Young athletes can prevent injuries after long offseason

For many student-athletes, the wait to get back in the game seemed like it would never end, with the pandemic dragging on and threatening yet another season of sports. Fortunately, the wait is now over, and most schools have returned to practice with an eye toward full competition.

After such a long offseason, the comeback has been accompanied by an increase in injuries, with physicians seeing more sprains, strains and fractures. The urge to get back to pre-COVID shape and make up for lost time often works against these young athletes, who may be rushing through proper conditioning.

“Both acute and overuse injuries are painful and can sideline student-athletes physically and emotionally,” said Dr. Dennis J. Pfisterer Jr., an orthopedic surgeon at Holy Name. “Prevention is key. They need to train for their sports and not expect that playing or practice will get them back in shape.”

Dr. Dennis J. Pfisterer Jr. is an orthopedic surgeon at Holy Name.

Parents, coaches and players should recognize the risk posed by limited preseason conditioning and practice. After more than a year of canceled or condensed competition, athletes have been idle for an unusually long stretch of time, increasing the chances of serious injury after a quick return to their sport.

To help avoid injuries, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the 10% rule: After a prolonged absence from training or playing, resume activity at 10% the intensity or duration level of the highest performing rate. For example, an athlete who previously ran 10 miles each training session should begin by only running 1 mile and slowly build up their endurance. This rule can be applied to almost all sports, from weightlifting to pitching baseballs.

Proper conditioning is imperative in preventing injuries, Pfisterer added. He offers the following tips for young athletes:

  • Start endurance and flexibility training well before the sports season begins. Aerobic conditioning and structured warmup and stretching exercises will help prepare the muscles for practice or competition.
  • Make sure all equipment is in good shape. Replace worn shoes and protective gear.
  • Listen to your body. Don’t push yourself when fatigued, and don’t play hurt. Be sure to include rest as part of your routine and limit the number of sports you play to one or two per season.
  • Don’t play the same sport all year, and plan downtime between sports or seasons. Multiple sports develop different parts of the body, utilizing some muscles and allowing others to rest.
  • Take care of your joints, incorporating strength training to make joints stronger. For example, training hamstrings and quadriceps helps make knees stronger.

If an injury does occur, consult a doctor immediately. The longer an athlete endures an injury without treatment, the less likely it is to heal quickly or properly. Seemingly normal aches and pains in kids may not be the same as in adults. Children’s growing bones and muscles can complicate injuries, so any serious discomfort should be addressed right away.

“With proper conditioning and a gradual ease into normal levels of activity, athletes should be back in peak shape and can resume their sports,” Dr. Pfisterer said. “Above all, young people should listen to their bodies and be honest about being hurt. Keep striving to reach that next level of play — but do so responsibly and always have fun.”

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