For those gymnasts that are injured or are returning from injury, staying off the floor can be a frustrating time. They have to remember to listen to their bodies and let them heal before slowly returning to their sport.
This is a hard task for a gymnast; they have spent so much time and effort learning their skills and building their strength that they don’t want to take time out when they have an injury. Gymnasts are known for “working through” the pain and often don’t seek medical attention, afraid that their doctors will tell them that they have to completely stop the sport for an extended amount of time.
However, this need not be the case. As I teach the gymnasts I work with, you have to understand the difference between working through pain, completely stopping the sport, and performing “active rest.” Depending on what the injury is, there is still a lot you can do to train your body and your mind while letting your injury heal:
- Practice your routines and skills mentally. If you can’t physically perform the skills, mental preparation is the next best thing. Stand on the edge of the beam, hang on the bars or sit on the pommel horse, close your eyes and visualize your routines. Create mental images, rehearse the verbal cues that you would tell yourself, and perform the skill over and over in your mind as if you were actually performing it.
- Learn from team corrections. Watch your teammates practice and listen to the corrections your coaches are making. Try to figure out where they might improve and what the biomechanics of the skill should be. Record televised gymnastics and watch the skills over and over, analyzing how the gymnasts move. The better you are able to understand technique and form of a skill, the better you will be able to perform the skill yourself.
- Perform your rehabilitation exercises. You have plenty of time in the gym to work on the home exercise program that your therapist created. Follow all the repetitions and exercises that he/she is prescribing and concentrate on the exercises as if your therapist were right there giving you verbal cues and corrections.
- Work on your core strength. No matter what your injury is, more than likely strengthening your core will help. You should spend a full rotation at practice working on your core. Strengthening your core will not only help lower extremity, upper extremity, and spine issues, but it will also make you a stronger gymnast with an improved handstand when you return.
- If you have an upper extremity injury, concentrate on plyometrics. Plyometrics is a type of exercise training designed to produce quick, explosive, powerful movements. Examples include jumping forward and back over a line, jumping side to side over a line, bounding tuck jumps, star pattern jumps, etc.
- If you have a lower extremity injury, work on your handstands. Perfect your handstands. Do them against a wall, practicing good form. Then hold the handstand without the wall, and do handstand walks across the floor. Perform handstand pushups, with and without help. Work on the floor bar or the tumble trak bar if your gym has one. Have your coaches spot you on pirouettes and handstand planches.
- Improve your flexibility. Most gymnasts do not perform their splits and other stretches correctly. Now is the time to work on your flexibility. Concentrate on making yourself square when performing your front splits instead of going all the way down to the floor. Work on your opposite leg splits even more than your dominant leg so that you even out your flexibility. Develop the flexibility of your toe point, your shoulders, your hip flexors, etc (depending on your injury).
- Maintain your gymnastics fitness. Find an aerobic activity that you can perform and work on your anaerobic fitness. Ask your doctor if you can bike, swim, or use the elliptical. If so, turn on your floor routine music and perform with light to moderate effort for the dance portion of your routine, then hard to maximum effort for the tumbling passes portion. Stop when your floor music ends. Rest for a few minutes and perform another bike/elliptical/swim routine to your music, repeating 4-5 times.
- Practice good nutrition. Your body needs the right types of nutrients and food for proper healing to occur; therefore it is very important to eat well during the recovery of an injury. Since your level of activity will change during this period, your eating habits should also change. Seek out a sports nutritionist to help you make healthy choices.
- Use the “level rule” when returning to practice. When you have been cleared by your physician and physical therapist to return to practice, start out at a level far below your normal range and maintain that level for a week before moving up to the next level of skills.
- Prevention is the key to future success. After you return to your sport, prevention is important in minimizing the chance that the injury will reoccur. Whether you had a knee, shoulder, or back injury, maintain strength in the previously weakened muscles by performing the rehabilitative exercises that your therapist gave you for at least three months after you return to sport.
Having an injury is not easy for any gymnast. Recovery requires patience and support from friends, family, and your health care team. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for the support you need to keep your spirits up. The majority of gymnasts you see in the Olympics have dealt with an injury at some point in their careers, and they still made it to where they are today. Therefore, you can do it too!
Marla Ranieri PT, DPT is a former National/International League gymnast and collegiate scholarship athlete at Stamford University. She currently assists the USA Medical Team staff for the USA Gymnastics Classics and Championships, and is a clinician for gymnast’s healthcare and injury prevention.