Have you ever woken up from a long nap, not knowing where you are, what time or even what day it is? Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been living in a state of hibernation. If you’ve been healthy, social distancing has been an opportunity to rest, focus on family and enjoy the outdoors. But if you are a sports athlete, you probably haven’t been able to play as part of a team or train like you normally would. Getting back to game speed can feel like waking your body up from that long nap.
We invited Thomas Carter, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Banner Health in Arizona, to discuss safe tips for athletes looking to return to sports. Dr. Carter spent two decades as Head Team Physician for the Phoenix Suns and Head Orthopedic Team Physician at several universities and colleges in the Phoenix area. He knows what it’s like to ramp athletes back into the routine of practice and games, whether they are returning from injury or the off-season. But even he admits that COVID-19 has put unprecedented obstacles in the way of staying in shape. High school, college and adult athletes are slowly beginning to train for sports again and this could lead to a lot of injuries.
Am I Ready?
“The most important issues in returning to sports are to return gradually rather than quickly and prepare yourself before your team practices begin,” said Dr. Carter. “With inactivity during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a decrease in aerobic exercise which needs to be addressed prior to returning to play.” Ramping up exercise should be gradual and should take at least one to two weeks. Most people don’t realize their loss of conditioning during their inactivity due to the COVID-19 virus and many athletes think they can resume practice where they left off 6 months ago.
When beginning to practice again with your team, it is important to take it seriously. “Many athletes expect practice to take them from the couch back to game shape. But you can get hurt during practices too,” warned Dr. Carter. “You’ll be much safer from injury if you start training on your own before your team practice begins.” Dr. Carter provided a few tips for athletes who are preparing for an upcoming season.
1. Start with Core Muscle Strengthening, Flexibility and Balance
Dr. Carter recalled working with promising young athletes. “They could run, lift and play with the best, but when I put them through basic balance tests they would wobble and lose their balance easily. Core stability is absolutely necessary for any athlete.” Core strengthening should include back, abdominal and hip exercises.
“Although most people don’t think about core exercises being important, studies show that a strong core will decrease your risk for injury,” said Dr. Carter. “Running, tackling, dribbling, swimming, swinging … every motion will be improved with foundational strength from your core. Not only will you perform better, your body will feel less strain and will be more resilient against injury.”
2. Focus on Cardiovascular Fitness
The most shocking thing on your first day back in training will be how quickly you get out of breath. While this can be very frustrating, Dr. Carter reassured that this sudden aerobic regression is quite common following a prolonged break. “Smart athletes, coaches and trainers understand that getting back in aerobic shape requires a little patience. If you push too hard, too fast, you will risk injury. Just take it easy at first, it will take a week or two of progressive training to start feeling more like yourself again. One should not push too fast in their effort to get back into cardiovascular fitness shape because it can run the risk of injury. The old thinking ‘no pain, no gain’ can be counterproductive.”
Dr. Carter mentioned that athletes can lose one liter of fluid or more per hour during strenuous workouts. Proper hydration is a great way to avoid injury and maintain mental function.
“Thirst doesn’t set in until you have lost about 2% of your body weight in water,” said Dr. Carter. “Drink fluids, but not excessively, before you are thirsty to avoid dehydration.” And with prolonged exercise, it is important to make sure you are consuming sports drinks with electrolytes rather than just water. “Sweat has sodium and other important electrolytes that are not replaced by plain water. In these situations, excessive water can actually be counterproductive to performance.”
4. Be Flexible
Many people forget the importance of flexibility in minimizing the risk of injury. Often athletes just think warming up is adequate and that they do not need to focus on stretching. “Young athletes are more likely to skip on stretching, which can lead to injury and increased muscle soreness,” said Dr. Carter. Maintaining flexibility will allow for improved performance and agility in any athletic situation.
Stay active at any age
Anybody can be physically active. In fact, age shouldn’t hold you back from setting new personal goals. However, Dr. Carter explained that athletes may experience unique hurdles in different phases of life and that no one is immune from injury. “Young people tend to experience more sprains (injury to ligaments), while adults more often suffer strains (injuries to muscles).” He said. “As you get older, joints and muscles get stiffer, and it’s particularly important to maintain flexibility to avoid muscle injuries.”
If you’re a growing kid, strength training should be varied and start with increasing the number of repetitions before trying greater weight. When training at any age, having an instructor, coach or mentor will help to monitor progress and improve overall fitness. It is important to remember that age alone should not prevent you from being physically fit. Activity at all ages will keep our muscles, joints, and minds functioning at the highest level.