As you train for competition, listen to your body to avoid injury


September 22, 1992|By Dr. Gabe Mirkin | Dr. Gabe Mirkin,Contributing Writer/United Feature Syndicate

To train for athletic competition, you have to exercise hard enough to make your muscles burn and hurt. But pain can also be a sign that you've injured yourself. In order to tell the difference, you must listen carefully to your body.

All training for competition -- to become stronger and faster and improve endurance -- involves (1) stressing your muscles, (2) allowing enough time for them to recover and then (3) stressing them again. When you exercise vigorously, your muscles become damaged; they will feel sore anywhere from eight to 24 hours afterward. Biopsies done 24 hours after exercise have shown bleeding into and damage to muscle fibers.

But when muscles heal, they are stronger than before. That's why athletes train using the hard-easy principle: They exercise hard on one day and at a relaxed pace the next. If you try to exercise intensely while you are recovering from a previous workout, the chance of suffering a serious, debilitating injury increases.

But it's not enough to just allow a certain amount of time to pass between intense workouts; you have to listen to what your body tells you. A muscle, ligament or tendon that burns and hurts can actually be torn.

The good burning of training usually occurs in the same part of the same muscle on both sides of your body. The level of discomfort stays the same on both sides. Bad burning usually occurs on one side and becomes progressively more severe. If you feel one-sided burning, stop exercising immediately.


Q: I wake up at night with painful cramps in my calf muscles. What should I do?

A: See your doctor to check for a mineral abnormality, a pinched nerve, blocked blood flow, an abnormal thyroid function or muscle or nerve disease. Odds are that these tests will come back negative.

Calf muscle cramps usually are caused by pointing your toes downward while you sleep. You can prevent the pain by not pointing your toes. But, of course, you have little control of your legs while you sleep.

When you unconsciously contract your calf muscles and point your toes, you stretch your Achilles tendon. Stretch receptor nerves in the tendon are activated, which send a message to your spinal cord so the calf muscles contract and stay contracted.

The immediate treatment for calf muscle cramps involves stretching and heating the muscle. With one hand, pull the front of your foot up. With the other hand, gradually knead the contracted muscle. Put your calf muscle in warm water or wrap it in a heating pad.

Night cramps can be prevented, though, by stretching your calves before going to bed. Stand an arm's length from a wall, facing it. Put your hands on the wall at shoulder height. Keeping your heels on the ground, bend your elbows to lean your upper body close to the wall. Push slowly away. Do this 20 times with the knees bent and again 20 times with the knees straight.

Q: I want to stop smoking, but I'm afraid I'll gain weight. I've seen it happen to others who've kicked the habit. Why is this so?

A: Some people who stop smoking experience a gain in weight. But if they exercise and watch their diet, the weight gain will be small and temporary.

Smokers are chemically addicted to nicotine, a potent stimulant that raises your body temperature and speeds up your metabolism. You actually eat more, but you do not increase your intake of food enough to equal the extra calories you burn all day because nicotine is stimulating your metabolism.

When you stop smoking, your metabolism will slow and you will gain weight -- unless you exercise, which increases metabolism.

Dr. Mirkin is a practicing physician in Silver Spring specializing in sports medicine and nutrition.

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