images-10With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training this week it is time to think about how us mortals will approach our own return to warm weather sports or renew our commitment to fitness.  As the days get longer and we peel off the layers of winter clothing, many of us typically get into trouble by falling back into old exercise routines or getting back onto the court or field as though the intervening months of inactivity never happened.  For the dedicated fitness buffs who keep up their level of exercise year-round, the preparation is already in place.  For the rest of us, well… let’s take an educated approach to avoid injury.  Here are a few pointers:

1.   Get fit to play sports rather than playing sports to get fit.

Overuse injuries result from pushing your body beyond its limits.  Breakdown occurs when the body cannot handle the level of activity we undertake – whether it is weight training, sports participation or even physical labor around the house or garden.  We may not know we’ve overdone it until it is too late, and so establishing a foundation is key.

2.   Begin a program at a basic level and ramp it up sensibly and gradually.

If you haven’t exercised in a while, avoid picking up where you left off.  If you plan to run, it is better to find that you can run a half-mile without pain (while exercising, later that day or the following) and build from there, rather than start with two miles and find that you are suffering later on.  To make for even happier knees, consider beginning with some brisk walking and add running intervals as you progress.

This goes for playing a sport as well – for example, start by hitting on the tennis court rather than playing competitive singles.  Tennis camp isn’t even the best way to begin – the intensity and repetitive nature of focused practice can really set you back if your body isn’t prepared.  Likewise, when you at the driving range preparing for golf season, take several clubs to avoid spending an hour or two driving the long ball.  The chipping and putting you do when you play the course actually gives your shoulder and low back the break it may need.  Make sure you establish a readiness for each new task or higher level of demand in order to avoid overuse injuries.

3.   Plan your program and take a preventative approach.

Address your personalized fitness needs.  If possible, see a sports physical therapist to understand what your needs are and how to customize a program.  Bottom line – stretch what’s tight, strengthen what’s weak and check to see that the motion in your joints is full and pain-free.  Any limitation beyond the norm can predispose you to injury, particularly once you return to sports.

4.   Avoid high risk – low reward exercises and focus on form.  Make informed choices.

Some exercises may cause more wear and tear than they are worth.  This is a topic that should get much more attention (and will down the road) but for the sake of including the concept, here are several examples:

  • First up, avoid the leg extension machine at the gym, which is intended to strengthen the quadriceps (front of thigh) muscles.  This exercise places a great deal of compressive and shearing forces at the kneecap (patellofemoral joint) and may result in painful conditions at that very vulnerable region.  Instead, choose activities such as wall squats, free squats and step-downs – exercises that are more functional, work more effectively and are safer (when performed correctly).
  • Whenever possible while performing exercises in the squat family, do not allow your knees to go forward of your ankles (for wall squats, wall sits & lunges).  For those exercises that require you to bend the knee further than 90 degrees, do not allow your knee to go forward of your toes (free standing squats and step-downs).  Allowing your knee to bend too far will place undue stress on the patellofemoral joint, just as the leg extension machine does.
  • Next, if your upper body isn’t already strong, and your shoulder blade (scapular) muscles aren’t doing an adequate job of stabilizing the area, the mechanics of your shoulder joint will suffer when performing overhead activities, making you susceptible to injury.  Avoid overhead exercises (like military/overhead presses) and limit the range for other exercises (like the lateral raise).  Don’t lift above the height of your shoulders until you are strong, demonstrate precise form and experience no pain in the lower arcs.
  • Avoid elevating your shoulders toward your ears with upper body exercises.  Inability to control elevation of the shoulders indicates that the scapular muscles are not able to do their job to depress and retract the shoulder blades (hold them down and back).  If you continue to exercise with poor form you are likely to create impingement at the shoulder as well as wear and tear of the rotator cuff tendons.

5.   Work for a specificity of training.

Take your program to a new level if you plan to play a sport.  Go beyond a balance of muscle strength & flexibility as well as joint range of motion.  Clearly, if you are a runner you have to run.  If you play squash, you have to practice.  However, you can also break down the motions and requirements of any sport to target your training to improve in very specific ways that will enhance your performance.  If you are serious about playing (not the paradox it seems to be), work on your technique and consider consulting a pro to refine your form; poor mechanics will also predispose you to injury.

6.   Avoid pain with exercise and sports. 

If you work through pain, you are heading for injury.  Listen to your body!  Though some muscle fatigue is okay, exhaustion is not.  Joint, muscle or tendon pain is alerting you to modify your routine: to adjust your form, to slow down, do fewer reps, substitute an easier activity/ exercise or take a break. Consult a medical professional if pain persists.

7.   Rest alone will not solve a problem.

Discontinuing an activity that causes you pain is important, however, rest alone is not the answer.  Find out why you have pain and what factors predisposed you to the problem you are experiencing.  Treat the inflammation and address the underlying causes.  Rest without treatment will result in de-conditioning, perhaps allowing muscles that are already weak to weaken further.  You may feel better, but when you return to your sport of choice, you are even more likely to experience a recurrence of your injury.  Consult an orthopedist or physical therapist to help you devise an appropriate course of action.

8.   Obtain a clean bill of health from your doctor before embarking on a new program (particularly if you are over 40) 

9.   Remember to work on other facets of fitness such as your cardiovascular endurance and balance.

10.  And last, but not least, stay hydrated!  Drink before exercise – don’t wait until you are thirsty.

Follow Abby on Twitter @abcsims

About the author

Abby serves as the Injury Expert for CBS New York where, since 2010, her Injury Breakdown Blog examines injuries in professional sports. She also blogs on health & fitness as well as sports injuries for Huffington Post, and Recovery Physical, where her blog earned a top ten mention for physical therapy blogs in 2012 @ In a ranking of the Top 30 Healthcare Blogs for 2012, Top Masters in Healthcare also rated Abby’s blog in the top three in Physical Therapy! Abby is the founder of Fit-Screen and she welcomes your comments and questions!