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How to Recover From a Sports Injury Like a Pro

By Brittany Risher December 21, 2017

People love a good comeback story. There's something we can’t resist about watching an injured athlete return to his or her sport and not only excel, but win. It’s empowering and inspirational, and absolutely heartwarming. Yet when we find ourselves injured, it can be hard to avoid despair and wonder if we'll ever compete again.

If this happens to you, it might be time to look at a pro athlete’s tactics. Take Lindsey Vonn for example. The two-time Olympic medalist and four-time World Cup overall winner has 77 World Cup wins, the all-time record for a woman. However, she's also faced several setbacks, including missing the 2014 Olympics after re-injuring her knee and most recently fracturing her humerus in November 2016. But these injuries have only made her work harder.

“I get through injuries by finding a way to be stronger and better, and finding things that I can strengthen,” Vonn says. “I look at every injury as an opportunity to be better.”

With that kind of attitude, plus the right team of healthcare professionals, you too can make a strong comeback. Consider the tips below to help recover as well as prevent future injuries.

Find Your Recovery Team

A full, proper recovery doesn't happen alone. You need a team of expert healthcare professionals to help you. Vonn relies on her physical therapist Lindsay Winninger, owner of Sports Rehab Consulting, to help her get back as fast as possible.

“Lindsey Vonn has fought back from several injuries, and not just fought to get back, but fought to get back and win,” says Winninger, who describes Vonn’s rehab and training as a grind and a commitment. “And if you have been injured along the way, the grind is that much harder,” she adds.

Whatever grind you're facing, a physical therapist can approach each injury differently, giving you the best tools and specialized exercises to recover as safely and as fully as possible. For example, Vonn uses TheraBand® products in her work with Winninger because they're great for taking you from recovery to daily training and beyond.

A chiropractor is another expert to consider seeing. Although many people associate chiropractic care with low-back pain, these doctors treat other common pain points, such as neck pain and direct injuries to your musculoskeletal system. They use spinal manipulation and other manual therapies to relieve pain and improve range of motion.

Many pro athletes also have a massage therapist as part of their health and wellness team. Not just masters of relaxation, massage therapists have the ability to help you work through your pain right at the source.They can help relieve tight muscles, reducing pain and increasing range of motion. This helps allow you to move more efficiently.

To help find your best recovery team, try using the Professional Finder. For a detailed search by body part or objective (or even various healthcare professional types), enter your zip code and click “Continue.” Be sure each professional you see knows what other care you're using so all of your treatments complement each other.

Start with Prehab

If surgery is necessary for your injury, doing prehabilitation (rehab exercises you do before surgery) may speed your recovery. “The theory is that when you go into surgery, you're going to be at a lower level than you would normally be,” explains Phil Page, PhD, PT, ATC and Director of Research for Performance Health. “But if you do prehab, when you get out of surgery, you'll actually be at a higher level than if you hadn't done anything beforehand.”

In a study of 18 patients with knee osteoarthritis, half the patients did prehab three times a week for eight weeks before surgery while the others didn't do prehab at all. Three months post-surgery, the prehab group reported better physical functioning and overall quality of life compared with the other group.

Although the prehab research on other conditions is inconclusive, Dr. Page highly recommends prehab. “It’s not just to prepare the tissues for the surgery and for the rehab afterward, but because it teaches you what you need to do immediately after surgery,” Dr. Page says. And prehab is something you can do with the assistance of your physical therapist as well as right at home.

Train to Prevent Future Injuries

The best way to recover is to avoid injuries in the first place, right? That’s not always possible, but understanding the way you move during your activities (and for your skill level) is a great start. “We need to train based on how the brain thinks of movement,” explains Andre Labbe, PT, M.O.M.T., physical therapist at Tulane University in New Orleans. “The focus of injury prevention is to make sure that we start building our athletes at the same level of their skill set development.”

Injury prevention with a physical therapist or athletic trainer may involve work such as corrective exercises, balance exercises on a TheraBand® Stability Trainer and working with a TheraBand® CLX™ resistance band— all aimed at targeting key muscles you use during sport-specific movements. These exercises shore up weak spots and deficiencies in your body, making you less likely to end up on the sidelines.

Make Your Comeback

Every athlete knows the risk of injuries—it's the price you pay to do what you love. And you can certainly take action to prevent and treat injuries. “Rehabbing from any injury is never easy and it's never short. Do whatever it takes to be better than 100 percent,” Vonn advises.

Just remember that while you may be able to train with some of the same tools as the pros, you have to do what’s right for you. You may need to adjust how you recover, how you train and even how you play your sport after your recovery. But by listening to your body and putting in the tough work (with the help of your team), you have the potential to do exactly what Vonn have done—rise from the pits of injury to the peak of greatness.


1 Study sponsored by Performance Health