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How to Exercise with Pain: The Stoplight Model to Make Informed Training Decisions

Discover the Stoplight Model, a valuable framework for making informed training decisions while dealing with recurring pain. Learn how to safely push your limits, modify exercises, and manage recurring pain.


traffic light with red arrow

 

When rehabbing an injury or dealing with frequent flare-ups of old injuries, it can be difficult to know if you are doing more damage when working out. If you are having pain when you exercise, it doesn’t always mean that you need to stop. What you need is a framework to help you make decisions about when to push, and when to hold back. The framework that we use at Apollo Performance Therapy is the Stoplight Model.


This model was originally borrowed from the book “A World of Hurt” by Melissa Kolski and Annie O’Connor. The Stoplight Model has been extremely useful in helping us get our clients back to performing at a high level, whether they started with us immediately after an injury or when dealing with chronic pain.


Green Light: Tolerable Loading


During exercise — A green light is a discomfort that you definitely notice, but is not enough to make you change how you are moving or make any faces at the discomfort. It is a level that you are generally okay with feeling. It should go away quickly once you finish the exercise.


Post-workout — Any increased pain or soreness after the workout should be tolerable, meaning that it doesn’t interfere with the rest of your day in any way, outside of potentially being a little more noticeable. You should be back to baseline level symptoms by the 24 hour mark. There should be no change (or an improvement) in range of motion or strength after the activity.


What to do — No damage is being done here. This is a safe level of loading. You can feel confident about adding next session by 1-5% to gradually expose to higher levels of loading over time.


Yellow Light: Caution to Add More


During exercise — A yellow light is a mild increase in pain during exercise that still doesn’t change how you are moving, but you may want to start making faces at the discomfort. It is a level of pain that you should still feel safe with, and generally does not include any sharp or stabbing pain. It may linger after you finish the exercise for a bit of time.


Post-workout — Any increased pain or soreness after the workout should be tolerable, and not limit your day outside of being more noticeable. Your symptoms should be back to normal levels in 24-48 hours (or less). There should be no significant loss in range of motion or strength.


What to do — This is a safe level of pain, you are not doing any extra harm. You should not add any extra load or volume to the exercise until you get a green light response from what you are currently doing. Yellow light activities should happen less frequently than green light activities, as it will usually take a little longer for the sensitivity to calm down to normal levels. Make sure to be focusing on sleep quality and nutrition to maximize recovery, and take advantage of your recovery exercises/tools in order to maintain comfort levels as needed.


Red Light: Stop and Modify If Able


During exercise — A red light is a sharp, stabbing, or any other intolerable pain that causes you change how you are moving or stops you from performing the exercise. You should not push through this type of pain. Try to adjust the symptoms by changing the speed, load, or set-up of the exercise. If unable to do so, skip the exercise and move on for today. The symptoms may linger for an extended amount of time after the exercise, and you may have to modify your day to accommodate the increase in symptoms.


Post-workout — Any increase in symptoms that lasts for longer than 48 hours would be considered a red light. You may have a noticeable loss of range of motion or strength until things calm back down.


What to do — This was too much load or volume for you right now. We need to modify the exercise, the volume, or the load in order to bring this back to a yellow light activity. Focus on recovery, maintain a positive mindset, and understand that these things are normal during the healing process! This is just data for us to use to make better decisions in the future.


Conclusion


In this blog post, we introduced you to the Stoplight Model, a valuable framework for making training decisions when rehabbing injuries or trying to exercise with chronic pain.


The Green Light signifies a tolerable level of loading, where you can confidently push your limits in training. The Yellow Light urges caution and encourages you to assess your pain levels before adding more. Lastly, the Red Light signals the need to stop and make training modifications if intolerable pain occurs.


By understanding these indicators and their implications, you can navigate your training journey more effectively, promoting healing and optimizing your performance. Remember, proper recovery, sleep, nutrition, and utilizing recovery exercises/tools are vital components in the process. Over time, our goal is to turn red lights into yellow lights, and yellow lights into green lights.


If you have any questions or would like personalized assistance, our team at Apollo Performance Therapy is here to support you. Reach out to us for guidance tailored to your specific needs. We're dedicated to helping you overcome pain, improve your performance, and achieve your goals.


Start making informed training decisions with the Stoplight Model and unlock your full potential. Get in touch with Apollo Performance Therapy today!

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