Preventing Sports and Exercise Injuries

Confession time:  I am a weekend warrior.  The last time I was in a gym Harry Potter’s voice hadn’t changed, when I am inspired to work out I’ll go for a week then quit for ten, and I run only when chased.  Still, I will go for a brisk bike ride for an hour in single digit weather, have a full weekend of boundary-pushing white water kayaking, and hike a trail that includes an 800-step staircase (down and back up).  All awesome feats for me but then I spend the next week with an achy low back, neck or both, crippling shin splints, or the inability to climb the measly three steps into my own house.  While I’m confessing:  I also sprained a hip while bowling.  My body has, without warning, decided it is no longer putting up with my crap and is refusing to bounce back to normal in a day or two like it used to.

Sound familiar?  If it doesn’t yet, give it a few years.  It’s January and many of us are in the throes of our New Year’s resolutions to work out more, play more, and be healthier all in the name of having fun, looking sexy in a bathing suit and aging gracefully.  However, if you get injured or are frequently in pain as a result of your new found resolve you’re unlikely to stick to your plan.

Whether you’ve been exercising or participating in a sport for years or are a newbie just getting started there are some basic things you can do before, during, and after activity to reduce your chances of getting injured or having pain that may keep you from your goals.  If you’re new to a sport or exercise and have health or physical problems make sure you check with your doctor first.

This originally began as a study I did on injuries and pain due to white water paddling and the power point presentation is geared toward paddlers but these injuries are possible in all sports and all physical activities.  I’ve condensed it into a list that is more general and designed for anyone to use.  Here is the original presentation.  It also includes information about recognizing and treating specific injuries.

Don’t wait for a serious injury or excruciating pain to tend to your body!  Those nagging seemingly insignificant aches and pains can signal muscle tightness and imbalances that in time can become serious pain or lead to an injury.

Causes of Injury:

Short or Stiff Muscles

Muscles with increased tension resist lengthening and are more easily damaged during activity.  Strains can put you out of commission for weeks and even teensy tears in muscles can lead to build up of scar tissue, weak areas, and bigger problems later.

Muscle Imbalance

Imbalance results when muscles around a joint are short and tight or weak.  This puts a lot of stress on the opposing muscles and on the joint itself.  These imbalances increase chances for ligament sprains, muscle or tendon strains, osteoarthritis and joint issues such as Patellofemoral Syndrome.

Trigger Points and Muscle Pain

Trigger points are small knots in muscles that can be painful in themselves as well as ‘refer’ or cause sensation of pain, numbness and tingling in other areas of the body including joints.  Pain in muscles can restrict movement and become short, stiff and susceptible to injury.  Trigger points and painful muscles can also be a warning sign of impending injury as they indicate the muscle has already been misused.


Overworked and tired muscles prevent them from contracting with power and efficiency increasing chances for injury.   This can also cause other muscles to be recruited to do work they are unaccustomed to and become injured as well.  Fatigue can also slow your reflexes and make you mentally sluggish.

Previous Injuries

Injuries that are not properly treated and rehabilitated can have scar tissue build up that weakens an area of muscle, tendon, or ligament or ‘glue’ tissues together resulting in a loss of range of motion or pain.  Some injuries such as dislocations or sprains my result in permanent laxity around the joint.  Even those that seem small or insignificant need proper attention.  Poor rehabilitation can lead to easy re-injury of the same area.

How To Reduce Your Chances of Injury:


Whether you’re a pro or a weekend warrior it is vitally important to follow a fitness program that strengthens and balances all the muscles you need for your activity.  Many fitness magazines can point you in the right direction for your sport but seeking professional guidance can boost your performance.

Many local gyms are owned and operated by professional trainers.  Here in Kentucky there is no licensure or specific guidelines for fitness trainers and I recommend doing some research to see if a particular instructor has an educational background in training so they can give you the best direction for your needs.

Therapeutic Massage

Proper massage can decrease tension and pain in muscles, reduce trigger points, and help resolve both new and old injuries.  Even if you aren’t presently experiencing pain you may have muscular imbalances that will lead to an eventual injury.  I have yet to put my hands on someone that didn’t have tension and trigger points they were unaware of.

Relaxation massage is wonderful for pampering but if you want massage that addresses problems that can lead to injury you need an experienced therapist that specializes in therapeutic techniques.  We can locate areas of tension and trigger points, see patterns of overuse and compensation, and skillfully work to resolve them.

There are tools and self massage techniques you can use between professional visits.  Ask your therapist for recommendations, resources, and demonstrations.


Regular yoga or other static stretching (stretching and holding a lengthening pose for several seconds) keeps tissues healthy and lengthened.  It can help prevent injury by improving flexibility and balance and some routines are great for strengthening stabilizing muscles.

Stretch every day.  You can even use it as part of your cool down routine after exercising.  I would caution against using it as warm up for an activity, however.  Recent research has indicated that static stretching is not effective for warming up and may be detrimental.

Warm Up

Get moving before you get moving!  Don’t just roll out of bed and hop on your bike or into your running shoes.  Proper warm up gets your heart revved and ready to pump delicious nutrients and oxygen to your muscles, lets your brain know what you want your body to do, and gets muscles and joints warmed and lubricated so they work efficiently and powerfully.

A great way to warm up is by having a dynamic stretching routine.  Dynamic stretches warm the muscles and increase heart rate while they put muscles and joints through their full range of motion.  This will insure they get loosened and lengthened and prepared for all of the movements you’ll be asking of them.

Here are two videos that can help you create a warm up that suits you.  You may also consult a fitness trainer for help.

Great Full-Body Dynamic Stretch Routine

Excellent Rotator Cuff Dynamic Stretch (for my kayaking buds)

Use Proper Body Mechanics

Whatever your activity, learn how to use your body properly and efficiently.  Practicing proper posture and movement patterns at the gym and at play will make you fitter, faster, stronger, more graceful and less likely to hurt yourself.  Get a coach, personal trainer, or someone more experienced to watch and help you fine tune your techniques.

Be cautious moving equipment too.  You can get hurt loading a bike onto a car rack or carrying your kayak around that evil looking rapid as easily as you can riding or paddling.

Have Proper Equipment And Outfitting

Are your running shoes the right size so you don’t lose toenails?  Do they correct for pronation or supination?  Is your bike the right size?  Are your seat and handle bars adjusted properly?  Is your boat outfitted properly for control and rolling?  Does the back band support your lumbar spine?  If you’re not sure get some expert advice from your locally owned shoe store, bike shop, or outfitter.

Avoid Fatigue

Get a good nights’ sleep, eat well and often and stay hydrated.  If you’re out all day keep snacks handy that will provide long term energy and lots of water.   Junk food and highly sweetened drinks like sodas and Gatorade are ususally not good choices as they cause spikes in blood sugar rather than a long, slow burn that will keep you going all day.

Listen To Your Body

Do a quick body scan and check in every 20 minutes or so.  Learn to be aware and mindful of any aches, pains, fatigue, or potential injury.  Know when to slow down or call it a day.

Ignoring problems may make them appear to go away but it may only be temporary.  If you’re having minor to moderate muscle or joint pain see a massage therapist to nip problems in the bud or determine if the issue is more serious.   If you’ve injured yourself see your doctor and make sure you get it rehabilitated properly.

Staying fit and healthy will let you have more fun, look and feel better, and improve your quality of life for years to come.  Take care of your body!

“Exercise to stimulate, not to annihilate.  The world wasn’t formed in a day and neither were we.  Set small goals and build upon them.”  ~ Lee Haney


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