With the summer winding down and the cool fall weather rolling into the city, many New Yorkers are taking to the parks in their long-awaited return to running and organized sports. However, as the temperatures drop, the rate of injury is going up. Following many months of inactivity secondary to the pandemic, many athletes and weekend warriors have had an all but brief return to sport. 2020 has created the perfect conditions for a storm of sports-related injuries. In an effort to save as many New Yorkers from injury as possible; let’s dive into defining these sports injuries, what causes them, and most importantly how to avoid them.
There are two main types of sports injuries: Acute injuries and Overuse Injuries. Acute injuries typically occur from a sudden traumatic incident resulting in damage to the body, i.e. rolling your ankle. Overuse injuries typically occur over a long period of time in which the tissue is being broken down by repetitive stress more quickly than it can rebuild and recover, i.e. tennis elbow. Due to the differing etiology of each type of injury, recovery, and avoidance of each looks very different. Additionally, the type of tissue that is injured will play a role in how fast you recover. In general, bone fractures and minor muscular injuries heal more quickly (in a matter of a few weeks to a few months). These structures have good blood supply which brings healing nutrients to the site of injury. Meanwhile, Injuries to tendons and ligaments take much longer (a few months up to a year or more). Blood supply to these structures is significantly reduced in comparison.
Unfortunately, this year has created an environment in which risk factors for sports-related injuries are dramatically increased. For one, sudden changes in activity level have been shown to increase the risk of traumatic injury as well as a future overuse injury. Those going from lockdown right into a full sprint beware. Additionally, weight gain increases your risk of injury. New Yorkers unable to exercise in their small city apartments during lockdown are likely carrying a few extra pounds around with them. Also, imbalances in strength and flexibility put you at risk for sports injuries. The dreaded work-from-home body adaptations of tight hip flexors and weak glutes are at an all-time high (amongst others). Not to mention other risk factors like poor body mechanics and incorrect use of equipment which are present in non-pandemic times as well. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have been running and biking more than ever due to having more free time and access to the outdoors. These people may be at risk for overuse injuries if they have not scaled their training volume properly and set aside time to maintain their mobility and strength.
So how do we avoid sports injuries? To put it simply, we need to ensure our bodies are ready to accept the demands placed on them by their respective sport. You would not set off on a road trip if your car has flat tires and an empty tank of gas, so you should not engage in sports if your body is not prepared to perform. Additionally, a 2 minute warm-up of non-specific stretching and jumping jacks is not enough to prepare your body for it’s first run in months. Even if you aren’t currently experiencing pain, there is surely soft tissue adaptation, joint stiffness, and muscle weakness that needs to be addressed before your return to sport.
If you are feeling pain, discomfort, stiffness, or weakness before participating in sports, it is a major red flag that needs to be confronted. Incorporating a routine of stretching, sports-specific exercise, and conditioning weeks prior to returning to sports is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of injury. This routine is something a physical therapist or chiropractor is well suited to the design. Additionally, as your training volume increases, it is important that you don’t do too much too soon. A general rule of thumb is that you should only increase your training volume by 10% each week. So if you are running 10 miles per week, you should only be adding one extra mile next week in order to keep your risk of an injury down.
Another great way to decrease injury risk is to warm up properly. This is a highly debated topic amongst healthcare professionals, however, for the average athlete, it does not need to be made more complicated than it already is. Static stretching has gotten a bad reputation for decreasing power and quickness in high-level athletes. For the every-day athlete who is not competing for fractions of a second, the decreased risk of musculotendinous injury associated with static stretching makes it worthwhile. Additionally, for athletes who require extreme flexibility for their sport like dancers and gymnasts, static stretching will help prepare the joints and muscles to perform at their end range of motion.
Dynamic stretching has been shown to improve exercise performance for sports involving running and jumping. It also increases muscle temperature, heart rate, and blood flow throughout the body. As we know, increased body temperatures allow for improved muscle flexibility and force absorption, improved nerve conduction (faster reaction time), and increased oxygen delivery to the body. This prepares the athlete for sports-related demands and should also be incorporated into the warm-up.
Finally, sport-specific movements are a great way to prepare the body for the demands of competition. If the first time you go through a sport-specific movement is at full speed during a competition, you set yourself up for sub-optimal performance and risk of injury. It is also a great way to develop rapport and communication between teammates. Make sure you set aside time to work through sport-specific movements and drills before the first whistle blows. In summation, a mixture of static stretching, dynamic stretching, and sports specific activity is the best way to prepare your body to perform and to lower the risk of sports-related injury.
Although we’ve talked a lot about what can go wrong in this article, it is not meant to scare you. Our bodies are robust and resilient, and when treated right they are able to withstand extreme circumstances and accomplish amazing athletic feats. So take the time to address your physical limitations (or seek out someone who can), and make sure to prepare your body properly for the big game. Your body will thank you and keep you enjoying your favorite sport for many years to come!
P.S. If you are sidelined from a sports injury, sitting around and waiting for your injury to heal is not your only option! There are always ways to safely strengthen and mobilize the rest of your body without interfering with the healing process. Whenever there is an injury the surrounding structures will inevitably be affected, but combating this with a well-designed rehabilitation routine will streamline your recovery and get you back into action significantly faster. Don’t be scared to seek out a healthcare provider to counsel you through your recovery, we know a few good ones at Hudson Medical + Wellness!