By Mike Huff, M.A., C.S.C.S.
Physical activity is critical for good health, but it also carries a risk of injury. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports an estimated seven million recreation and sports related injuries in the United States annually, ranging from sprains and strains to fractures and more catastrophic injuries. Sprains and strains are the most preventable, but still make up 31 percent of these injuries. Many injuries can be prevented by following a few simple strategies.
Warm Up and Cool Down
Everyone knows warming up before a workout is important, yet many exercisers and athletes still jump right into activity without adequately preparing their bodies. A proper warm-up prepares the neuromuscular system, providing the transition between normal daily activity and more vigorous fitness activities or sports. A proper warm-up helps to improve balance, strength, coordination, agility and flexibility.
As renowned sports performance specialist Vern Gambetta says, "Warm-up to play, don't play to warm-up."
Note that stretching and warming up is not the same thing. It is more important before workouts to heat up the muscles and activate the nervous system with activities that are progressively more demanding -- skipping, sliding, running, cutting and jumping.
Research shows static stretching before activity relaxes the neuromuscular system and can actually limit performance in certain activities. If a particular body part is tight it can be stretched, but for the most part the focus should be on dynamic movement.
The cool-down after a workout is the start of regeneration, the process of the body adapting in response to the demands of the workout. This is the perfect time to incorporate some stretching. First, get the heart rate down with some light activity such as walking or jogging, or easy swimming if you are in the water. Then, take the time to stretch all body parts, and particularly those that have been used in the activity.
Mix It Up
For many, the cause of injury is the repetitive strain as a result of focusing on a single activity. Runners get foot, ankle and hip injuries. Tennis players often suffer shoulder injuries. Golfers get back injuries. Cross training is the popular term for having variety in an exercise routine to prevent injuries due to overuse of particular body parts.
A balance of cardio workouts, strength training, and stretching is recommended to keep the body healthy. An elliptical machine, bike, or a pool-aerobics class can provide a low- or no-impact cardio workout that gives joints a break. Yoga and Pilates are increasingly popular activities that develop strength, stability and flexibility.
It is especially important to stay active during the offseason. For example, a skier who does not get in cardiovascular shape and perform lower body strength training in preparation for ski season is very likely to get hurt on the slopes. The same is true for a tennis player who doesn't keep his/her core, legs, and shoulders in shape through the winter -- an injury may be just around the corner in the spring.
Finally, use your head. For those just starting a workout routine or learning a new sport, start slowly and build up gradually. There's nothing like an injury to derail a new workout program or dampen enthusiasm for activity. Also, don't be a weekend warrior who does nothing during the week, then heads out for a vigorous game on Saturday or Sunday.
These simple, common-sense strategies won't prevent every injury, but they will go a long way toward keeping you out of the doctor's office and in the game.
Mike Huff, M.A. C.S.C.S., is the Coordinator of Sports Performance at the Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Lab, Duke Sports Medicine Center.
Issue 1.9: June 22, 2006