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Stay in the game! Injury prevention exercises, stretches and equipment

Participating in regular exercise, such as recreational sports, is a great way to improve your overall health and well-being. For adults, these activities can have positive physical, cognitive, and psychosocial effects; however, sports-related injuries pose a particular challenge for this age group.

Melissa R. decided to return to volleyball in her 30s after playing competitively in high school and college. Things did not go according to plan. Melissa faced a slew of injuries as an adult rec league athlete that included tearing her medial collateral ligament, breaking bones in her knee, tearing her hamstring (twice), and shattering a lens in her eye.

While on the extreme end, Melissa’s experience of getting injured playing as an adult is not unusual. From volleyball and basketball to softball and soccer, adults are participating in sports in record numbers – and getting hurt in record numbers. According to the National Safety Council, 3.2 million people were treated in emergency departments for injuries involving sports and recreational equipment, with adults aged 25-64 making up nearly a third of all visits. This does not account for injuries that did not require immediate medical attention. The most common cause of sports-related injury for this age group was exercise equipment.

Melissa’s severe knee pain from volleyball eventually caused her to give up playing as an adult. “I decided walking in my 60s and beyond was a priority,” she says. However, many adults continue playing sports in hopes of improving their health, and they often end up asking, “Why do I keep getting injured?” The reality is, while it might seem counterintuitive to walk away from sports when one is focused on their health, sports can do more harm than good when appropriate precautions aren’t taken. For the majority of adults who enjoy participating in recreational sports, some common sense and caution can keep them in the game for many years.

Know your limits

Many adult athletes approach these recreational leagues like they did when they were on the varsity team 10, 20, or even 30 years earlier. Bear in mind, you do not have the body, or likely the fitness, that you had those many years ago. If you are not in optimal shape, consider starting the season playing just a portion of the game as you build fitness. And when you do take the field/court, play within your limits. Remember, it’s OK if you can no longer dunk or block.

Melissa joined a very competitive A-league team as an adult and pushed herself hard while dealing with all the stresses of life as a working adult with a family. “My first injury happened because I was exhausted,” she explains. Know when you’re too busy, too stressed, too distracted or too tired to play safely, and adjust accordingly.

There is no standard for league play. Some kick off each game with practice drills, some with a happy hour. Unfortunately, mixing serious athletes and social players can be problematic, resulting in frustration at minimum and a collision at worst. Understanding the tenor of the league or the team you’re joining and making sure it aligns with your expectations is important.

And speaking of happy hour, it is highly advisable to save the drinking for post-game celebrations (or commiserating), as playing impaired can contribute to accidents and injury.

Prevent preventable injury 

Yes, there is risk in participating in sport at any age, but the risk of minor overuse ailments, such as hamstring pulls and ankle sprains can be lessened with a little preparation. Injury prevention exercises can be crucial to strengthening and aligning your joints, decreasing your risk of injury. These exercises include anything that targets specific joints and muscles, and their effects can be optimized when practiced routinely.

While full body exercise is recommended for overall health and performance, you can also target muscles and joints specific to your sport to decrease risk of injury. For example, if you suffer from volleyball knee pain associated with jumping, or ankle pain associated with stop-and-go soccer running, try doing leg exercises to strengthen the surrounding muscles.

Stretch (again, still, always) 

We’ve written a lot of articles that include stretching as an injury prevention exercise to reduce risk and alleviate discomfort (last count was six, including this blog on fall sports, and this article on preventing running injuries). There’s a reason: It works. Some might think a warm-up and stretching regime before a rec league game makes them look too serious about the game or too competitive. The fact is, if you want to prevent injury, you need to get warm and limber before you start taxing your body on the field or court.

Melissa believes her hamstring tear was a result of inflexibility, which can be improved through stretching. “I was very strong and a really good player, but not flexible,” she says.

Use the right equipment 

Whether you’re playing on indoor turf, a grass field, a hard court or wooden floors, make sure you have appropriate footwear (yes, the best shoe for each surface is different). The right shoe ensures better traction and less slipping and will also protect the playing surface.

If your sport includes a lot of lateral movement (tennis, volleyball), knee pain and other injuries can be avoided by making sure your footwear offers lateral support. If you regularly run, make sure your shoe has good cushioning and compensates for your natural pronation. And no matter which sport you participate in, do not wear worn out shoes that no longer offer support or cushioning. It’s worth your time, and money, to go to a shoe store with professional salespeople, someone who can properly advise you on the best footwear for your sport.

Shin guards, mouth guards, helmets, pads – if they are options in your sport, use them.

Don't "play through" injury 

Even with caution and preparation, injuries are bound to happen at the rec level. When they do, bench yourself. Don’t play with a strained muscle and risk a tear. Don’t tape up that sprained ankle or knee and head back to the court. This is not the pros, and your injuries will only deteriorate and risk worsening or becoming chronic without proper rest and treatment.

And if you do suffer a problematic orthopaedic injury during a game, or any activity, have it evaluated by an expert. The physicians at Great Basin Orthopaedics can assess you and provide treatment options, including physical therapy, so you’ll have the knowledge you need to make an informed decision about your care.