This blog is about injury prevention in sport.
You lie face down on a sports field, the wet grass tickles your face and the smell of pungent mud enters your nose. In the meantime, you feel the rain, drip, drip, drip, on the back of your head. Yet, all of that doesn’t matter. Because it feels like a knife just entered your knee.
I’ve been there. I once had an injury that looked exactly like the scene above.
An injury, both small and big is a “pain in the ass”. Thus I realized, both as a physical therapist and as a sports lover, that injury prevention in sport is essential.
In fact, I believe injury prevention in sport is the most effective way to get better at your sport.
As things go, you improve sports performance over the course of months and years. Not weeks.
That’s why it’s important you train without interruptions.
An injury, on the other hand, will easily set you back between 1 and 3 months. And then it often takes time on top of that to reach your old level.
I’m not denying though, that it’s a challenging dance. Between the forces of your private life, work, family, friends, and your eagerness to play your sport.
Yet, the smarter you act in this process the more you’ll actually be able to play. And sometimes that means you have to take a break today to not have to worry about injuries later.
Let’s find out which strategies you can use to prevent injury in sports.
Are you ready?
- How do Sports Injuries Occur?
- Injury Prevention for Athletes that Work
- How to Prevent Sports Injuries from Occurring?
- Resolve Old Injury
- Sufficient Rest & Sleep
- Don’t go at Your Limit During Practice
- Do Active Recovery
- Warm-up Until You’re Warm
- Stay Flexible
- Train Core Stability
- Measure Heart Rate in the Morning for Injury Prevention in Sport
- Max Strength Training
- Improve Activity Levels Throughout the Day
- Manage Pain Levels
- Reduce Free Radicals in the Body
- Important Take-Aways
How do Sports Injuries Occur?
Sports injuries occur either acute or chronically.
- Acute: a consequence of an accident
- Chronically: as a consequence of repeated overload on the body
However, injuries mostly come as a combination of chronic and acute lesions. Either you overload, your right elbow for example, by using your computer mouse all day. This increases the strain on the lateral part of your elbow joint. As a result, you feel it at the end of the working day. Then, when you go play tennis for the first time in 2 months you come home after with a swollen elbow; your chronic injury has turned into an acute injury.
That’s one way. But the other way around is common as well.
You’re playing a soccer match and it’s 1-1. You and your teammates feel a victory is possible and start to push forward. Everyone’s tired but that’s not stopping you. In the 80th minute, you receive a high pass from your right forward. You jump up and head the ball towards goal. When you hit the ground your left knee twists in and you sprain your medial collateral ligament of the knee; an acute injury.
This injury collides with your work becoming very demanding due to the sickness of a colleague. At the same time, you lose the motivation to stay fit due to your injury.
As a consequence, your acute injury turns into a chronic injury.
So, it’s safe to say that injury prevention in sport is super important.
Even more so if you’re an athlete that has a normal working life on the side.
Injury Prevention in Sport for Athletes that Work
Why is injury prevention for athletes that work extra important?
Because an injury – regardless of its severity – demands a top sport approach to recover well. You have to dedicate time, energy, and focus on the process. To continuously force yourself to heighten the intensity on your area of injury without overdoing it.
When you’re a professional athlete you have an entire team of medical professionals at your disposal to guide you in this process. Besides that, you have all the time in the world. Because your sport is your work.
Yet, if you’re an amateur athlete you have to do your rehabilitation (often) at your own cost. In your own time and often at a moment of the day most of your energy has gone.
As things go, you work during the day – so you have to either plan your rehab in between or do it at night. And that while only 2 weeks into your rehab there’s a voice nagging in your head: “I feel better, I think I can give my sport a try already”.
Nope, I know it’s demotivating. But if you want to return to your pre-injury level as soon as possible, you rehab step by step.
That’s why injury prevention for athletes that work is super valuable.
It allows you to enjoy your free time by doing your favorite sport. And besides, you save yourself the inevitable setback that comes with an injury. That you don’t have to overcome in your unfavorable work-life-sport balance.
So now you understand the importance of injury prevention for athletes that work. And how injuries happen. With that said, we can dive right into how to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place.
How to Prevent Injuries from Occurring?
There are many answers to the question: “How to prevent injuries from occurring?”.
The most important thing about injury prevention in sport is this:
You continuously have to balance the amount of stress you apply to your body with the amount of stress your body can take.
If your body can handle running 6km, running 7km will strain your body. Yet, if you give yourself enough rest you can run farther. If you don’t rest enough, you increase your chance of an injury.
So, it’s beneficial for sports injury prevention if you know:
- How much workload your body can handle
- The amount of workload you’re applying to your body
- The signs your body gives when you’re overloading
All of the strategies to prevent injury in sport below fall into 1 of these 3 categories.
1. Resolve Old Injury
Do you know what the highest risk factor for injury in sport is?
Therefore, it’s insanely important to recover well from your injuries. And to keep training your “weak spots” so they don’t catch up with you later.
When a tennis player injures her shoulder, for example, she should train this shoulder even more. But this doesn’t mean she should do her rehabilitation exercises forever.
No, it’s important to evolve evermore to sports-specific movements. This ensures that your training benefits your sports performance and improves injury prevention in competition.
2. Sufficient Rest & Sleep
Of all the ways to prevent injury in sport, rest and sleep are the most potent.
On the one hand, you reduce the workload on your body. While at the same time your recovery time increases the amount of strain your body can take after.
So, sleeping 7-9 hours a night reduces your chance of injury significantly.1 And as an athlete, the closer you sleep to 9 hours a night, the better.
But sleep is not all there is to rest.
Not doing your sport – however hard this maybe – is another great way of preventing injury.
This is something I (still) find very hard. Because I love to do sports but at the same time, I know that I benefit from an extra rest day every week.
That’s why I approach the issue like this: “for every rest day I save 10 days of injury”. Of course, these numbers aren’t correct. But it reminds me that by investing in rest now, I save a longer period of injury later.
And last but not least, if you notice you don’t recover as fast as normally from training, you’re probably overtraining. Thus, reduce your training intensity and frequency until your recovery is normal again.
3. Don’t go at Your Limit During Practice
No pain, no gain, right?
You have to go to your limit to progress. You need to feel it, grind your teeth, and breath like a rhino. It’s the only way. Or, isn’t it?
In fact, going at your limit during training is not beneficial to your sport, nor your performance, nor your chance of injury (except for extreme mental preparation, for which the moment should still be chosen wisely).
As things go, the only thing you can be sure of is that performing at your limit increases your chance of injury.
That’s why you best save it for competition or a set moment you decide to peak.
“Leave 1 rep in the tank” is a better philosophy.
Save the extra final round of sparring for tomorrow’s MMA training. Save the extra drop set of bench presses, save the 5 extra minutes of soccer practice, and stop running before your legs start hurting.
With “1 rep in the tank” your body has more energy to recover after. And besides, the last rep costs an insane amount of energy while giving little to no benefits.
4. Do Active Recovery
Active recovery helps your body recover faster. Because you stimulate your blood circulation your body can clear out waste faster.
Active recovery for injury prevention in sport is best done keeping these rules in mind:
- Lasts 5-20 minutes
- Repeats movements of the training you’re recovering from
- Keep your heart rate below 50% of your max heart rate (an easy way to get an idea of your max heart rate=220-your age)
- If you’re in a group combine with play and maintain a relaxed atmosphere
- Combine with stretching, foam rolling, massage, and other relaxing strategies
5. Warm-Up Until You’re Warm
There are 2 moments when you’re most injury-prone. Either at the beginning of a match or training. Because you aren’t warm yet, or at the end, when you’re tired.
Luckily, the first injury-prone situation is easily solved.
Warm-up until you’re warm. Really warm – you should be sweating.
Here’s how to build an effective warming-up:
- Start with unspecific exercises that increase your heartrate
- Loosen joints relevant to your sport with active stretches and repetitive movements
- Activate core muscles and main muscles for your sport
- Do sport-specific movements/exercises
- Increase intensity until you start to break a sweat
Let’s take the example of running to clarify the build-up above:
- Run 5 minutes at a low tempo
- Swing your legs in all directions, swing your arms in all directions, and rotate your tors
- Do a series of 1×6 walking lunges on each side
- Do a short series of technique drills like high knees and butt kicks
- Do 5×15 second accelerations until your desired running pace of the day
Now you’re ready for competition.
In the case of training, you can stop your warming up after part 3. Because parts 4 and 5 will be in your training itself.
6. Stay Flexible
Can you touch your toes? Can you squat all the way to the floor?
Being stiff is a direct consequence of a sedentary lifestyle. The more you sit, the better your body gets at sitting.
However, this isn’t ideal for sports. Muscle imbalances (a shortened muscle that’s supposed to be long, a tense muscle that’s supposed to be relaxed, or the other way around) could not show while you sit. But when you challenge the body, they become a problem.
These imbalances are often part of maintaining a bad sitting posture.
If you maintain a healthy posture, you’ll decrease the chance of muscle imbalances. I explain exactly how to fix your sitting posture in a recent blog post (it includes many stretches and exercises).
That’s why it’s important to stay flexible.
If you sit a lot, “opening your hips” is a great way to start. And after, “opening the chest” to reduce more effects of sitting.
Read this blog about hip-openers on Shape.com to get an idea of which exercises you can use to get more flexible hips.
And here’s a link to a blog with excellent chest stretches at Redbox Fitness’ website.
7. Train Core Stability
Did you know that core stability is essential to prevent injuries in sport? As things go, your core is the gateway from your hips to your shoulders and vice versa.
It transfers force straight up, down, diagonally, and rotational.
Think of the fighter using his hips to punch, the sprinter using his arms to run faster, and the javelin thrower using her hips to throw farther.
The problem is though, that besides reducing flexibility, our sedentary lifestyle affects our core strength as well.
Consequently, if you’re an athlete with a normal job, regular core exercises are twice as important for injury prevention in sports.
8. Measure Heart Rate in the Morning for Injury Prevention in Sport
Did you ever measure your heart rate in the morning?
If you do that a couple of days in a row, you’ll notice that you always wake-up with more or less the same heart rate.
This is your normal heart rate at wake-up. And it’s best to test this in a period where you’re less active.
Once you’re aware of this number check your heart rate every morning. If you notice that your heart rate is at least 3 more or less than your normal heart rate at wake up, it’s time to take a day off.
Your heart can tell you your fitness before you feel it.
This is a great way to prevent injuries and overtraining.
9. Max Strength Training
Did you ever do strength training to improve your sports performance?
If you did, did you do as little repetitions as 2-6 with a lot of weight?
I worked with plenty of clients that understood the importance of strength training for their sports performance. Unfortunately though, most of them focused on increasing muscle size instead of improving their maximum strength levels.
And that while max strength is essential for movements like jumping, landing, sprinting, and stop & go. Exactly the movements that provoke injuries.
It’s best to train max strength pre-season because it’s heavy on the body. But it has huge benefits. The stronger you are the:
- Higher you can jump
- Faster you can run
- More power you can generate
And you reduce the change of injury in your sport by increasing bone density.2 And heightening the stiffness in your tendons which makes them stronger.3
Max strength training is best done with repetitions ranges from 3-5×1-6 with +-75%-85% of your 1RM (1 Repetition Maximum). And doing exercises like:
- Bent over rows
- Military presses
- Bench presses
For 2-3 times a week, up to 6 weeks in a row. A second cycle (after a week off) would be ideal with sports-specific movements. Like lunges for soccer players and jump squats for volleyball players.
10. Improve Activity Levels Throughout the Day
Why is it important to improve your activity levels throughout the day?
Because you reduce the effects of sitting. The less sitting affects you, the less you have to invest in undoing its effects. By stretching, postural exercises, and training your core stability.
Thus, the more active you are during the day the less your body adapts to life in a chair and the fewer exercises you have to do for sports injury prevention.
One way to remain active while sitting is by doing exercises in your chair.
11. Manage Pain Levels for Injury Prevention in Sport
Pain is a great signal.
If you’re chronically overloading your body, you’re bound to feel a little pain here and there. Like increased muscle soreness, joint aches, and painful tendons.
Each of these is a signal you’re overloading the body. You’ll feel them during heavy training as well, but they should go away shortly after.
If your muscles are sore more than 48-72 hours after your training, the intensity was too high. And when the same joint aches and painful tendons keep occurring, it’s time to reduce your training intensity and/or frequency.
12. Reduce Free Radicals in the Body
Free radicals are atoms that are a result of processes that include oxygen.4 You produce free radicals, amongst many other activities, as a result of sports. Moreover, habits like smoking and eating processed meats come with carcinogens that produce even more free radicals in the body.
Free radicals can provoke inflammation5 and affect your joints, muscles, tendons, and immune system.
That’s why it’s important to let these habits be and focus on boosting your immune system. Because the stronger your immune system the better it clears out free radicals.
Anti-oxidant rich foods are known to reduce the number of free radicals in the body.6 That’s why these are an essential part of any sportsman or woman’s diet.
Read my blog about how to boost the immune system if you want to know what else you can do to help it clear out free radicals.
I discussed 12 strategies for injury prevention in sports.
Even though all of these injury prevention strategies are effective, I think these are best to focus on first:
- Resolve old injuries
- Rest & Sleep sufficiently
- Reduce the effects of sitting throughout the day by increasing your activity levels
- Don’t go at your limit in training
Now I’m curious about your experiences. Because I’m sure there are more ways to prevent sports injuries.
What do you do to prevent injuries? Did you use any of the strategies I mentioned already or did you use others? Let me know in the comments below how you prevent sports injuries.
- Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, et al. Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated With Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes. 2014;34(2):129-133.
- Mosti MP, Carlsen T, Aas E, Hoff J, Stunes AK, Syversen U. Maximal strength training improves bone mineral density and neuromuscular performance in young adult women. J strength Cond Res. 2014;28(10):2935-2945. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000493
- Bohm S, Mersmann F, Arampatzis A. Human tendon adaptation in response to mechanical loading: a systematic review and meta-analysis of exercise intervention studies on healthy adults. Sport Med – Open. 2015;1(1). doi:10.1186/s40798-015-0009-9
- Halliwell B. Free radicals, antioxidants, and human disease: curiosity, cause, or consequence? Lancet. 1994;344(8924):721-724. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(94)92211-X
- Conner EM, Grisham MB. Inflammation, free radicals, and antioxidants. Nutrition. 1996;12(4):274-277. doi:10.1016/s0899-9007(96)00000-8
- Sharma GN, Gupta G, Sharma P. A Comprehensive Review of Free Radicals, Antioxidants, and Their Relationship with Human Ailments. Crit Rev Eukaryot Gene Expr. 2018;28(2):139-154. doi:10.1615/CritRevEukaryotGeneExpr.2018022258