Why Better Conditioned Athletes Have Fewer Injuries

Learn why better conditioned athletes experience fewer injuries during games and how best to prepare for the season ahead.

Injuries happen in sports. Sometimes they're because an athlete's body is unprepared for intense athletic movements. Sometimes they're just bad luck.

If we accept that injuries happen and do nothing to fight them off, we invite more injuries. STACK has extensively covered how to eliminate strength imbalances, fix weak points and correct mobility issues to help prevent injuries—or at least reduce the severity of an injury if it does occur.

However, one area that often gets overlooked is conditioning.

Let's set the scene. It's the fourth quarter of a basketball game. You run down court on a fast break and score a basket. The opposing team answers with their own fast break and you sprint to get back on defense. Now you're slightly gassed.

When you're fatigued, your muscles run low on energy and may build up lactic acid—prompting that burning sensation you feel when you use your muscles repeatedly in a short amount of time. At the end, your muscles won't produce as much strength, and if a specific muscle gets overly fatigued, others will pick up the slack.

During athletic movements, your muscles fire in a precise fashion to execute a skill. The amount of strength each muscle produces and the time each muscle fires is perfectly coordinated. But under fatigue, this system breaks down, causing poor movements and degrading technique. When technique breaks down, you're more likely to get injured, because your muscles and joints experience more stress than they're designed to handle.

Data supports this claim. Here are some interesting facts and stats from studies assessing injuries in various sports:

  • More injuries occur in later periods and the later minutes of each period during a hockey game. — Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine
  • Injuries are more likely to occur in the second half of a rugby game, specifically in the third quarter. —British Journal of Sports Medicine
  • There are more injuries during the last 15 minutes at the end of each soccer half. Also, youth players experience more injuries over the second half of the season. — British Journal of Sports Medicine
  • The first 15 minutes of each soccer half have the highest number of mild injuries, and the last 15 minutes of each half have the highest moderate injuries. This reflects the intensity of the opening period and the possible effect of fatigue in the closing period. — British Journal of Sports Medicine

It's clear that fatigue is a critical factor in causing injuries. So what can you do about it? The answer is simple—get in shape. Here are a few recommendations for improving your conditioning so fatigue will not contribute to causing a future injury.

Condition for Your Sport

Every sport has unique conditioning requirements depending on the length of plays and the time allowed for recovery. For example, a typical football play lasts only six seconds, and players have about 30 seconds of recovery before the next play. A hockey shift might last for 45 seconds, with more than two minutes allotted for rest before you step back on the ice.

It's important to train your energy systems to mimic the workloads you experience during games. The timing doesn't have to be exact, it but should have a similar structure. For example, if you're a football or hockey player, you might do one of these four drills to boost your endurance. And if you think jogging is the answer, think again—it might actually slow you down,

Prepare During the Off-Season

The off-season is the time to get your body right and in shape for the next season. Building strength is probably your primary goal for most of the off-season, with conditioning as a secondary focus. You might add some finishers to the end of your workouts, but don't spend too much time on them.

However, three to four weeks before your season starts, conditioning should shift into sharper focus. At this point you need to develop both your anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, which provide energy for short and explosive movements or long-duration sub-maximal endurance, respectively. This can be accomplished with extra conditioning work after your workout, typically with short sprints and agility drills.

Push Yourself During Practice

The best conditioning activity is to actually play your sport. So always push yourself in practice to prepare for the intensity of a game. And don't groan when your coach lines you up at the end of practice to run through some conditioning drills. This is all about your mindset. It's a time to get better, so don't go through the motions. Always strive to be the first one across the line.

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