You’ve heard it before: “CrossFit will injure you!”
Well, sure. An active lifestyle does present more opportunities for injury. But when people talk about sports injuries they’re usually imagining shoulder surgeries, herniated discs and meniscus tears. These are exceedingly rare in CrossFit. Every sport does have it’s risks however. Runner’s have plantar fasciitis, soccer players have ACL tears and down hill skiers suffer concussions, sprains, breaks and death. CrossFit injuries are much more mundane, our most frequent complaint is tendinopathy a condition characterized by inflammation and pain of the connective tissue in a joint. It could be a shoulder, hip or knee but in CrossFit it’s most commonly the elbow.
Tendinopathy is not exclusive to CrossFit but plagues athletes in every sport, the elbow variety is so common in some sports that it’s named after them: Golfer’s Elbow and Tennis Elbow. Carpal tunnel is another common form of teninopathy found in people engaged in the high risk sport of using a keyboard. And yet, no one ever cautioned you not to play golf or tennis or use a laptop because of the injury risk. It seems a bit unfair.
Why do tendons become inflamed? Too much load, too much volume, too soon without sufficient recovery. Muscle tissue is more vascular (gets more blood flow) than connective tissue so it can repair more quickly from exertion. In this way, your muscular strength can develop more quickly than your connective tissue making you susceptible to overuse injuries. As we age and lose the recuperative powers of youth, our tissues recover even more slowly putting us at greater risk of tendinopathy.
The frustrating part about this is that because it is so avascular, connective tissue doesn’t always heal by resting it the way a muscle would. Healing connective tissue requires exercising the inflamed tissue to stimulate the blood flow required for healing. Obviously, you must refrain from the types of movement that irritated the tissue in the first place. This usually means reduced intensity: less load, less speed. Slow controlled movements through a complete range of motion work best. Mobility work and good nutrition also helps.
When world renowned experts like Rippetoe and Starrett agree, it’s worth paying attention. Rip points out that checking for correct movement mechanics is a necessary first step and then once movement corrections have been made, keep moving!
So your main takeaways are:
1. Injuries can occur when you engage in any type of activity but CrossFitters rarely suffer acute trauma requiring medical attention like mountain bikers or hockey players might, the most common malady you are likely to experience following a CrossFit program is inflamed connective tissue resulting from chronic overloading.
2. When suffering the pain of tendinopathy, you will be tempted – perhaps even advised by a well-meaning physician – to rest the painful area but this is the least effective way to manage and heal irritated connective tissue. Instead, correct your mechanics, slow down your movements and make sure you consume the nutrition required to repair the damaged tissue.