There’s no denying that exercise is good for you — it keeps your bones, heart, lungs, and body healthy. But getting on the treadmill or lifting weights every day can get a little repetitive and boring.
Instead of continuously dreading the same exercises, many people turn to sports, which can be just as good for your health — and often, much more fun.
Playing sports can lead to injuries, though, especially as you get older. Your bones may become brittle and break more easily, your muscles may lose strength, and your joints may lose cartilage. This can cause injuries, such as:
- Sprains and strains
- Fractures (breaks) and dislocations
- Knee, Achilles tendon, and rotator cuff injuries
- Swollen and painful muscles
- Shin splints
In general, the more person-to-person contact in a sport, the higher the risk of injury. That’s why football is generally considered more dangerous than golf in terms of injury risk.
You might also have a higher risk of injury if you don’t regularly play the sport, since your body isn’t used to the activity — a pick-up basketball game every now and then could pose a greater risk than playing on a team every day.
However, many injuries are preventable, and prevention can be as simple as stretching the right muscles or wearing protective gear.
Here are 4 ways you can avoid sports injuries and stay on the field, court, or track.
1. Play, Rest, Repeat
Many injuries occur due to overuse, such as a hip flexor or hamstring strains. The easiest way to avoid overuse injuries is simple: give your body some rest. Your muscles, joints, and tendons need time to heal and recover, even when they aren’t injured.
Without rest, your muscles and tendons can strain — meaning stretch or tear — over long periods of time. Back strains and muscle strains are the most common, and they can occur during sports that involve a lot of running, such as soccer, or ones that require intense use of your back muscles, like golf. Strains can also occur during races that involve obstacle courses because of how much stress the obstacles, such as rope swinging and climbing, can put on your muscles.
Your shoulder tendon, called a rotator-cuff, can also become damaged with overuse, which is common for athletes who repeatedly use an overhead motion, such as swimmers or tennis players.
Your feet aren’t exempt from overuse injuries either, especially if you’re relying on them throughout the entire game, such as in tennis or badminton. Excessive training can cause heel pain, Achilles tendonitis (an inflamed Achilles tendon), and stress fractures (tiny, hairline breaks in the bone).
A general rule of thumb to avoid overuse injuries is to give your body some rest at least 1 day each week. You can do some light activity, such as walking or swimming, but give your body time to recover. Let your body rest during your games, as well, as rest periods can reduce injuries.
2. Warm Up, Stretch, and Strengthen Your Muscles
Just like a cold car on a winter morning, your body needs time to warm up before it can perform at its best. Warming up with some light activity before you play can increase your range of motion and prepare your body for what’s to come. Stretching afterward can help your muscles recover.
Work on your flexibility on both the days you play and on your off-days. Try to incorporate stretching into your daily fitness routine, as well, by stretching on your own or taking a yoga class. Stretch each side evenly, and hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds. Make sure you breathe correctly, too — exhale going into the stretch, and inhale while you’re holding it.
Also, focus on specifically strengthening the muscles you use regularly during your sport. For example, if you’re on a volleyball team, pay extra special attention to the muscles in your legs. By preparing your muscles and making them stronger, they’ll be better equipped to sustain any impacts that may occur during the game.
3. Technique Is Key to Preventing Injuries
When you’re playing a sport, you might do a lot of turning, twisting, and bending — and that can be problematic if you do so incorrectly. If your knees are out of alignment when you’re cycling, or if you flick your wrist in just the wrong way while bowling, that can easily cause an injury.
Knee injuries are especially common for athletes. A simple movement — such as a sudden twist — can lead to a tear in your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which can affect everything from your ability to continue playing that sport to simply getting out of a chair.
Proper techniques that can keep injuries from occurring include:
- Don’t overbend your knees or twist them too quickly.
- When you jump, land with your knees bent.
- Try to find softer surfaces to play on — asphalt and concrete tend to cause injuries.
- Play on flat surfaces to avoid falling or twisting your ankles, knees, or hips.
4. Prepare by Wearing the Right Gear
Putting on protective gear is like wearing your seatbelt while driving — you need to do it every single time. When you’re in the game, protective gear can prevent new injuries, as well as keep existing injuries from worsening.
The proper gear depends on the sport you’re playing. For example, if you play volleyball or rollerblade, elbow and knee pads can help prevent injuries if you fall. Eyewear can protect you from a ball flying at your eyes during racquetball. A helmet during baseball or softball — especially when you’re at bat — can protect your head. Make sure your gear fits you properly — if it doesn’t fit, that can be just as harmful as if you don’t wear it at all.
Don’t forget about your shoes, either. Wearing the right shoes is essential to preventing foot injuries. Make sure they fit properly and have the stability and cushioning you need.
What Happens If You Suffer from a Sports Injury?
Sometimes, you can do everything right while you’re playing a sport and still end up injured. If you do get hurt, stop playing right away. Playing through the pain is not a good idea — in some cases, it may make the difference between being able to one day return to the game or being permanently benched.
Treatment often starts with the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This can relieve pain, reduce swelling, and speed up healing. If symptoms don’t go away, see your primary care provider.
More serious injuries may require pain relievers, immobilizing the injury, rehabilitation, and sometimes surgery. Your primary care provider may refer you to a sports medicine specialist.
Some situations require immediate medical attention, such as:
- Broken bones
- Bleeding that can’t be treated with a bandage
- All head and neck injuries
- Loss of consciousness
Whether you’re playing a sport or experiencing pain afterward, listen to your body. Stop playing if you need to, and tell your primary care provider if pain persists. You know your own body, and you can tell when something is wrong. Trust your instincts and play it safe.