Rhabdo: What It Is and How To Avoid It

In every CrossFit gym, there will be talk about Rhabdo — generally in tones of either fear or disdain. It’s the boogie man, hiding in the shadow of every high-rep workout … and one way or another it’s gonna get you!

This, of course, is not the case, but athletes should still be aware of the problem. By following a few steps, you will greatly diminish the danger. But, first, let’s talk about what Rhabdo is.

Rhabdomyolysis results when skeletal muscle fibers (cells) are killed and their protein contents (myoglobin) get into the bloodstream.

It can be caused by tissue trauma, car crashes, snake venom, lightning strikes, bacterial or viral infections, and several metabolic disorders. But it can also be caused by extreme muscle strain and very high body temperature — which can definitely happen in the gym.

Symptoms include acute muscle pain, muscle weakness, and dark red or brown “Coca Cola” urine. This can cause serious complications, particularly in the kidneys. Yet it is quite easy to avoid!

Avoidance Step 1: Start slow!
When you walk into a gym you may be impatient to get things going. Crush every workout 5-6 days a week right away to achieve those goals RIGHT NOW! But the body needs time to adapt. Ease into any new type of training, get used to the new demands, and recover appropriately, especially in the early stages.

Avoidance Step 2: Don’t go to muscular failure!
In the heat of the moment, in the middle of a workout, it can be hard to think about this. Muscular failure is generally associated with time under tension — but too much time under too much tension is … too much. By breaking up the tension into smaller chunks of time, the risk is much less — the “depth” of muscular fatigue is lowered. This is especially important for high-volume workouts, like Murph.

Avoidance Step 3: Recover!
Many factors affect recovery, but Sleep and Hydration are two of the most important. First, sleep is the body’s ultimate recovery mechanism. It is a neurological “reset”, and it’s the optimal time for muscles to heal and recover (it’s the most anabolic thing we do). Second, proper hydration keeps the proper amount of water in your muscles and helps avoid excess breakdown. So, drink enough water throughout the day, not just before, during, and after your workout.

In almost all cases that I have personally heard about, at least 2 of these 3 steps were not followed. Simple awareness of the factors that can cause Rhabdo drastically lowers the chances of it happening. Be aware, and always be mindful of how your body feels in the gym. “Pushing through it” is not always the best course of action.

AND, if you have any of the symptoms listed here, consult a medical professional immediately.

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