Think about the last time you were seriously injured. Did you throw longing glances at your running shoes every time you passed by the front door? Try every type of yoga class in town? Wallow in an existential crisis?

Rock climber Danielle Critzas knows the feeling. While suffering from an A2 pulley (finger) injury, she tried to climb anyway, using just one arm. “Not a good idea,” she says, shaking her head. “I got bruises all over my forearms.”

Overuse injuries can keep you sidelined for months but are easily avoidable. So, how do you decide when to push through the pain or to stop and possibly prevent further damage?

“Most athletes are taught the ‘I can do it’ mentality from an early age. We learn to tell ourselves to reach the summit, win it for the team, and put one foot in front of the other,” says Chiropractic Physician and Strengthen and Conditioning Specialist Dr. Jennifer McCleary of Triad Sports & Family Chiropractic in Clayton.

“But there are times when one has to ask: Should I give every ounce of energy when I know I was injured last week? Ultimately, the most important question may not be ‘Can I?’ but ‘Should I?’”

Certified Athletic Trainer Elena Claus of ProRehab Endurance Project/Athletico Physical Therapy has been working with athletes for more than 17 years, focusing on endurance athletes for the past two. She says to look for the red flags: if the pain alters your gate, gets worse, if there’s pain when you’re resting, or if it’s localized.

Research has shown athletes have a higher pain tolerance, so determining “how much” pain is “too much” is a tricky measure for long-time athletes; most have learned to shut that off, says McCleary. She strongly recommends regular cross-training, so you can focus on your body rather than “the finish.”

And, if you have an overuse injury, the longer you put off dealing with it, the longer it will take to unwind it. “Whether you realize it or not, your nervous system is going to find a way around that [injury], so now you’re going to start moving in an imbalanced way,” she says.

Going to Extremes
St. Louis-based long-distance runner Margaret Frank, who balances her love of plant biology research with 50-mile races, agrees. “If I had gotten a running gait analysis earlier, I could have done corrective exercises and not needed the long period of time off.”

Bursitis in Frank’s right knee from iliotibial band syndrome left her at home this winter, envious of her running buddies.

Working with a physical therapist and a sports chiropractor, Frank is now back on the roads and looking forward to the Cowbell Uncorked: OFF ROAD Relay Race in May. She has incorporated a 10-minute routine to activate her muscles before a run and spends time foam rolling and stretching afterward.

Mental preparation and hydration are key to injury prevention, says Dr. Brian Laiderman, Chiropractic Physician, of Optimal Performance Center in Chesterfield. He specializes in hand and feet injuries; about 90 percent of his clients suffer from overuse injuries.

“When you’re dehydrated, your body is going to conserve water for the brain and not the extremities,” he says. “Extremities are the first to go.”

Start hydrating two days before a big event and wane off about a half-day before it begins, Laiderman recommends. And, since it’s a lack of oxygen to tissue that causes injury, always remember to breathe.

Runners are especially prone to overuse injuries because they can just grab their sneakers and mindlessly pound the pavement (if they want). It’s important to mentally prepare by “triggering the [neural] firing patterns for the stabilization muscles,” says Laiderman. Basically, let your mind in on what your body is about to do, and you’ll reduce your chances of getting hurt.

Rising Up
Now recovered from her pulley injury, Critzas is fanatic about her warm-up regimen. Before “even touching the wall” she does a yoga flow routine and dynamic stretches, hand exercises in a rice bucket to get the blood circulating in her fingers, and a “minimal” amount of cardio. (“I hate cardio so much!”) But, with an intense climbing schedule — three to four hours, five or six days a week — it has been crucial to keeping her doing what makes her happy.

“I’ve learned the hard way. Fingers are everything when you climb. If you don’t listen when your fingers are hurting, you’ll just make yourself be out for months,” says Critzas, though she does push through other types of pain, like recent knee pain from a heel hook that was too high.

“You need to know your limitations,” she says. “You need to know what is a bad injury and what is mild pain, a tweak, or just sore and tired.”

Author: Kimberly Donoghue is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine
Image: Greenz Productions