With the sporting season around the corner and New Year’s Resolutions in full swing, the gyms are full, the roads are busy with walkers/runners and sports teams are heading back to the pitch. No matter the sporting interest, a common question we get asked is “how do I stop myself from getting injured?”. Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer – it requires a multi-modal approach and a little luck!
Whether we can even call it ‘prevention’ is debatable as there are so many uncontrollable factors. However, there are certain factors that we can look at that may minimise the risk of injury:
Dynamic Warm-Up: Completing a dynamic warm-up that targets sports-specific muscle groups that will simulate the activity at hand can be beneficial. A dynamic warm-up involves continuous movement that gradually increases the body’s core temperature and may include exercises such as walking lunges, high knees, heel kicks, power skipping etc. to engage muscles involved in running, kicking, jumping etc.
Sports-Specific Training: This involves incorporating various drills and exercises to mimic the movements and actions involved in a specific sport. For example, for GAA players incorporating a mixture of short explosive sprints mixed with distance running will simulate what happens during a match. Similarly, incorporating ball drills, jumping/landing, and stopping/turning drills will provide good carryover from training to matches.
Strengthening the muscle groups most commonly used in specific sports can also, reduce the risk of injury. For example, in runners strengthening quads, glutes, calves, hamstrings and abdominal muscles can not only improve running performance but reduce the risk of common running injuries such as muscle strains, tendinopathies etc.
Targeting muscle groups that are most prone to injury, such as hamstrings, groins, knees, and ankles can be useful. There are a number of injury prevention programmes that have been developed for specific sports e.g GAA15, FIFA 11+, and PERFORM+ that incorporate running, strength, plyometrics, and balance exercises. These programmes are very effective, for example, FIFA11+ has been shown to reduce football injuries by up to 39%.
Optimal Loading: A lot of injuries occur from doing too much too soon – we commonly see patients in the clinic who have increased their activity levels suddenly over a short period of time and as a result present with various overload injuries. When we refer to training load we include training frequency, duration, intensity, terrain etc. Gradually increasing load is vital in injury prevention. As with running, beginners commonly follow ‘couch to 5k’ programmes as a way of slowly increasing load and allowing the body to adapt to new physical demands. This allows the body to adapt aerobically, before introducing the additional load of speed training for example.
Optimal Fitness: The majority of injuries in sports occur in the second half of matchplay – this has been shown in GAA, soccer and rugby. This can be linked to fatigue and under-preparation. As such, your pre-season training should prepare you aerobically for the full duration of the competition, whether it’s a 60, 70 or 90-minute match. Optimal physical conditioning reduces the risk of injury, and the severity of injury should one occur. It’s also important to remember that fitness is not just determined by how fast, or how far we can run but includes strength, balance, endurance, flexibility, speed, coordination etc. A well-rounded pre-season programme should incorporate all aspects of this.
An 8-year study by Roe et al. in men’s elite Gaelic football showed one in four lower limb injuries were recurrent and those previously injured had a 2.5 times greater risk of sustaining a lower limb injury. This highlights the importance of ensuring that all injuries are properly assessed and treated by a Physiotherapist and that an appropriate rehabilitation programme is followed prior to return to play.
Rest and Recovery: A 2022 study by Eliakim et al studied the effect of pre-season training on injury rate during the competitive season among professional soccer players. 72% of injuries encountered during the study were deemed overuse injuries. The main cause of these injuries were repetitive stress without sufficient recovery time. This theory can be applied to any sport or physical activity. As such, it is important to allow sufficient rest time between sessions and to incorporate active rest. Active rest involves low-intensity exercise such as light jogging, walking, yoga, pilates etc. It is an opportunity to work with other muscle groups to prevent repetitive strain while keeping active and reducing lactate buildup.
Adequate sleep is also an important part of recovery, allowing the body time to rest and heal while reducing mental fatigue. Poor sleep is also related to slower reaction times, decreased physical performance and increased risk of injury and illness.
A nutritious meal incorporating carbohydrates and protein will encourage muscle building and repair while replenishing energy levels. Maintaining carbohydrate stores will also fuel you for the next session.
Maintaining proper hydration, particularly during sessions is important to reduce dehydration by replacing fluids lost through sweating. Energy drinks with high caffeine content should be avoided as this can contribute to dehydration, but some sports drinks may be useful to replenish electrolytes.