As winter draws to an end, parents of teen athletes and adult sports enthusiasts alike look forward to a new season of competitions and training programs, with new activities to enjoy as last year’s frost departs. But as many jump headfirst into old programs, injuries are bound to happen – especially among those who don’t train enough, or train far too much. Sports injuries are nearly ubiquitous; almost every sport has an injury rate, with some sporting a far higher incidence rate than others. The nature of the game is that at some point, you begin to put your body and your health on the line in the name of the competition.
But many injuries can be prevented, not only with a healthier mindset but with a smarter approach to training. Understanding why sports injuries occur helps both athletes and weekend warriors avoid some of the worst of the pain. Some injuries cannot be prevented – sometimes, you slip or trip or otherwise find yourself in unfortunate circumstances and hear the crunching of bone or feel the dislocation of an arm or leg. But many injuries occur due to overuse, lack of recovery, muscle imbalance, improper adaptation to stress and force, and strains caused by a lack of preparation before a match or a training session. We will tackle the development of preventable injuries and how you can work to prevent them.
Why Do Sports Injuries Occur?
The body is a complex system of levers, and every physical action we perform is composed of a coordinated series of finely-tuned contractions, made in a split second, to allow movement and develop power. A push forward with the arms is in fact a series of contractions in thigh, arms, and chest, pulling the elbows together, extending the arms, and extending the knee while leaning forward.
As we move, we place a mechanical load on our muscles and tendons, which connect to various joints throughout the body. Power, in this sense, is the development of force through the muscles at a high speed, requiring muscular strength and the proper neural adaptation to specific movements. For example: young children who are in the beginning stages of learning to walk struggle with walking not due to a lack of strength, but due to a lack of coordination. As we grow older, we face similar challenges when attempting different athletic movements and maneuvers, improving efficiency by becoming faster and more explosive often not by way of increases in strength, but by way of improvements in the way our nerves and muscles communicate and coordinate.
This can backfire, however. To improve efficiency, our body compensates for muscular weakness and muscular imbalances by heavily relying on the strength of a specific set of muscles over another. Depending on the exact imbalance, this can place immense stress on our tendons as they are forced into positions they are not supposed to be in while under load (whether that load is our bodyweight in motion or an additional weight). That is why one of the most common causes of a sports-related injury is poor technique, whether in the way we jump or run, or in the way we move a load.
Another common cause for injury is poor adaptation. Our muscles react and adapt to stress by first improving the way they fire (neural adaptation), and then strengthening through hypertrophy and the density of muscle fibers in a cross-sectional area. The stronger our muscles are, the more they can do, whether it be generating power (in a jump, sprint, or throw) or producing force (when pushing or lifting). But poor programming can cause changes in training that are too rapid for an athlete’s body, leading to form breakdown, minor damage in the tendons caused by shearing forces, and the potential for partial or complete tears in the muscle or tendon.
Finally, the third common cause of a preventable injury in sports is overuse. While poor programming can cause an athlete to take on more than they might be ready for, too much training and too little recovery will cause both muscles and tendons to become increasingly prone to strains and tears as a result of little rest.
The Importance of Prehab (Prehabilitation)
Preventing injuries needs to be higher up in the priorities of many athletes and all weekend warriors, because athletes (teen athletes and aging athletes in particular) are prone to developing injuries due to a lack of recovery and prehabilitation, while weekend warriors are more likely to get an injury due to the nature of their poor programming, as they engage heavily in physical activities once or twice a week, and spend several days throughout the rest of the week completely sedentary.
Prehab exercises are meant to help athletes avoid specific injuries as well as address weaknesses that are more likely to develop in injuries in a specific individual. Rehab exercises, on the other hand, are meant to help an athlete rehabilitate a muscle or tendon after an injury. Due to most common injuries being in the lower extremities, shoulders, elbows and wrists, prehab exercises target these areas, helping athletes address:
Lack of mobility causing restrictions in range of motion contributing to muscular imbalance and tendinopathy. Mobility requirements differ from sport-to-sport, and common mobility issues include a lack of flexibility in the hips, poor posture from sitting, hip flexor and quadriceps problems exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle, and several examples of poor range of motion, whether in ankle flexion, shoulder rotation, torso twisting, and more. Prehab exercises around mobility typically include stretches with resistance and strengthening exercises, such as banded ankle mobilization and face pulls for rotator cuff health and rear deltoid strengthening.
Muscular imbalance causing the development of poor form and subsequent injuries. This is typically observed by having an athlete go through a series of tests to diagnose specific issues, and muscular imbalance prehabilitation is always very specific and made to address an individual’s problems with certain movements. A single movement is not always a good indicator of a person’s weaknesses – a squat with caving knees does not always indicate weak abductors and could instead by an issue with knee tracking due to mobility problems, or a weakness in the quadricep muscles themselves, or another issue.
Tendinopathy is the overuse of certain muscles that can cause an inflammation in the tendons attached to said muscles, leading to chronic inflammation and damage if left untreated or ignored. Preventing tendonitis or addressing tendonitis before it develops into a tear or chronic inflammation is a matter of helping an athlete improve their recovery, either through a better diet, less training volume, improved rest, and certain anti-inflammatory aids from medication to cryotherapy and massage.
Lack of antagonist movements causing athletes to develop sport-specific injuries due to the extreme repetition of certain movements, requiring a targeted approach to areas that are prone to such injuries. Antagonist movements can also help alleviate and prevent tendonitis by working in the opposite direction of the agonist muscles (prime movers). In the simplest terms, someone who does a lot of pushing in their sport should do a lot of pulling as well. Working with a pronated grip primarily means some exercises should be done with a supinated grip instead. Common agonists and antagonists include the quadriceps femoris and the hamstrings in the thigh, or the biceps brachii and the triceps brachii in the upper arm. Significant imbalances between agonist and antagonist muscles can produce joint pain.
A Forward-Thinking Approach to Sports Injury Prevention
An approach to preventing sports injuries requires both a series of general prehab exercises, as well as movements and stretches that specifically address an athlete’s needs as per their weaknesses, strengths, and goals. A weekend warrior would do well to spend another day or two in the week exercising to prevent injuries over the weekend, and to help the body better adapt to strenuous exercise by introducing more training volume. A teen athlete needs to communicate with their trainers, coaches, and physicians to prevent and/or treat sports injury-related pain caused by a lack of recovery or the development of imbalances due to poor form and overuse.