What's the best way to prevent sports injuries?
December 12, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Changing play style, preventative exercises, diet, etc?

I play recreational sports regularly and have had my share of minor injuries (mostly joint problems) and have seen others sidelined for months with more serious injuries (tears, breaks, concussions). I'm especially worried about the joint injuries, since my family tends to have joint problems (arthritis and just weak/easily injured joints in general). Soccer is pretty rough on my ankles and they're starting to protest - without any real injury, it began hurting to run, so I haven't played for the last six months to try to let them recover. I haven't quite sprained them but I've rolled them quite a few times, and tend to rapidly stop, twist and pivot a lot in soccer (I play defense).

I am already:

-trying to avoid dangerous plays (although I tend to the reckless side)
-eating semi-healthy (lots of healthy food but lots of junk as well)
-trying to warm up before games (although sometimes I arrive late and can't)
-trying to take time off from sports to recover when I get minor injuries (although it's hard to stay away)
-trying to play with good form (although I started as an adult so I still have a long way to go)

Is it really just a gamble or is there anything else I can do to avoid major injuries? I've asked my doctor and Dr. Google and neither have been very helpful.

If it makes a difference, the sports I play are soccer and volleyball (total 3-4x a week), and I'd like to get back into martial arts as well. I'm in my late 20s, in decent shape, normal BMI, no major health problems.
posted by randomnity to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You can work on strengthening the muscles around your joints to protect them, but for things like breaks I do think it's pretty much luck. I feel you, I'm currently recovering from a totally freak broken ankle (simple jump with small direction change, leg bones went snap). Not sure what if anything I could have done to prevent that.
posted by corvine at 9:47 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding what corvine said about strengthening muscles. A lot of injuries result from the "wrong" parts of the body trying to compensate for weak muscles.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:04 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's some advice here:
Everything you know about fitness is a lie

"Somewhere inside every man's body," Brown told me, lying in a La-Z-Boy, "there's a weak link, a weak muscle waiting to fail. My job is to find that muscle and make it strong." Every big joint in your body, Brown explained, has what are called prime movers, meaning big muscles that govern the main action, like the biceps and triceps. But every joint also has a bunch of little stabilizer muscles. Sedentary lives, camped out in office chairs, allow those stabilizers to atrophy, raising two problems: First, if you have powerful prime movers from doing muscle-isolation machines at the gym but weak stabilizers because you rarely get to play a sport, you can't access all your strength when you, say, bang off a mogul on a ski hill. "It's like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe," Brown told me. The prime movers fire big, but the strength dissipates en route to the core. Second, and worse still, the strength of the prime movers can shred your unstable joints.

With stabilizer exercises here.
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

The times when I've hurt myself have mostly come from trying to keep going after my body is too tired - that's when you're most likely to be using poor form, not controlling your movements properly and end up overextending.

You should always warm up though - that's a recipe for injury. I don't mean stretching, but basic warming up of muscles and going through gentle versions of the movements you'll need for your sport before you throw yourself in fully.
posted by kadia_a at 10:14 AM on December 12, 2013

If you're not doing a basic strength and conditioning program then your first step with injury prevention needs to be a basic strength and conditioning program. I cannot emphasize how useful I've found strength to be in protecting myself from injury.

I have not found a good book to recommend for this circumstance, so let me summarize as briefly as possible. Note that all of this is necessarily variable depending on your situation and whims.

You should be able to squat your bodyweight, deadlift somewhat more than bodyweight, do ten pull-ups and twenty dips. If you don't like those specific exercises there's nothing wrong with swapping them for similar ones (e.g. bodyweight lunges, half bodyweight farmer's walk for 200m, one-arm DB rows at 1/3 bodyweight for reps, 25 Hindu push-ups). If you can't yet do those weights then I'd start doing those exercises at a very light weight once or twice a week (if done in addition to sports), adding five or ten pounds every two weeks or so.

Ligaments and other non-muscular tissue adjusts to greater workloads slower than muscle and responds better with higher rep ranges. So you might do something like:
  1. Warm-up: 10 minute jog, rotate shoulders/hips/elbows/knees
  2. Squat: warm-up with just the bar x10, add twenty pounds and do a set of 10, then add thirty pounds and do a set of 20. Add weight when you think you can do another five pounds safely.
  3. Romanian deadlifts, warm up with progressively heavier weights, until one near-maximal set of 10
  4. Three sets of pull-ups with 2 or 3 minutes of rest between sets
  5. Three sets of dips, similarly
If you don't know how to do these exercises then you need to find someone who does. Be aware that a fitness trainer might not know how to do squats or RDLs properly. If you can't do any of these exercises then you have a project ahead of you: figuring out why and fixing it.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:19 AM on December 12, 2013

Response by poster: I think I should probably add that I have zero intention of ever stepping in a gym but don't mind home exercises (did p90x for a while, inconsistently), and I own a set of dumbbells but no barbell or pullup bar and really no interest in getting either. If it makes a difference, I'm female, have pretty much nonexistent upper body strength but strong legs, and am worried mainly about lower-body injuries (ankles, knees, lower back etc).

I'll keep the strength training exercises in mind but I'm not really convinced that barbell squats etc. are the priority exercise for me to strengthen injury-prone joints. If there's solid evidence that it's the only option, I'd think harder about it, but I really don't want to go to a gym. I do sports specifically to avoid the gym. I like the idea of the stabilizer exercises, though.

I currently don't work out at all (aside from actually playing), but would like to get back to a home exercise routine in the new year when I'll have much more free time than I've had recently. So suggestions along the lines of body weight/dumbbell exercises that specifically strengthen the joints would be helpful. Thanks!
posted by randomnity at 11:54 AM on December 12, 2013

Best answer: Perhaps you should be aware that there is preliminary evidence that ACL injuries in women playing soccer may be reduced by doing a strength/balance/agility program. The links provided are for a 20-minute soccer warm-up program with few equipment requirements.

Muscles protect ligaments and joints by securing them in place and by more quickly and powerfully resisting damaging movements. A stronger person is more resistant to injury. It is tremendous how much more resistant to injury I am in sports since I started strengthening my lower back with squats and deadlifts.

Strength can be gained by a number of methods, but strength gain is proportional to the resistance used. Ergo, heavy squats, deadlifts, lunges (and eventually power cleans), being most effective for strength, are most effective for injury prevention through strength. I would personally do those (with dumbbells if necessary, but still as heavy as possible) alongside the PEP program if I were in your shoes.
posted by daveliepmann at 12:11 PM on December 12, 2013

Oh, also the title of this book is kind of dumb, but it's pretty good: Becoming a Supple Leopard. He covers form for bodyweight exercises as well as barbell exercises.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:24 PM on December 12, 2013

Best answer: I play defense in soccer and I'm over 40. I'm a long-time player, but in the past 10 years of so, I've had my fair share of tweaks and persistent injuries.

My worst injuries happened when I didn't warm-up adequately and/or was playing in conditions that exacerbated that, e.g. very cold. I have played indoor, but find it much harder on my knees than outdoor so I tend to avoid that now. At this moment, I'm in good shape, which I put down to a few things.

What has helped the most is pretty much what others are saying, which is other forms of training. I did a bit of triathlon training a couple of years ago and that helped. This year, I've been doing bodyweight training and my long term knee issue has finally gone away. Specifically, I bought this Bodyweight app based on a recommendation I saw on Ask Metafilter, and I've been very, very pleased with it. It's very well designed. I don't personally frequent the communities, but I believe the various FAQs on Reddit are pretty comprehensive.

As a background to understanding injury and the relationships between muscles, I found Mobility WOD to be an excellent resource. Without looking at a specific episode, I can tell you that they'd quite possibly suggest that ankle issues may arise out of hip muscle weakness.
posted by idb at 2:39 PM on December 12, 2013

Hi, I'm in physical therapy right now! I'll say two somewhat contradictory things:

- most sports medicine on the internet, unless it cites literature, is rubbish
- Google "prehab": this is the term used to describe exercises done by uninjured athletes in order to remain uninjured

FYI, at the time I injured myself, my squat 5RM was 1.25x body weight and my deadlift 5RM was 1.5x body weight. When the PT examined me, there were all sorts of simple things I couldn't do, like hold my leg up off the table with my knee straight. Apparently, lots of common exercise programs are not good at balancing agonist/antagonist development or strengthening the stabilizer muscles.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:10 PM on December 12, 2013

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