Expert in Residence

Max Barroso, PT, DPT, SCS, OSC

Dr. Max Barroso is a licensed physical therapist with a clinical specialty in sports and orthopedics. He treats athletes across the lifespan, with current practice emphasis on college-aged and adult athletes. He is a mentor and clinical instructor for Doctor of Physical Therapy students in Los Angeles, CA, where he practices and resides.

Athletic injury is ironic. Striving to shine, you end up sidelined!

Athletic injury is ironic. Striving to shine, you end up sidelined! This free guide can help you avoid injury and speed up recovery. Included are general sports injury prevention tips, a look at specific injuries' causes and treatments, suggestions for low-impact training and more. Read on to enjoy gain with less pain.

General Sports Injury Prevention

Here we look at six general ways to reduce the risk of athletic injuries. Later, we present prevention tips for ten specific sports injuries.

The Usual Suspect in Sports Injuries? Playing it Cool

Warming up the muscles and connective tissues increases their flexibility and prepares them for the demands of exercise. A warm-up should combine exercises that increase your heart rate and body temperature, pump blood to active muscles, and progressively load and stretch the targeted muscle groups to prepare them for the demands of the sport. Adding agility and strengthening exercises can further decrease your risk for sports related injury.

Examples of quick warm-ups: A runner can begin with a 5 minute jog followed by skipping and hopping exercises. A soccer player can perform hopping, skipping, cone drills, and light strength training such as lunges prior to practice or game.

Injury Prevention Beyond the Warm-Up

In addition to a proper warm-up, the following six behaviors help athletes minimize and prevent damage to their bodies.

  1. Allowing Rest: Athletes are often tempted to train too frequently at high intensities. Remember that rest is beneficial for the body; taking one or two days off from your sport each week, and periodically performing active recovery, will give your body a chance to rebuild and become even stronger.
  2. Varying Activity: You can stay active every day, but take care to work different muscles. Avoiding overuse is a key to preventing injury. Your "days off" can involve a different sort of physical activity: swimming instead of golf, rowing instead of running, and so forth. See below for low-impact exercise suggestions.
  3. Doing It Right: Take your coach's and trainer's feedback about athletic technique seriously. Using proper technique not only optimizes sports performance but also minimizes risk of injury.
  4. Wearing the Gear: The importance of wearing protective gear is obvious for contact sports such as football; but whatever your activity, you can benefit from properly fitting athletic equipment.
  5. Improving Flexibility: While warming up helps improve flexibility, you can further improve your flexibility by adding more stretching to your daily life, possibly taking up yoga or a sport that increases range of motion.
  6. Increasing Strength: Strength training can help your muscles handle the demands of exercise and sport. Additionally, stronger muscles help to take stress off your bones and joints and can help prevent sports injury.

Sports Injury Treatment Overview

Many sports injuries can be healed with simple at-home care, but sometimes it's important to call a pro as soon as possible. Here we look at when to call a doctor and how to treat common sports injuries at home.

Emergency Medical Care

Some sports injuries require immediate professional care. Here are some reasons to call a doctor right away:

RICE: The General At-Home Treatment for Sports Injuries

The RICE strategy -- Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation -- is often recommended to reduce swelling, relieve pain and expedite healing. RICE treatment may be most effective when it begins right after injury and continues for at least 48 hours. Here are the steps:

Additionally, you might want to take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or aspirin to reduce swelling and pain. Acetaminophen may also relieve pain but is not effective against swelling.

Don't play through pain! If you play when injured, you will cause more harm.

A Guide to Common Athletic Injuries

Here are some specific sports injuries, how to avoid them and how they're commonly treated.

Low-Impact Training Suggestions

A key to sports injury prevention is avoiding overuse of specific muscles and tissues. To minimize injury risk, consider cross training by substituting your regular sports training with one of the activities below. Each activity provides cardio, or endurance training, and strength training but is "low-impact" or gentle on your body.

Cross-Training and Injury Prevention

The following activities help athletes train for strength and endurance. These cross-training activities are either no-impact or low-impact; their moves don't jar the body. These activities are lower-risk alternatives to high-impact sports such as basketball, gymnastics and running.


Cycling is a low-impact alternative to running, jumping and contact sports. Of the three types of exercise bikes, recumbent bikes are the gentlest to knees and low back. These bikes let you lean back to pedal and thereby relieve pressure from the spine, hips, knees and ankles. Other options are traditional upright exercise bikes and indoor spin cycle trainers.

Cycling allows high intensity strength and endurance training with lower stress to your tendons and joints. Increasing the resistance on an exercise bike can promote strength gains, while lower intensity and long duration cycling can promote endurance improvements. Typical indoor bikes offer many resistance settings to support different workout objectives

Elliptical Training

Elliptical training lets athletes take walking or running strides without the stress of impact. With each step the trainee's body maintains contact with the machine, making cardio exercise low-impact or zero-impact. Benefits include cardiovascular endurance, total- body muscle toning, flexibility improvement and more.

  • Cardio: To allow extra metabolic boost the best ellipticals have automated inclines for the foot pedals plus optional moving handlebars. The pedals and handlebars can be used with different amounts of resistance for everything from gentle spinning to high- intensity training.
  • Strength: Elliptical machines are sometimes called cross-trainers. Besides supporting low-impact cardio, they serve as strength trainers with multiple levels of flywheel resistance. The best ellipticals provide enough resistance for all ability levels.

It's important to use correct form when elliptical training, so be sure to choose a machine with an appropriate stride length. Also have a friend, coach, or sports medicine professional check your technique.

Walking & Incline Training

Athletes are sometimes surprised to discover how effectively walking can support their performance goals. This is especially true with incline training, which can be done with steep outdoor paths and with incline treadmills. As mentioned in the elliptical training section above, an incline can seriously boost a workout! Consider the following:

  • Compared with flat walking, moderate incline walking (six to nine degrees) is easier on joints because of how body weight is shifted. At the same time, it can more than double calorie burn.
  • Compared with flat walking, steep incline walking (15 degrees) recruits about four times more leg muscle tissue. As you vary the workout angle you can feel different muscle groups being targeted.

With or without an incline, walking also helps people maintain mobility, which is an integral part of many sports rehab plans.

Cardio Training and Injury Prevention

The following activities are low-impact or zero-impact examples of aerobic training. They are useful in both sports injury prevention and sports rehab.

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country ski machines are designed to work all major muscle groups, support endurance training and burn hundreds of calories per hour. Ski machines are also gentle on joints and connective tissues.

A ski machine can be an ideal fit for the athlete concerned about straining the lower body. However, because ski machines involve full extension of the limbs they can be problematic for those with shoulder pain or neck pain.

Pool Running

Pool running or deep water running is a zero-impact activity. It's accomplished with a flotation device in the deeper end of a pool. With your legs suspended from the pool floor, you can make the motions of running for cardio training without the usual harsh impact on joints. Aim for high speed, such as 180 strides/minute, and be sure to use an upright posture as you would on the road.

While it's usually used for sports rehab, this activity is also an option for everyday low-impact training.


Swimming is a top alternative to high-impact sports such as running and basketball. It tones all major muscle groups, yet as a non-weight bearing exercise, it's easy on joints and connective tissues.

While swimming is very low impact, certain strokes may be lower-risk than others. People with knee pain should avoid spending much time on the breaststroke. Those with shoulder pain should choose something other than the front crawl or backstroke.

Mobility and Stability Exercises

In addition to avoiding overuse of the body, athletes can guard against injury with mobility and stability training. This final section of our sports injury guide has links to tutorials that improve mobility (range of motion and flexibility) and stability (strength and balance).

Mobility Exercises

Mobility training include stretching and other exercises that improve range of motion and movement. No equipment is required, but these exercises can be enhanced with an exercise mat, elastic bands or foam rollers. Here are helpful guides to stretching different parts of the body.

Stability Exercises

Stability exercises help prevent sports injury by improving balance and coordination and strengthening muscles. No special equipment is needed but stability balls, medicine balls, and exercise bands are useful. See the following websites for stability exercise tips.