Work hard, play hard, recover stronger

Dhriti Iyer and Kavya Iyer

“No pain, no gain” is a phrase often used in the world of athletics. It suggests that in order to grow, you must experience pain. But how much pain is too much? While athletes should push themselves to improve, there is a limit to how much strenuous activity the human body can handle; when that limit is passed, injuries often occur.

The pain athletes endure can range anywhere from muscle soreness after a particularly strenuous workout to broken bones and brain injuries suffered through contact sports.  Soreness is the most common pain that athletes experience. When athletes train, they create small rips in the muscle’s tissue; as the training becomes increasingly difficult, the tears increase in size, leading to a buildup of lactic acid in their muscles. 

While lactic acid in small amounts is beneficial, as it serves as the primary source of fuel for the muscles during strenuous exercise, the problem occurs when the body produces more lactic acid than it can consume. Too much lactic acid buildup can cause the athlete’s blood to become acidic and in turn affect other organs in their body, such as their heart and liver. For this reason, athletes should be aware of their body’s limits and how much strenuous activity their body can take before it becomes harmful.

Athletes can also take precautions to avoid injuries. Taking the time to stretch before playing their sport allows their muscles to loosen up and warm up, allowing them to perform better and also preventing them from getting injured during the game. Strengthening specific areas of their body that are used continuously in their sport is also very important. 

“I spend 30 minutes warming up, which ensures that I feel no pain during games,” said varsity volleyball player Kevin Wyatt. “I jump way higher than I used to because I’m much more flexible, so I need to make sure I get my stretching before and after practice.” 

Athletes must find that delicate balance between flexibility and strength that allows them to optimize their muscles to perform to the best of their ability. Using these methods, athletes can avoid chronic injuries or injuries that occur from overuse of a specific body part. For example, “tennis elbow” is caused by the repetitive wrist and arm motions, and is a chronic injury that results from the tennis athlete continuously swinging their racket. This could be prevented by strengthening the athlete’s forearm as well as stretching the area before playing the sport.

However, there are also injuries that an athlete has little control over — acute injuries. Acute injuries occur suddenly and unpredictably and include broken bones and sprained ankles. Right after these injuries occur, for most cases, the best practice is to ice and compress the area that is swollen. This will cause the extra blood to redistribute evenly across the body and reduce the swelling in the area. Another practice is to keep the area elevated above the heart, which also helps regulate the circulation of blood. Heat should not be applied right away, as heat will bring more blood as well as nutrients to the area but will also increase the swelling even further. For this reason, heat packs should only be applied after the swelling lessens.

In the case of acute injuries, the most common advice is to avoid any physical work in that area for a certain number of weeks until it heals. However, when an athlete takes that route, the area will start to hurt again once they return to their sport because it has weakened in that time. Instead of completely neglecting that area, athletes should gradually build up the strength in the area through targeted workouts, so that when the athlete begins to play their sport again, the area will be even stronger than it was before.

“After an acute injury, the first thing we do is manage the swelling and the pain,” Athletic Trainer Katie Thurman said. “Once somebody is able to walk or perform a specific activity that they need for their sport, we work on strengthening, so that if that person gets back into that same situation again, which will more than likely happen, their body will be able to react positively rather than negatively. It’s even getting past that hundred percent and making you reach a new, higher athletic ability,” Thurman said. 

More often than not, the athlete’s body is the most valuable indicator as to whether they can continue to push themselves or if they should ease off. Although athletes do not have control over all possible injuries, in order to prevent the injuries they do have control over, athletes should take precautions such as stretching and gradually build up the intensity of their workouts.

“There’s a difference between pain and injury; pain means that the athlete is pushing themselves in a positive way and improving, but there’s a line between pain and injury that shouldn’t be crossed,” said varsity volleyball captain Shannon Kuo.