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Muscle Strain: Everything An Athlete Needs to Know

Muscle strain can be an athlete’s most frustrating injury. Common, painful, and time consuming to heal, a muscle strain can put you out of action for several months depending on severity. So what is muscle strain? And how can you avoid it when you’re mid-workout?

What is Muscle Strain?

A muscle strain occurs when a muscle is overstretched and the fibers that hold it together are damaged and torn. Also known as a pulled muscle, muscle strain can occur anywhere in the body that’s been overworked — and can be debilitating.

When you strain the muscle, you damage the muscle structure. Rather than contracting and relaxing in the way it was intended, a sharp or unfamiliar movement will tear the blood vessels that run through the muscle, causing spotting. This bleeding seeps into the surrounding tissue causing bruising, swelling, pain and limited range of motion.

Crossfit Recovery
CrossFit Recovery

Muscle strains are common in muscles across two joints, during explosive action such as springing or jumping, or when athletes suddenly increasing their exercise regimens. The contraction of our muscles allows us to do just about anything, so injury can occur at any time if the muscle isn’t ready or pushed in an unnatural direction.

How Do I Know If I Strained a Muscle?

You usually know right away if you have strained a muscle. The first thing you will feel is pain in the effected area and the inability to move the surrounding joint if the strain is serious enough.

Light strains will heal quickly and will still allow movement, only needing a short period of inactivity to heal. Unlike DOMS or general muscle soreness, a strained muscle can be felt right away, and will feel like a “stab” that will stop you from completing the activity at hand.

Other symptoms to look out for are:

  • Swelling, bruising, or redness due to the injury
  • Pain at rest
  • Pain when the specific muscle or the joint in relation to that muscle is used
  • Weakness of the muscle or tendons
  • Inability to use the muscle at all

However if you experience any unique symptoms following the injury that include a “popping” noise, fatigue, inability to walk, or significant pain and swelling seek further medical attention from a professional.

How Should I Treat a Muscle Strain?

So you pulled a muscle in your last WOD, now how do you treat it? Most of the time (unless for reasons listed above) muscle strain can be treated at home using over-the-counter medication, ice/heat, and rest.

The first thing you should do as soon as you think you’ve strained a muscle is to apply ice to the effected area. Keep the muscle stretched. Do not apply the ice directly to the skin. Ice helps to limit swelling and and will help ease inflammation around the area.

You can apply heat to the area later on in the recovery process to stimulate blood flow to the area, but in the acute stage only ice should be used.

To manage pain you can take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen. This will also help with gentle movement and blood flow to the area.

Next Step: PRICE

From here the best approach is PRICE:

  • Protection
  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

And finally, have patience. Even a light muscle strain can take around 6 weeks for the muscle fibers to completely regenerate. More serious strains can take several months, and during this time it’s really important to not stress the damaged muscle and reinjure the area.

How Can I Prevent Muscle Strain?

One of the best ways to ensure muscle strain doesn’t strike you down for long is prevention.


One of the best ways to prevent muscle strain is to stretch daily, and especially after exercise. Stretching keeps your muscles flexible, strong, and healthy. This allows your muscles to work harder when you need them too without becoming over-stressed.

Warming up is also important to make sure your muscles are prepared for the exertion to come. Mobility work is also key for healthy joint and muscle movement.

Regular Exercise

As well as stretching, building strong and healthy muscles through regular exercise will get them used to activity. However when bouncing back from an injury, it’s important to not use the affected area at 100% of your usual capacity until you’re pain-free.

Instead, you can shift your focus to other parts of your body and try adapting workouts to accommodate, taking stress off the injury and keeping you active, if possible.

Eat a Well-Balanced Diet

Consuming a combination of muscle-fueling foods is vital for maintaining good muscle health. Proteins, healthy fats, and carbohydrates will keep you going and help prevent muscle strain.

Maintaining a healthy weight will also put less strain on the muscles and prevent injury.

Invest in the Right Gear

The right pair of shoes for your sport or activity might be the difference between a nasty muscle strain or a light one. Investing in well-made and suitable gear will protect you against all kinds of aches, pains and muscles strains.

Listen to your Body

Yoga-Movement-FlowSource: adidas

Sports injuries are common and expected when you workout, but are easily avoidable if you listen to your body and know what’s best in the moment. If you’re tired, take a break. If you’re in pain, stop or change the activity.

You won’t be a hero for pushing yourself beyond your limits in a way that damages your body, but you might be laid up for a while — which is exactly why you should always listen to what your muscles are trying to tell you.

Read More: What Causes Muscle Cramps and How Can You Prevent Them?

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