Why Athletes Heal Differently

Athletic girl runningWhen comparing post-injury recovery times of the average Joe to those of professional athletes, non-athletes are usually off their feet for much longer. While it’s easy to suspect that sports managers must be pushing players back into the game before they’re fully healed, the truth is that the pros actually heal differently.

Recovery in Action

The progress of Melvin Ingram’s recovery after his ACL tear during practice provides the perfect example of how athletes recover on an unusual par from the rest of us. Following his injury in May 2013, it was assumed that Ingram would be out the full season, as most players understandably would be following ACL reconstruction. Yet, Ingram played his first return game in early December, and it looks like he’ll keep leading the Chargers defense right on through the postseason. Although Ingram eased back into the game at first and still wears a de-rotation brace to protect his knee, he’s made it clear that he’s back in the game to stay.

Physical Differences

Most pro athletes have a lot of obvious physical differences compared to the casual sports enthusiast, like a bulkier build or more endurance. Their rigorous training schedule runs year-round regardless of how long the season lasts, and players get very little time off. Athletes depend on optimum performance, so they also pay strict attention to their diet and are very serious about how they care for their bodies. Professionalism is critical for pro players both on and off the field.

While of course hard work and plenty of practice shouldn’t be underestimated, another major factor that gives these pros a competitive edge is that their bodies are often genetically predisposed to a superior performance. This is at least partially due to their muscle makeup.

Unlike the majority of the population, who has roughly a 50/50 mix of fast and slow muscles, athletes tend to have more fast-twitch muscle fibers rather than slow-twitch.

  • Slow-twitch muscle fibers are best for endurance activities (like running marathons) because they can carry more oxygen for sustained activity. Yet, although they work longer before getting tired, they don’t contract with as much force as fast-twitch fibers, making slow-twitch muscles weaker.
  • Fast-twitch muscle fibers are better for short, powerful movements. Although stronger than slow-twitch muscles, they also tire more easily. Fast-twitch muscle fibers also contribute more to total muscle strength.

Since athletes are built different physically and are also generally in better shape than the rest of the population, it shouldn’t be surprising that their recovery is faster as well.

Mental Factors

The best orthopedic surgeons recognize that physicality is only part of the equation. Another big difference between athletes and non-athletes is mental state. The most successful athletes are totally committed mentally and physically to their profession. If they weren’t, their exhaustive (and exhausting) practice schedule and the stress of games and competition would be unsustainable.

In short, the lifestyle of these players requires a very dedicated mindset. Shooting that one-in-a-million basket or kicking that winning goal is not a matter of chance or brute strength nearly so much as it is reflective sheer willpower of the athletes themselves… with a healthy dose of talent mixed in too, of course. While non-athletes look forward to getting better after an injury, athletes make recovery their number one focus with the same level of intensity that they reserve for playoffs, and that’s what helps them recover faster.