The Impact of Impact Training: Starting a fitness routine or return to play

The Impact of Impact Training: Starting a fitness routine or return to play

By Ryan Jones, NASM, PTAGlobal, Spartan SGX, ISSA, PES, ELDOA

The Impact of Impact Training: Starting a fitness routine or return to play

When starting a fitness routine or returning from a performance setback, there’s confusion whether impact or non-impact training is the way to go.  All too often individuals are instructed by some allied health care professionals to stick to low or non-impact forms of training (elliptical, stationary bike, swimming), when impact training could be more appropriate based on prognosis. Now you may be thinking.. “I’m coming off a setback, why could impact training be beneficial?”  The short answer is bone density.  The upkeep, or building up of bone has huge implications for the quality of life for individuals of all ages and sexes. A major contributor to healthy bone density is resistance training (study), to which I previously mentioned in “The Secret To Aging Well And Keeping Vitality.”  Bone density has an even larger impact on postmenopausal women, who are prone to osteopenia/osteoporosis, and for individuals returning from injury such as lower extremity fracture, sprains or strains.  The next step, or complimentary piece following resistance training is impact training.

The intensity of impact training can vary from no impact at all to high impact. Starting with non-impact impact training (e.g. swimming, cycling, rowing) utilizes some external implement (water or machine) to greatly reduce the load and stress placed on bones, joints, and connective tissues.  Low impact training involves less forces and loads absorbed by the body such as walking, skating or cross country skiing; or, another way to think about this is at least one foot remains in contact with the ground at all times.  And finally, high impact involves movements requiring an individual to absorb one’s body weight such as jogging/running, sprinting, jumping or bounding; this generally involves repetitive movements where both feet are off the ground at some point.

The fear of impact training stems from the “too much wear and tear” on the body; however, we’ve since learned that the principle of adaptation (i.e. stress) is important for the body to progressively get stronger.  Granted, it’s all in the application of how that stress is applied, but stress is needed to not only increase bone density, but to maintain it. Our skeletal system is in a constant flux between osteoclast (reabsorption of bone during growth and healing) and osteoblast (mineralization and development of bone) formation. Without stimulus or stress, osteoclasts out-weigh osteoblast activity, reabsorbing more bone than osteoblast rebuild. But with the proper application of weight bearing impact on bone and connecting soft tissues, the tides turn, allowing osteoblasts to balance out their opponent, or even tip the scales in their favor (study). 

Impact training should not be feared, as long as the application is appropriate and is considered for the individual based on history and abilities. These forms of training are vital for both longevity and performance. Just like with any principle of training, or life in general, the very thing that challenges us physiologically is often the very thing that makes us stronger and more capable.

The true predictor of success here is the proper application, meaning what currently suits the individual based on training history and current health/injury status. Several factors can be leveraged when beginning to include forms of impact exercises such as volume (duration, frequency, distance) and intensity (form of impact and selected exercises). For example, walking before jogging, jogging before running, and running before sprinting.  Same goes for jumping; start with easy low intensity jumping (e.g. jumping up onto a small box) prior to higher intensity jumping (e.g. jumping off a box and landing).  Even the surfaces for where impact training takes place can be varied regarding increasing intensity – examples of this can be treadmill, turf, dirt/trails to concrete.

If incorporating impact training for the first time or returning after a setback, a general rule to follow is to stay conservative initially. Begin with lower volume, less intensity, and more forgiving surfaces. The important piece is to progress up the ladder of impactful activities while also managing how your body is recovering. Remember to assess and reassess daily on how your body’s responding to the stresses applied.  Are you experiencing muscle, joint, or boney soreness, or is it pain? Do you have any localized swelling, redness, or discoloration?  Are you feeling refreshed, fatigued or banged up after a session? Depending on how your body feels will be an indicator of how to progress, regress, or pause your training. 

Here’s an example of how one might progress their training to incorporate impact training: once 30-45 mins of low-impact training such as walking (without assistance or symptoms) is sustainable, start with a walk:jog combination such as 10-15 seconds of jogging followed by 30-60 seconds of walking for 5 sets, or something similar. This walk:jog can be done on a treadmill or even surfaced dirt trail.  Assess how your body feels during the activity and the next day. Depending on your biofeedback, this may be a good litmus for progression where you can continue building on that to where running, sprinting, or jumping is included, on varying surfaces.  

Whether you are someone returning from an injury, or you’re starting a new fitness program, any-BODY can be capable of including impact training into their routine. Remember…it’s okay to begin with non-impact types of training and gradually increase your variables (time, intensity, volume, type of surface) to incorporate impact training. In the end, impact training should NOT be avoided.