Every sports fan gets frustrated by the player on his/her favorite team who suffers multiple muscle injuries. The cycle goes like this: muscle or tendon injury, rehab, short-term return, rehab, repeat. Despite almost unlimited resources, teams can’t seem to break the player out of the cycle.
Are you worried this could happen to you? In this article, I explain a few things you should be doing to reduce the risk.
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In most cases, chronically injured athletes do enough of the “easy” early and medium mid-term stages of rehab. Where they often go wrong is not doing enough of the “hard” work, the work that simulates game action. If a player is deemed fit to play after he or she can sprint pain-free for a week or two, re-injury is a serious risk. That is not enough. The evidence shows that building up months of hard training reduces first-time muscle injury and re-injury risk.
What to do
- Find the sweet spot of total muscle workload, which includes training, practice and games. There is a risk in under-training as well as overtraining. Soft tissue injury rates are reduced when a player has a consistent history of working out at a relatively high level.
- Avoid big spikes in workload. It is better to build up your workload week by week. Some spikes are unavoidable, but look at a whole month of workload and try to balance the tough weeks with lighter ones.
- Don’t rest too long. If you take five weeks off in the off-season, it takes about three months to get your fitness back to where it was. Plus just resting until the pain goes away and not putting in the hard rehab after an injury is a recipe for re-injury.
- For hamstrings and groins, just because you can sprint and cut pain-free doesn’t mean your muscles are back to full strength after injury. Eccentric exercises have been shown to prevent first-time and recurrent hamstring and groin injuries. They are the best option to lengthen muscles that shorten after tears.
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Dr. Tim Gabbett is the world’s leading expert on managing an athlete’s workload to maximize performance and reduce injury risk. His team’s research on balancing spikes of training with steady hard work is fast becoming the industry standard, used by professional sports teams worldwide. As Dr. Gabbett’s body of work becomes fully integrated into the world of sports, fewer chronically injured players will be rushed back into game action before they are truly ready. You may not be able to monitor your own workload in the detailed way the pros do with GPS data, but the concepts can be applied at any level.
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Dr. Gabbett uses the analogy of building up a tolerance for drinking beer as similar to building up a tolerance to workload that reduces muscle injury risk. The more consistently you drink beer, the more beer you can handle. If you stay off beer for a few months, your tolerance goes back to where you started. It’s the same with building up a tolerance to training hard—consistent relatively hard training conditions an athlete to be able to handle it. If you stop for too long, injury risk goes back up. Plus, just as beer tolerance doesn’t mean you can handle hard liquor, consistent hard training doesn’t get your muscles ready for a large spike of heavy training. Too many games and/or training sessions in one week should be avoided if possible, and if you do overdue it, your workload needs to be scaled back in the days and weeks thereafter.