It’s a fine line between a minor setback and a full blown injury. We ask the experts how to negotiate this common fitness hitch.
There’s nothing like a twinge here or a pull there to remind you that you’re not Superwoman (sometimes). Whether it’s over-stretching or smashing that HIIT class, pushing through a tender gripe can easily turn a little niggle into a big old pain in the neck. Literally. Although there’s a satisfactory smugness about achey limbs the morning after a tough workout, there’s a fine line between DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and an all-out injury.
Often brushed off as a minor complaint, pulled muscles range in severity and can be the difference between a day of rest or a serious disruption in your training plan. But, with the right treatment plan and a small dose of patience, you’ll be fighting fit in no time.
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What exactly happens when we pull a muscle?
Every time we exercise, we create microscopic tears in our muscles which makes us stronger and fitter over time as our body repairs them. But, when the muscle is pulled beyond its capabilities, it’s a sign that something’s up. “A strain, or more commonly known as a pulled muscle, is an injury to our soft tissue,” says Performance Specialist and athlete, Nicolette Bird. “A more minor injury is when we have slightly overstretched a muscle, while more serious injuries may involve partial or complete tears in our tissue.” Ouch!
What can cause it?
Although a pulled muscle can typically be the butt of jokes aimed towards the unfit, even the world’s best athletes aren’t immune to over-exerting. “There are lots of reasons for muscle strain and everybody would have experienced some level of it at some point,” Nicolette says. “Acute strains can occur from collisions in sport, something as simple as tripping over, landing off balance, incorrect form or when you haven’t warmed up and prepped your body correctly. Everyone is built differently, most of us aren’t symmetrical therefore we tend to favour doing things with a certain hand or leg we are dominant on. This can then create imbalances in our bodies which, if not addressed, could eventually lead to muscle strains. This is why strength training, in particular unilateral strength work (using a single arm or leg) is so important. It can help us to address and correct these imbalances.”
How can we avoid pulling a muscle?
As haunting as your PE class warm-up may be, preparing our body for a pain-free workout is not to be sniffed at. “Starting a workout with cold muscles can be a sure-fire way to pull one,” personal trainer Tess Glynne-Jones tells us. “Warming up properly, including movement-replicative exercises and slowly easing the body into a workout instead of rushing straight into explosive or heavy movements, can make all the difference. Pulsing in stretches can increase our range of movement more than holding or jamming a stretch. Try 15-20 pulses of a pigeon stretch on a box to increase the movement in the hip and help to loosen the glutes, while pulsing toe taps will help increase elasticity of the hamstrings, a muscle that’s prone to injury. If you have explosive moments in your session, bring dynamic movements into your warm-up but start with more controlled movements such as lunges and body weight squats before moving into warm-up exercises like broad jumps and kicks.”
How long does a pulled muscle take to heal?
You’re finally seeing the fruits of your labour and have that weekly workout nailed, so as tempting as it is to power through an ache or pain, Nicolette recommends giving yourself the time to properly heal. “Recovery time really depends on what muscle you’ve pulled and how severe the damage is,” she says. “It could be anything from a couple of days for a very simple strain, to months depending on the severity of the injury. Recovery also varies from person to person, depending on your lifestyle and how diligent you are with your rehab process. Going through a good rehab programme for your particular injury can not only speed up your healing process, but can also help you to prevent getting the same or subsequent injuries again in the future.”
Graded in three categories, pulled muscles can range from mild damage to individual muscle fibres causing minimal loss of motion (grade 1) which can take up to two days to recover, to more extensive damage that present more significant loss of strength (grade 2) and two-to-three months recovery, to a complete rupture of a muscle or tendon that involves swelling and bruising which can require surgery and months of rehab (grade 3).
Should we stop exercising with a pulled muscle?
A welcome excuse to binge watch Love Is Blind or a frustrating setback – pulling a muscle can provoke mixed feelings. But, thankfully, it doesn’t need to derail your efforts entirely. “You can always adapt your training to work around your injury depending on where it is and the severity of the strain,” Tess says. Whether this is swapping cardio for weights or focusing on another body area, Nicolette warns us to err on the side of caution. “Before you do anything, get checked out and cleared by a physiotherapist or rehab specialist before getting back to any kind of training,” she says. “Pulling a muscle doesn’t necessarily mean stopping training altogether – you should be able to continue with other exercises as long as they don’t further stress the muscle you have strained. As long as it is safe, mixing up your training can be really helpful for your motivation and mental health whilst recovering from an injury.”
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