The answer to this question is a little more complicated than a yes or no, so the important thing to define is what does rest mean? I’m sure a lot of you have heard this when you roll your ankle or your knee starts to hurt after a mile, “you just need to rest”. Does it mean that you lay in bed all day and do nothing? Does it mean you just take some time off the field or from the gym? How long is enough time away? Let’s talk about what rest means and how you should go about it to help you get back to your activities.
Why did you get hurt in the first place?
When you develop an injury it is important to identify the root cause of it. This will help to guide you back to a pain free life. If you are running a few miles a day and start to get knee pain, it could me more than you are just pushing it a little too far for your body to handle. Many times it comes from a problem somewhere else like your stiff hip or ankle that is putting stress on your knee. In cases like this it is important to reach out to someone who can find out exactly where the problem is stemming from so that you can get back to running and not have that problem come back after you took some time to rest.
Bed rest is dead
It used to be common to place people on complete bed rest. There are some very specific cases that this may be necessary, but for sports related injuries it is never really the answer. Look at hip or knee replacement patient- they get out of bed within 24 hours of surgery because movement is important for healing. Our bodies require movement to keep blood flowing and our joints lubricated.
Stay active other ways
Some simple injuries that only last about two weeks or so are not going to cause your body to get deconditioned. It takes at least two weeks of inactivity to drop below your pre-injury fitness level. With that being said, it is still better to keep active in other ways. For injuries that will take longer to heal, like a fractured bone, you also need to find ways to stay active. How do you do this?
Exercise uninjured areas of the body. If you’re in a knee brace you can work the upper body, the opposite leg, or maybe even the ankle and hip of the injured leg. Keep going to the gym and do your upper body routine. Do some straight leg raises on the injured side. Do some single leg squats on the uninjured side. There are tons of options. Do anything that can get your heart rate up, blood pumping, and maintain muscle mass. Just be aware of your symptoms and their triggers so you can work around them.
What does rest really mean?
A lot of sports related injuries are overuse injuries, meaning that you’re doing too much for the muscles or other tissues to handle. The demands put on the body are exceeding the body’s capacity for activity. This is where “rest” is different. The tissues need time to adapt and recover. The first thing is that you may need to do is back off your volume. Reduce the miles you’re running, lower the weight or number of sets in the gym. Give the tissues time to adapt and become stronger. You don’t need to kill your self every practice or workout.
If you are a runner and can’t even run down the block without pain, then you may need to take a short time off from running altogether. But as I said, you need to find other ways to stay moving. Barring any serious injuries, such as a bone fracture that needs to be immobilized, keep the injured area moving through pain free movements. Work on increasing tolerance to movement slowly.
How much rest do I need?
Everyone is different, so there’s no black and white answer to this question. There are no exact answers because healing times are dependent on so many factors like sleep, eating habits, activity level, and more. However, the body does follow general guidelines for healing and a qualified healthcare professional can help you determine a time frame for how long to expect while also guiding you through a personalized program. If that person tells you to quit the activity that you love, then you probably need to find a new provider, one that understands how important it is to you and that things like running and squatting are not inherently dangerous activities.
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Disclaimer: this is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Seek a qualified healthcare professional for any injury and follow the guidelines set by them.