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!
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 five ways to reduce the risk of athletic injuries in general. Later on we present prevention tips for ten specific sports injuries.
The Usual Suspect in Sports Injuries? Playing it Cool
The most common cause of chronic sports injuries is the failure to warm up. Without warming up, muscles and connective tissues aren’t as flexible as they need to be. Athletic activity then stretches the body before it’s ready, causing muscle rips and other damage.
Your risk of chronic sports injuries can decrease if you lightly work your relevant muscles before adding extra demand. Stretch your body and then spend at least five to ten minutes easing into each activity session.
Quick examples of warm-ups: A runner can begin with a focus on leg stretches, then start strolling and gradually pick up speed. A rower can stretch the whole body and then perform partial rows before completing full rowing cycles.
Injury Prevention Beyond the Warm-Up
Warming up is essential to sports injury prevention. Additionally the following five behaviors help athletes minimize and prevent damage to their bodies.
- Allowing Rest: Athletes are often tempted to train too frequently. Remember that rest is beneficial for the body; taking one or two days off from your sport each week will give your body a chance to rebuild and become even stronger.
- 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.
- Doing It Right: Take seriously your coach’s feedback about athletic technique. Using proper technique not only optimizes sports performance but also minimizes risk of chronic injury.
- 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 the stability that properly fitting shoes help provide. Depending on the activity it might be wise to wear a mouth-guard, athletic tape and other supports.
- Improving Flexibility: 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. Sports massage can help improve flexibility too.
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 if:
- Your joint feels unstable or otherwise abnormal
- You can’t put weight on an injured area
- Your injury is swelling, painful or numb
Also contact a doctor if an older sports injury starts to swell or ache again.
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 non-steroidal 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
Learn from other athletes’ mistakes and successes. Here are 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 connective tissues. To minimize injury risk, consider substituting your regular sports training with one of the activities below. Each activity provides cardio or endurance training but is “low-impact” or gentle on your frame. The first three activities are resistance strength trainers as well.
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. 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 high-intensity indoor cycle trainers.
The strengthening of shins is a special benefit of cycling for runners prone to shin splints. Typical indoor bikes offer about 20 resistance settings to support different workout objectives.
Elliptical training lets athletes take walking or running strides without strain. 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 boosts 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 sports rehab 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. Cheaper ellipticals tend to be more appropriate for beginners and intermediate-level athletes.
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 or coach check your gait.
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 flexibility. It’s 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 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 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 reserved for sports rehab, this activity is also an option for everyday low-risk training. After a week or two of pool running, outdoor running times are generally improved.
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 stability (balance).
Stretches are sometimes called mobility or flexibility exercises. No equipment is required, but stretching can be enhanced with resistance bands and foam rollers. Here are helpful guides to stretching different parts of the body.
- Everyday Mobility - OutsideOnline.com presents six everyday mobility exercises recommended by Kelly Starrett, a doctor of physical therapy with a focus on the CrossFit community. Illustrations on the website make the exercises easy to follow. You can also sign up for free and paid videos from Dr. Starrett at mobilityWOD.com.
- Knee Mobility - Visit OnlineSportsClinic.com for guidance about knee mobility exercises. The website also presents knee strengthening exercises, knee balance exercises and more for ACL recovery.
- Neck Mobility - Yoga can help prevent stiffness and reduce sports injury risk. Exercises at DoYouYoga.com improve neck and back flexibility.
- Shoulder Mobility - Visit MaxWorkouts.com for six exercises that improve shoulder mobility. A video and text descriptions are provided.
- Upper Body Mobility - Combine exercises for the neck, shoulders and arms with this physical therapy regimen from a leading sports medicine clinic in New York.
Stability exercises help prevent sports injury by minimizing falls. No special equipment is needed but stability balls and medicine balls are useful. See the following websites for stability exercise tips.
- Ankle Stability - Prevent ankle sprains and speed up recovery with exercises that strengthen the outer ankle.
- Balance for Runners - This quick guide from The Guardian shows balance exercises for runners with a focus on the ankles, knees and hips.
- Core Stability - SportsInjuryClinic.net describes the core muscles and core stability exercises. Exercises are arranged by skill level.
- Medicine Ball Exercises - Medicine balls are weighted; they're something like dumbbells that you can safely throw. They have many applications for sports injury prevention and rehab. See this link for 25 medicine ball exercises arranged by workout goal.
- Stability Ball Exercises - A stability ball gives muscles an extra challenge when used to support sitting, push-ups and more. Read this article for 25 stability ball exercises that train the lower body, upper body and core to help prevent sports injury.