Athletes who suffer an overuse injury will often ask “How did this happen? My training had been going so well.” They may even point out that seemingly nothing was significantly different with their training leading up to the injury. That’s when we have to pull out the “Stress Bucket” analogy.
Every athlete, and for that matter every person, goes through each day carrying around an imaginary 5 gallon stress bucket. At any given time there is some level of stress in the bucket. Someone who says they have no stress is lying. This stress can be in the form of many things; poor sleep habits, emotional stress at work or home, poor nutrition, physical stress from progressive workouts, improper hydration, biomechanical imbalances, and the list can go on. The point is that each stressor fills the bucket further, and when it reaches the top there is usually one final thing that causes it to spill over. The “straw that broke the camel’s back,” and it results in an overuse injury.
Stress that contributes to injuries can be categorized as “externally” or “internally” generated. An external stressor can be as simple as running on a canted road, not changing out running shoes on time, swimming with hand paddles, or cycling on an improperly fit bike just to name a few. Alone these are not necessarily completely bad, however when thrown in with the rest of the things in the stress bucket they can push things over the edge.
Internal stressors are more related to whether the body is staying in balance. This “body balance” includes physical, emotional, and nutritional components. Obviously a key step for serious athletes is learning to manage both the internal and external factors so the level of stress in the bucket is as low as possible.
So how does one manage their stress bucket? There are many options to choose from when there is a desire to manage the stress bucket, and ultimately it may involve more than one strategy depending on what the major stressors are. The external stressors can immediately be minimized by common sense, listening to your body or perhaps turning over your monthly training plan to a formal coach that knows best how to structure things week to week.
Handling the internal stressors is a different matter, but again depends on what the major issues in the bucket are. Here are some ideas.
This can include biomechanical imbalances, sore/tight muscles, and joint range of motion restrictions to name a few. An important clue that action needs to be taken is when soreness, pain, or limited flexibility is very obviously asymmetrical. Some strategies to consider for these physical stressors include:
- Massage Therapy or other manual techniques: Find a highly recommended therapist that works regularly with athletes and is familiar with not just “maintenance” techniques but also “corrective” techniques.
- Cross Train: Give your body a break from your primary sport and pick something that beats you up less or is a nice change of pace.
- Physical Therapy: A well-trained PT that is familiar with the biomechanical demands of your sport should be able to evaluate you for imbalances in muscle firing patterns, postural alignment, range of motion, and functional strength among other things. This could lead to learning a nice corrective exercise sequence that puts your body back in balance. This type of PT should also be able to teach you a “recovery routine” and also a customized “injury prevention routine” specific to you and your sport.
- Yoga/Pilates: Individual or group classes can often put you in better touch with your body, areas of weakness or tightness, and also be a nice diversion from your primary sport.
Much has changed in recent years in the world of nutrition for athletes, especially those involved in endurance sports. And, what may be good advice for a teenage athlete might need to be different for an older individual. Again, it is ideal to find someone who is very familiar with your particular sport and the nutritional demands it brings your body.
Managing this area can include a very wide range of strategies. Obviously doing what is necessary to handle these stressors is different for everyone. Some athletes swear by simple relaxation methods or meditation techniques that allow them to decompress or simply slow down. Others may truly need some professional help or counseling to dive deeper into the issues that are holding them back.
The first key is to simply recognize that the stress bucket is real and it manifests itself differently in each person. The second key it to realize that there are always strategies that can decrease how full your bucket is. Do this and your likelihood for an overuse injury goes down, and your performance potential goes up.
The first step in performance enhancement is….. Don’t be hurt! Remember, your most important piece of sports equipment is your body!
This post was written by Brad Ott, President, MSPT