How to Train After an Injury or Illness

A physical therapy assistant stretches an airman's quadriceps.
Virginia Lindsey, 1st Special Operations Medical Operations Squadron physical therapy assistant, performs a quadratic muscle stretch on Tech. Sgt. James Kitchen, 413th Flight Test Squadron special missions aviator, at the physical therapy clinic on Hurlburt Field, Fla., June 5, 2015. (Senior Airman Jeff Parkinson/U.S. Air Force photo)

After an illness or injury, it is often difficult to regain the same level of fitness you worked so hard to achieve. You may feel like your body has failed you, and you are just not yourself when unable to train each day. Everyone’s situation is different, but you generally need to start your training slow and be patient. Here are a few rules to follow for common issues people face when bouncing back after illness or injury:

1. If you have a serious illness, rest and recover. Illnesses that require hospital time or lengthy treatment are going to wreak havoc on your body and immune system. Give yourself a break and think minimalist. Do the very basics -- breathe, walk and stretch.

Allow yourself to heal. Once you get the go-ahead to start training again, go gently back into training and make your workouts just a little harder than walking and stretching. Maybe add in some calisthenics, light weights and very moderate cardio options.

2. Can you work around your injury? Ask yourself whether you still can do upper-body exercises if you have a lower-body injury or still run and lift legs if you have an upper-body injury. Sometimes that is possible and helps you avoid losing too much overall conditioning and cardiovascular endurance. Consider using isolation exercises or isolation weight machines when a joint, bone or muscle is injured to allow yourself to exercise, but eliminate any stress or movement from the injured area. 

Also consider doing non-impact cardio options instead of running or rucking if pain or injury is in the lower back or legs.  Swimming, rowing, biking or elliptical trainers may be a good option for you when suffering from something like tendinitis or even if you are recovering from surgery.

3. Be a good patient and have patience. Be careful not to reinjure yourself or relapse. Do not start back too soon and too intensely. Your efforts at a speedy recovery can backfire and put you back into the hospital. 

Common ailments and injuries affecting training sessions

Here are some ideas when dealing with common ailments that force us to take recovery days or work around injuries:

Head cold/sinuses vs. chest cold. When congestion of the head causes common cold symptoms, you have a choice. You can eat well, hydrate and rest, or you can train. But be careful. Overdoing it and stressing out the body too much while even slightly ill can lead to bigger problems that cause infections or move to the lungs and get even more serious.

When the chest is congested, you need to back off from harder training programs, period. If training makes you cough and the lungs are producing mucus, you can overwork your heart and lungs when your lungs are congested. This can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia if you do not allow the body to recover and rest for a few days. 

Besides, it is best to avoid people in a gym if coughing, but you should lay off exercises -- other than stretching and light joint movements (mobility) -- when the chest cold is serious.

Upper-body (shoulder) injury. The shoulder is a very commonly injured joint. If you have such an injury, it will prevent many movements, such are push-ups, dips, overhead presses, swimming and lifting. Depending on the muscle injured, you may be able to get away with isolating the pushing or pulling muscles of the upper body and avoid pain.

But you always can work the other arm and shoulder, run, do leg workouts and even swim with fins (no arms) and tread water (no arms). Running may hurt the shoulder immediately after injury, but you still can focus on many non-impact cardio activities to stay in shape while recovering.

Knee or leg injury. Any lower-body injury typically will force you to reduce or stop running, but once again, the non-impact cardio options are available to stay in shape and even maintain your current conditioning. Some have even improved by reducing running and focusing on other cardio options, mainly giving the body a chance to recover from the impact of running and still challenging the heart and lungs with tough workouts like intervals and sprints. There is no excuse in not working the upper-body muscles and core still when recovering from a leg injury. 

When it is time to get back to exercising, find the easiest workout you have ever done and make it easier. Do this for at least the first week or longer if you are still sore from very light movements. 

There is no specific time or recommendation to progress back into training. Some say that for every week you do not train, make that the number of weeks you have to progress to where you left off. Some are more aggressive and say for every month you are off of training, take a week to rebuild before you push yourself with the same intensity before illness or injury. 

Both make sense, however. Gauge your progress, effort level and abilities as you get moving again. The goal is not only to recover to where you left off, but also not to get injured again or relapse with a more serious illness.

Related video -- Tactical Fitness Report - Recovery from Serious Illness and Injury Podcast

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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