Being sidelined by an acute or overuse injury is a nightmare. The months-long process of treating a strain, sprain, tear or break is deflating and frustrating.
Coaches and experts will often tell you that you need to build strength to prevent injury. But even if you do everything right and stick to an incredible total-body strength program tailored to the sports you play or activities you do, will you still inevitably get injured?
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First of all, it's important to recognize that you're probably not doing every single thing "right." But in understanding the intricacies of training for injury prevention, you'll give yourself the best shot of staying healthy for the long haul.
Here are some reasons you might be getting injured despite your best efforts — plus sports injury prevention tips to keep you in the game.
1. Your Focus Is on Strength When It Should Be on Mobility and Balance
Strength training can improve posture, correct muscle imbalances and increase balance, bone density, muscular growth and flexibility — but only if you're doing it correctly. That's where it gets tricky.
You might wonder what muscles are needed for your sport and if you're missing key elements that could improve performance and keep you healthy. Kendell Jno-Finn, PT, DPT, owner of M3Performance and Physical Therapy recommends thinking about it in a more holistic approach.
"You need a plan that will complement your movement diet," Jno-Finn tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Every training program should include the seven pillars of movement: push, pull, change height, walk, disassociation — which is getting your upper body going in one direction and your lower body going in the other direction — balance and connecting breath."
Looking at these key aspects of movement through the lens of mobility, you can determine where you excel and what might need work. When Jno-Finn first assesses an athlete's mobility, he is looking at three main places: the thoracic spine, hips and ankles.
"Those are your three anchor points," he says. "So, are those strong? Where is your core integration? Can you connect your upper body and your lower body to generate power?"
He says using simple movements can tell you a lot about your joints and movement profile.
"Ideally, you could find someone who can really assess your ability to go engage in whatever it is you want to engage in," he says. That includes a physical therapist or an exercise scientist who can watch your movements and make adjustments to help you become more efficient and balanced.
If you don't have the means to have a session with an expert, Jno-Finn recommends doing some at-home testing.
"Stand in front of the mirror and get your arms over your head. Do a deep squat," he says. "First of all, can you do it? Does it hurt? Finally, are you doing it well?"
It might be beneficial to video the movement to really gauge if what you're doing is correct. Look at your range of motion — not just the depth of the squat. See if and how your ankles bend and if your heels can stay on the floor. Are your knees collapsing inward? Then check to see if your body is in a straight line or if maybe one of your hips juts out too much on one side. Anything that looks a little wonky might indicate a muscular imbalance that mobility and strength training can fix.
"You can also test balance by standing on one leg, eyes closed, for 20 seconds, both sides," Jno-Finn says. "First, can you do it? Second, are the sides even? If you can stand on your left leg for 5 seconds and your right leg for 20 seconds, that's a huge difference, and you should be taking a closer look at why you can't balance."
2. You’re Training Without a Plan
Think about it: Do you just roll into the gym and go through a whole-body lifting routine with little to no attention to increases and decreases in weight? Do you rely on the exercises set by whatever HIIT class you have that day? That's what many of us do to stay in shape.
But designing a strength program with an exercise scientist or coach that takes all your activities and competitions into account is the best and most effective way to safely make gains. This is because a "big picture" training schedule can help you peak at the right times and will take away the chance of overloading your body.
There's a fine line between training enough to drive performance and breaking your body down too much without enough recovery. So, how do you find that balance? That, Jno-Finn says, comes down to having an overarching plan that works for you.
Many athletes and coaches use periodized training models, Jno-Finn says, which basically just means a schedule that progressively increases the intensity and volume of training over time. You can use this approach regardless of your chosen sport or activity.
The timeframe will be up to you and your race, game or competition schedule. Often, recreational adult athletes will have a year-round competition schedule; runners will sign up for races every weekend, golfers hit the course every Sunday morning, tennis players are playing as many as four matches per week, etc.
It's fine to do what you love, but if you're serious about preventing injury and improving as an athlete, Jno-Finn says it's a great idea to choose an actual "in-season" or goal race or match for yourself. Then, you can create training phases around it. Also, note that recovery days and weeks should be built into each of the phases.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) describes the different types of periodization, and below you'll find a linear model that is commonly used to reach peak performance.
- Preparation phase: Focus on building a solid foundation of strength, endurance and technique. Training intensity and volume are relatively low, and the emphasis is on general fitness and skill development.
- Strength phase: As the competition season approaches, you begin to increase the intensity and volume of training. Here is when you're lifting heavier, incorporating more plyometric moves, increasing the volume of your cardiovascular training and preparing your body for the demands of competition.
- Competition phase: The intensity and volume of training continue to increase, with an emphasis on fine-tuning technique, speed and power. Ideally, this is when you will peak for the most important competitions.
- Recovery phase: Now you reduce the intensity and volume of training to allow for recovery.
3. You Have Poor Form or Improper Technique
This reason hurts, literally. Even with the strongest muscles and best mobility, if your form is off, you can place too much stress on the wrong muscles and tendons, and that can lead to injury.
"Being physically active without being prepared or informed is a risk factor," Jno-Finn says.
So, it might be time to face the facts about your technique. You can talk with a movement specialist or coach to help you, or you can film yourself and analyze your form. If you find something that needs to be tweaked, then start working on body awareness. Good body awareness in sports comes in handy when you need to learn a new skill or alter an existing movement.
Be mindful when you're practicing and cue yourself to make adjustments. Even just bringing attention to your posture, alignment, body position and how your body feels while moving can help identify areas that need improvement. You can also incorporate proprioception exercises. Proprioception is the sense that helps us perceive where our body is in space and time. If you perform movements with your eyes closed, it will force you to use proprioception, which will heighten body awareness.
4. You're Not Getting Enough Nutrients
You knew this was coming. Your diet plays a pivotal role in your overall wellbeing, but it is especially important in active people who want to keep their bodies humming along. Way too many athletes fall into the trap of thinking they are doing everything right but forget that nutrition and hydration play a huge role in performance.
When you're eating enough of the right foods and hydrating well, you support the growth and repair of your muscles and tissues. But if you're training hard and not fueling enough or not fueling with the right nutrients, your muscles, bones, tissues and tendons could suffer.
We know "eating well" is a pretty broad term. Research — like a March 2019 review in Human Kinetics Journal and a December 2020 review in Nutrients — emphasizes the importance of ensuring you're getting enough of the following nutrients is helpful in injury prevention:
- Vitamin D may reduce the risk of stress fractures.
- Vitamin C helps to form collagen, which is great for tendons and ligaments.
- Iron is important for getting oxygen to muscles.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are great for reducing inflammation and joint health.
Protein deserves its own special shoutout because research— like this June 2016 study in PLoS One — shows it's one of the most important factors in maintaining muscle mass and preventing injury. Many athletes aren't aware they're not consuming enough protein.
The amount of protein you need is truly individual and depends on factors like your age, weight, goals and activity level. But for a very general guideline, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends athletes get 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
5. You’re Not Warming Up Properly
Congratulations if you are actually warming up, but it's one thing to go through a few neck rolls and another thing to do some neuromuscular exercises to get your body and brain prepared to do what you ask of them.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends doing "a specific warm-up that involves less intense movements similar to the sport or activity about to be performed. The purpose of this type of warm-up is to allow the body to gradually adjust to the changing physiological demands of the exercise session without undue fatigue."
Some great warm-up movements include:
- Dynamic stretching includes movements like leg swings, arm circles, tin man walks, butt kicks, high knees and very light jogging.
- Sport-specific drills: Sport-specific drills will help prepare your body for movements that will be used during the activity.
- Sport-specific mobility exercises: This will help you enhance your range of motion, reduce injury and increase muscle activation.
So, Is Injury an Inevitable Part of Being Active?
The unfortunate reality is that injuries happen. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that an estimated 8.6 million people in the United States are injured playing sports per year.
Even if you are as mobile as a professional athlete with perfect form and strong muscles, you might land wrong, trip while running or twist in just the wrong way. Despite our best efforts to not overload our bodies, overtraining injuries might happen. Heck, you might wear the wrong pair of shoes for 30 minutes and get shin splints — it happens!
So, is injury inevitable? Not necessarily, but there is always a risk. But by following proper training and conditioning, eating well, hydrating, warming up and timing your training, you can reduce the risk of injury and improve your overall health and performance.
- CDC: "Sports- and Recreation-related Injury Episodes in the United States, 2011–2014"
- ACSM: "ACSM's Nutrition for Exercise Science"
- NASM: "PERIODIZATION TRAINING SIMPLIFIED: YOUR GUIDE TO THE CYCLES AND PHASES"
- PLoS One: "Protein Requirements Are Elevated in Endurance Athletes after Exercise as Determined by the Indicator Amino Acid Oxidation Method"
- Human Kinetics Journal: "Nutrition for the Prevention and Treatment of Injuries in Track and Field Athletes"
- Nutrients: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Sport Performance—Are They Equally Beneficial for Athletes and Amateurs? A Narrative Review"
- NSCA: "DYNAMIC WARMUPS FOR ATHLETES: EXERCISES FOR SPORTS PERFORMANCE"
- Kendell Jno-Finn