The root cause of most common sports injuries — whether in a Spartan Race, the gym, or elsewhere — is doing something that your body isn’t yet capable of handling. But it’s not necessarily about a lack of strength.
"A lot of people have a lack of mobility in their hips, shoulders, and ankles which leads to knee pain, lower back pain, and shoulder injuries,” says Sam Stauffer, Spartan’s Director of Training. That said, it’s quite possible you need much more than a few early-morning stretches and shoulder circles the week of your race. Another key issue is improper training. “I see a lot of ‘weekend warriors’ that say they want to do a Spartan race and start training without having a plan,” says Rich Borgatti, an SGX coach and the owner of MountainStrength.com.
But even with a plan in place, the risk of injury remains, says Yancy Culp, SGX coach and the owner of YancyCamp.com. “People might dive into a training program too quickly and find themselves in an overtraining situation,” he said. Takeaway: Don’t go into a race or begin training without a plan, understand what you’re currently capable of, and make slow and steady progress. Here are the four most common sports injuries for Spartans in training, and how to prevent them.
How to Prevent these Common Sports Injuries
The Injury: A Rolled Ankle
The cause: “The first kind of injury we usually see, especially for beginners, is typically rolled ankles from starting to get out on the trails,” says Borgatti. “Maybe they haven't done a lot of trail running in the past and are just getting acclimated to that type of terrain.”
Prevent it: The best thing you can do here is simply be more mindful on the trails. "Be in the moment and pay attention to everything your body's doing,” says Borgatti. That said, there’s some additional work you can do in the gym to give yourself a better chance of warding off a sprain or break, should you slip up on the trails. If you have proper ankle mobility, the joints will be less susceptible when you’re stepping over and around tree roots or traversing uneven terrain.
Assess and train: Test your mobility with this drill from Stauffer: Put your foot flat on the ground a few inches from the wall. With your hands on the wall, drive your knee in as slowly and as far as you can. If your knee doesn't go over your toe while your heel remains flat, chances are you have pretty poor ankle mobility. You can turn the test into a mobility-building exercise by working in some reps before your workouts. “While keeping the heel glued to the floor, you will want to drive in as far as your current range of motion allows, hold for a second or two, then release," he says. "Repeat this 8-10 times for each ankle."
The Injury: Shoulder Impingement or Rotator Cuff Issue
The cause: “We're in a place in society where we lack general shoulder mobility,” says Stauffer. “We're sitting in front of a computer, we're constantly typing over our phones. Just the idea of going over [your] head, or even going over [your] head with weight, it's not going to go over too well.”
Prevent it: Stauffer suggests focusing on increasing the range of motion in your shoulder joint. “I love a thoracic spine rotation drill,” he says. And while the shoulder joint craves mobility, the girdle needs stability to help you hold things in place. For the latter, Stauffer suggests adding lateral crawls (where you're basically in a push-up position and you crawl side to side) or bear crawls into your routine.
Borgatti suggests adding a couple of other moves to your injury-preventing arsenal. First up, static holds. "Get under the bar and hang for 10, 20 seconds, 30 seconds and build up in intervals to where you would be able to hang from something for a minute,” says Borgatti.
Shoulder pass-throughs are another staple. Hold a PVC pipe or broomstick with a wide grip and move, and move it from the front of your body all the way overhead to the rear of your body without bending your elbows. “We're going from front to back and we're increasing the range of motion, and over time, you would move your hands closer together and feel that stretch,” says Borgatti.
Assess and train: Can you put your back against the wall and put your arms over your head? Can you touch your thumbs to the wall over your shoulders without having to excessively bend your back or force yourself into that position? If you can't, then you need to work on that range of motion, says Borgatti.
The Injury: Lower Back Pain
The cause: One culprit: burpees. “It's really a fan-favorite exercise and it's very Spartan-specific, but it comes with a caveat,” says Stauffer. “A lot of people hit that chest to the ground, and then they just crank up with their hands without bringing their lower back up with them. That pinches right where the hip meets the spine.” The root cause could be a lack of core stability and a lack of hip mobility.
Prevent it: “For most cases, the lower back pain translates directly to your mobility in your hips," says Stauffer. "If your hips aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing, your lower back, unfortunately, is going to take the hit. If you're deadlifting or squatting, and your hips can't get to that range of motion that they need, ultimately the strain is either going to go down to the knees or it's going to go up to the back.”
Stauffer suggests the single-leg lower exercise for improving your hip mobility. “You're lying on your back, your feet are facing the ceiling with a looped resistance band on one foot, while you lower your other leg," he says. "Basically you have one hip in flexion, and the other one in extension. You're increasing range of motion, not forcefully, which is probably the best way to do it."
Next: Build up your core stability with planks.
“We have what we call anti-extension and anti-rotation core exercises," he says. "A plank would fall under an anti-extension exercise. It focuses on allowing the core to do what it does. It gets stronger in that pillar position and gets rid of any dip in the lower back.”
For the anti-rotation portion of any core training, Stauffer suggests the Palloff press or wood chops. “Anything that helps you prevent rotation of the spine and really gets you stronger in that category would help with the lower back issue," he says.
Assess and train: Stauffer suggests using the single-leg lower to test for hip mobility issues. However, he warns that it’s a little more complicated to use as a gauge. “While performing the leg raise, if the opposite leg lifts from the ground or the opposite foot begins to rotate externally, the screen is invalid,” he says. For core stability, you should be able to do one well-executed push-up. “If there is an arch in the back, one side of the hips lifts before the other; then, you most likely lack the ability to fire the core,” says Stauffer.
The Injury: Elbow Tendonitis
The cause: Culp says that grip strength and endurance are really put to the test during obstacle races and in obstacle training. “I’m confident running injuries are number one, and there’s no analytics to prove this, but I believe that elbow injuries would be number two — specifically elbow tendonitis," he says.
Prevent it: A lot of Spartan requires pulling and grip flexion, so adding grip extension exercises into training is important for muscle balance and symmetry, says Culp.
Try rice bucket finger extensions: Punch down into the bucket with a full fist. As you pull your hand out of the bucket, extend your fingers out and away, working against the sand. Instead of pulling and squeezing, this exercise pushes and extends, helping to create muscular balance in your hands and forearms, directly affecting the elbow.
Another option is to focus on wrist flexibility and shoulder mobility, says Stauffer. Try quadruped wrist rocks: Starting down on all fours with your hands over your shoulders and fingers pointing away from the body, slowly rock back and forth. Then, switch your hands so they face towards you and repeat.
Assess and train: “Unfortunately, there’s no saying if you're more susceptible to tendonitis,” says Stauffer. In addition to training, both Culp and Stauffer suggest being mindful of not overtraining. “If you overwork the tendons and don’t allow for rest and recovery, then your chances of injury are higher,” Stauffer says. “Treat the grip just like the rest of your muscle groups," he adds. "Everything needs adequate rest."