Gardening Tips to Save Your Back and Knees this Spring

As the weather warms up many of us come out of hibernation. Spending time in the garden is a wonderful way to enjoy the sunshine and the outdoors. As Kiwis we love our gardens and Spring is the perfect time to dive back in to this favoured past time.

However – as a Physio I can tell you that gardening does come with it’s downside….aches, pains and at worst – Injuries! Every year at this time of year I see an increase in knee and lower back pain from gardeners as they venture out in to the back yard.

There are things you can do though to keep yourself safe as you weed, dig, mulch and mow this spring. Here are my 10 top tips:

  1. Know your limits of what you can lift For large loads such as a bag of mulch, use a wheelbarrow to move it around. If you don’t have a wheelbarrow, then open the bag and shovel out a bucket-full of material that you can easily carry. It will take more time and mean more trips, but it will save you injuring your back.
  2. Use Your Legs. It’s an old adage – “Don’t use your back like a crane”. This is never more true than in the garden. Squat down or kneel when weeding instead of bending from the spine. Pulling from a bent spine can cause lower back pain. Likewise bending over for long periods of time can be as bad for you as sitting slumped in a chair! When removing large roots be sure to use your legs to pull not your back. If digging, then use your legs and stand with a wide base of support in a squatting position to protect your back. Your large leg and butt muscles are designed for this!! Not your back!!
  3. Take your Time Avoid long stints of digging and bending over in the garden. It is better to break up your gardening tasks in to smaller jobs and spread them out over a period of time rather than try and get it all done in one day. Allow your muscles to rest and recover.
  4. Vary Tasks in the Garden Vary tasks frequently to avoid “overusing” any one particular part of your body. Change from activities that require kneeling such as weeding, to trimming taller plants/shrubs that require standing.
  5. Use a Potting Bench When working with plant containers and pots, use a bench that allows you to stand comfortably and work with pots at around waist height.
  6. Use a Kneeler or Kneeling Cushion The best position for your back while weeding is to kneel. However this can be a killer on your knees. Protect your knees by using a Garden Kneeler or kneeling cushions or kneeling pads
  7. Take Breaks and Stretch As you spend a lot of time bending over in the garden, it is important to take a break every 30-40 minutes and stretch your back in the opposite direction. Lying on your tummy and pushing up through your arms (see below) and repeat for 2 sets of 10 repetitions. Alternatively do the same thing in standing (see below)
  8. Use Appropriate Tools Using appropriate tools is essential! This includes spades with the right length handles, wheelbarrows, long handled hand held tools where appropriate. This will prevent you bending unnecessarily and further straining your knees and back. Decent footwear is also essential while gardening as you end up spending a lot of time on your feet. Inappropriate footwear can contribute to knee pain so ensure you wear shoes that fit well and have an arch support.
  9. Drink Water This will keep you hydrated and your joints and connective tissues lubricated
  10. Breathe Last but not least, enjoy the outdoors. Breathe in the fresh air and keep your body and mind refreshed!

Pain in the Calf Muscle!!

Calf muscle injuries are a relatively common occurrence in active people.

The calf is actually made up of three individual muscles: soleus, plantaris, and gastrocnemius. The plantaris muscle is a small, thin muscle that runs from the medial aspect of the distal femur (inside area of your lower thigh) down the middle area of your lower leg until it meets the other muscles and they form the Achilles tendon. The gastrocnemius muscle has two heads which start from the medial and lateral aspects of the distal femur (the area just above your knee). They merge a few cm below your knee and continue down before joining the Achilles. The soleus muscle is the deepest of these. It originates on the posterior surface of the proximal tibia (the back of the main bone of your lower leg).

The plantaris muscle is rarely injured. The gastrocnemius is more commonly injured than the soleus, due to it crossing both the knee and ankle joints. Approximately 20% of people who sustain a calf injury reported feeling tightness in the week or so prior to injury.

calf Gastrocnemius injury commonly occurs when accelerating rapidly (e.g. starting a sprint), or changing direction particularly from a stationary position (e.g. while playing tennis), when the knee is straight and the foot dorsiflexed (toes pulled up).

Commonly people report feeling a stabbing pain or tearing sensation in the medial head of the gastrocnemius or in the musculotendinous junction (the area where the muscle fibres merge with the tendon fibres).

Calf injuries are separated into three grades – grade I is a tear in a small proportion (<10%), grade II is a larger tear (10-50%) and grade III is a larger to complete tear. Soleus injury is reported as being less common, but it may be frequently misdiagnosed.

Accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential to minimise disability and time off work/sport.

Initial treatment should consist of POLICE (Protection Optimal Load Ice Compression Elevation) for 48-72 hours. Heel raises should be used if weight bearing is painful. At about 36-48 hours gentle stretching should begin, as tolerated. Massage to release tight areas of muscle. A graduated strengthening program should begin with bilateral calf raises on a flat surface, progressing to single leg on a flat surface and two legged off the edge of a step to single leg off a step to heel drops and finally functional activities e.g jumping.

Recovery ranges from around two weeks for a mild grade I strain to about four months for a severe grade III, if you do get the right diagnosis and treatment.

So, if you have a calf injury, are experiencing any pain in the calf muscle OR are just feeling tight in your calf muscles get in to see a physio to assess it properly and help prevent future injuries.

How to Run Smarter and Avoid Injury

How to Avoid Running Injuries this Winter

By incorporating these simple strategies in to your training, you can reduce the risk of running related injuries!

1. Choose your footwear wisely! Not all shoes are made equal so choose a shoe that is right for you! Seek advice here from a Podiatrist if in doubt

2. Stretch!! (Boring I hear you say!!) Maybe join a group class such as yoga if you find doing your own stretches a chore

3. Shorten your stride!! Latest research contradicts previous ideas that lengthening your stride was best!! Over striding is a common mistake that can lead to decreased efficiency and increased injury risk. If you shorten your stride, you’ll land “softer” with each footfall, incurring lower impact forces. Longer strides increase the force at heel strike, however shorter strides encourage landing on the middle of your foot where we naturally have better shock absorption. A shorter stride will usually lower the impact force, which should reduce injuries,”

4. Strength train. You don’t want to “bulk up” and have bulging muscles. You need just enough core, hip, and lower-leg strength training to keep your pelvis and lower-extremity joints properly positioned. You also don’t want to overload individual muscles and joints. “Healthy running should be as symmetrical and fluid as possible,” says Michael Fredericson, M.D., associate professor of sports medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. “If you don’t have muscle balance, then you lose the symmetry, and that’s when you start having problems.” If you don’t like strength training on your own then try a group class such as Pilates, which targets whole body, functional strength.

5. Listen to your body and know your limits!

Run Smart

Run Smart