How to maintain muscle mass when you’re injured

Strength coach Dave Cripps explains how you can maintain and look after your muscle mass if injured

How to maintain muscle mass when you’re injured

Sustaining an injury as a triathlete is one of the most frustrating experiences that you can endure. Being unable to do the training that you love is scientifically shown to cause deconditioning, not just from reductions in endurance-based fitness, but also in strength and power, which is critical for triathlon performance (Mujika and Padella, 2000).

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This article will specifically focus on the ‘re-training’ of strength, a physical quality that plays a significant role in your performance in triathlon and also the ability to ensure that prior injuries don’t return.

What happens to your strength when you’re injured?

What happens to your strength when injured is largely dependent on the exact injury sustained, your training history and genetics. Science shows that losses in strength and power occur quickly and significantly. For example, maximal strength can drop by 7-12% within eight to 12 weeks of not being trained (Mujika and Padella, 2000). This is a significant loss that’d lose the strength gains achieved over the previous four to six months. It’s also negatively impact endurance performance. However, there are ways to minimise this loss that are rarely utilised by triathletes and can ensure you return back to peak performance as fast and safely as possible.

How to re-train strength

When an injury means a limb can’t be used for training, there’s a little-known method you can benefit from: cross education. Cross education is a term that explains how strength training performed on one limb (the uninjured one) creates a strength training stimulus in the same muscles in the opposite limb (the injured one) due to changes in the central nervous system (Frazer et al. 2018). This explains why maintaining strength training during any injury in an unaffected limb is of benefit. For example, if someone has a knee cartilage injury in their right leg, they should look to strength train the left leg and therefore minimise strength losses in the right leg (e.g. using a single leg press on the one limb).

If your injury is not so significant and the injured limb can be strength trained safely, either from the start or during the later stages of injury rehab, it should be introduced using suitable and safe exercises at low intensities/resistance. This could be using, for example, a resistance that allows for sets of reps greater than 10. By using reduced ranges of motion, more stable movements and adjusted other variables to an exercise, it’s surprising how strength training can commence relatively quickly. However, the goal of getting to higher intensities as quickly and as safely possible is imperative, but always seek medical advice from a physiotherapist first.

Using higher-intensity/load strength training – e.g. using a resistance that allow for sets of reps below 10 – is shown to be more beneficial than lower-intensity strength training during re-training after a period of deconditioning, like with an injury (Sousa et al. 2018). Equally, physical changes brought about by strength training linked to greater economy, efficiency and performance are accepted to occur using higher-intensity strength training. This also helps with bulletproofing your body from running, where up to eight times your bodyweight drives through your body with each stride (Dorn et al. 2012).

You should always seek medical advice from a doctor or physiotherapist for any injuries or health concerns before commencing training

Dave Cripps is the director of TriTenacious, a leading online strength and conditioning resource  for triathletes, and Coalition Performance.

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He holds both BSc and MSc degrees in sport and exercise science and is a fully accredited strength and conditioning coach by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association. He’s worked professionally as a strength and conditioning coach for over a decade, in over 20 sports at both world class and amateur levels, including triathlon, cycling, running and swimming.