enough and it turns out to be a stress reaction. Unfortunately the way we feel pain isn’t always crystal clear. But wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about making that determination on your own?

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