For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Ben Walker, a triathlete and the owner of Anywhere Fitness, says that mild to modern inflammation will always occur in muscles that have been worked.
This is because inflammation is a protective reaction by the body in response to injury: the muscles worked need recruits for the healing process, so the body sends more blood flow to the localized area.
However, severe inflammation — the type that causes debilitating pain and health issues — is far more serious. Walker explains that this is often the result of poor training habits (think: neglecting strength training and stretching, and ignoring rest days) and an incomplete diet (missing carbs, proteins, or fats).
“When joints and muscle tissue become overly fatigued, it increases the risk of inflammation,” added Dr. Josh Axe, founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com. “Inflammation depresses the immune system by raising the stress hormone, cortisol. This inflames the body and can lead to issues such as pain and swelling.”
Dr. Axe noted that common signs of inflammation include redness, swelling, pain, heat, fatigue, and rashes. And worryingly, if chronic inflammation is not managed correctly, it can cause many diseases such as dermatitis, asthma, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease.
“A long-term inflammatory diet can significantly increase your risk of health issues and disease. In fact, chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world,” he warned.
So, what kind of foods are a culprit for increasing inflammation? Refined, processed, and packaged foods get a bad wrap for a reason, as they’re notoriously inflammatory. Others that wreak havoc include fried foods, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, and alcohol.
“It’s important to fuel the body with nourishing, nutrient-dense foods,” Dr. Axe instructed. “Especially for athletes, because the body can go into ‘starvation mode’ from overworking your muscles and burning more energy than your body has to keep all body systems working properly. This can negatively impact your immune system and cause an inflammatory response.”
“Making small changes to the way you eat can have a tremendous impact,” Dr. Axe said. “Bringing anti-inflammatory foods into your diet, while avoiding foods that cause inflammation, is key. Some of the best options include leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard, as well as celery, broccoli, blueberries, wild-caught salmon, walnuts, turmeric, ginger, flaxseeds, and bone broth.”
As for training, Walker said that the most common injuries that show chronic inflammation in triathletes are knee and shoulder issues.
“As these mechanisms are hinge or ball and socket joints they provide the most movement, but it also makes them vulnerable and susceptible to injury from repetitive load during exercise,” he said.
“This is why it’s important to perform the correct exercises frequently for the supporting muscle groups. Any acute damage to these structures can cause the mechanism to fail and result in severe injury and inflammation.”
Walker advises all athletes to build their muscles and joint structures with strength and functional training.
“Heavy lifting will help build the extremities to endure impactful forces, such as from the ground when running and cycling, and water resistance when swimming,” he explained. “Functional training is also essential and can often be missed in an athletes’ training regimen. This type of training requires the athlete to mimic the movement patterns that are performed in each activity more repetitively and with minimal load.”
Walker maintains that these training modalities must be accompanied by adequate stretching to increase the range of motion in the joints.
“Stretching alerts the body to expect an increase in intensity. It also helps reduce the risk of injury and inflammation when gradually training harder,” he added. “Your body adapts to what it’s about to encounter and keeps the level of inflammation down after your workout.”
Walker says that active rest days are crucial for avoiding injury and inflammation. And above all, your body needs three things: rest, protein, and water.
“By keeping our muscles hydrated and supplying them with enzymes and amino acids, the torn muscle fibers repair quicker and become stronger than they were before. Essentially this is our goal from training. If active rest days are not added to the weekly schedule, you could end up over exerting the entire muscle while its fibers are broken down, resulting in a full 1st-3rd degree tear or sprain of the muscle.”
At the first sign of inflammation, such as swelling, pain, redness or a buildup of fluid, Walker says it’s essential to stop all activity and rest from training until the situation has cleared.
“Act immediately, especially within the first 72 hours,” he said. “Make sure to adopt the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Do this two to three times daily and take an ibuprofen or any prescribed drug from a health professional to reduce the swelling.”
Walker also says it’s best to rest from all activity — particularly weight-bearing exercises — when experiencing inflammation.
“Mild to moderate levels will typically last for about 48 hours in a well-trained athlete who has a good diet. As the initial response of inflammation is to send blood flow to the affected area, static stretching can also help with this process.”
“Lack of sleep increases irritability and stress, therefore affecting our body’s healing process,” Walker stated.
“Other dimensions of health are also important to consider when reducing inflammation: switching off from screens at a reasonable time, getting to bed early, enjoying social events, and practicing mindfulness all help.”
“Studies have shown that getting adequate levels of melatonin and Vitamin D can also contribute to healing. Don’t forget to put number one first and schedule some time off or some sun vacations!”