It’s no surprise that after a dreary winter, people are itching to get outside and get moving once the weather gets nice. But doing too much too fast can take a serious toll on winter-weakened weekend warriors.
Sydney Johnston of Atlanta knows too well the pain of a burst of spring activity. Johnston, 66, jumped right into jogging one year after a winter of doing nothing physical at all. After only two days of pounding the pavement without stretching and gradually working her way to a reasonable distance, she paid the price.
“I got shin splits that were so painful I could barely move,” she says. “I feel so much better when I exercise regularly, yet it’s so hard. I always go out and do way too much and then get sore and give up.”
Shin splints, like stress fractures, back pain, pulled muscles and tendinitis, are the battle wounds of people who do too much exercise after long periods of inactivity. The solution is, of course, prevention.
“The key is to have a year-round program of fitness. So, if you’re thinking about how to get ready for spring, you’re thinking about it too late,” says Kevin Stone, MD, orthopaedic surgeon at the well-known Stone Clinic in San Francisco.
“Having said that, if you’re one of the folks waking up to the idea of exercising with the spring blossoms, start your program focused on activities with less impact.”
Dr. Stone suggests starting with bicycling or swimming and gradually adding higher-impact exercises. Swimming, he points out, is the perfect exercise for anyone who has arthritis.
Water is great for those with arthritis, says Dr. Stone. “Even people who don’t swim can get great exercise by walking laps in a swimming pool. Every day try to do it a little faster. It’s great for joints and it’s good cardio.”
The key is to try an assortment of different activities so you have lots of variety in your routine. That has a twofold purpose: avoiding injuries from repetitive motions, or use of the same muscles or tendons, while also avoiding boredom.
It’s not just weekend athletes who end up with aches and pains when they dive into activity after a dormant winter. Dallas-based personal trainer Ellen Miller says many of her clients come in with physical complaints after they spend a weekend doing serious gardening.
“It’s the bending over and the kneeling. If they have hard dirt and they’re really stomping on the shovel, they have tight sore muscles in their arms, shoulders and backs,” she says. “Being sore and charley-horsed isn’t fun. Especially when you’re over 50.”
Miller suggests preparing for any activity by repeating the motions to warm up. If you’re going to play softball, practice bending down and scooping up the ball. If you’re going to hit some tennis balls, work on your swing. Do some jogging around the neighborhood or inside a mall for a few days before you go for a five-mile run. In addition to warming up, always remember to stretch your warm muscles to loosen them before you really start exercising.
“Slow sport-specific movements and stretching are a great warm up to prepare the body for more intense activity,” says Miller. “Especially as we age, we are not as flexible as we once were.”