Every athlete’s worst nightmare is getting hurt. Injuries can stop you from competing and training so of course they should be avoided at all cost. But this doesn’t happen by accident. In order to avoid getting injured you have to be prepared. A smart athlete knows how to move with the agility and efficiency appropriate to her endeavor. A healthy athlete knows how to listen to her body and take care of it.
Taking care of your body starts before you take the field or step into the weight room. We’ve all heard the old adage, “you are what you eat.” But this phrase can be expanded tenfold. Showing up to practice on little sleep or dehydrated affects how you perform but it also takes a toll on your body. And yes, if all you eat is McDonald’s, your body cannot function properly.
If you’re eating well, getting eight hours of sleep, and properly hydrating throughout the day, then you’ve made a good start. But your body is still not ready. Picture your body as a car in the wintertime. When you turn the key, the engine starts but it takes a few minutes before the car warms up. If you take the field, court, or rink without warming up, you may notice the consequences. Your muscles are not designed to go from zero to sixty. Some light jogging accompanied by the appropriate stretching is essential.
How to Stretch
Before you begin your practice or game, your muscles are cold. So standing still and touching your toes merely puts stress on your hamstrings instead of loosening them up. When your muscles are cold you want to do more active stretching. For the leg muscles this could be “high knees” and “butt kicks” or a number of other exercises. The main thing that counts is that you are in motion. Otherwise you risk damaging your muscles before you even begin.
Remember that every sport is a full body activity. You may not use your hands in soccer but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to warm up your upper body. Your legs are connected to your hips and back and shoulders. Your body works in concert. So a healthy back is essential for healthy legs. Tightness in your lower back could be the result of tight hips. A complete body warm up will get you ready for competition and keep you healthy from head to toe.
After a practice or game you need to employ different stretching techniques. Now your muscles are warm. They’ve been lengthened during your exertion and are ready for static stretching. To use the hamstrings as an example again, now is the time to touch your toes. Of course, even if you’ve just played a soccer game, don’t forget to stretch your arms as well.
Listening to Your Body
It’s great to prepare our bodies for competition and training but if we don’t listen to what our bodies tell us, all our preparation will be for naught. You’ve probably heard the saying, “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” This way of thinking is especially predominant in so called “tough” sports like football. A little refection should make obvious the fact that pain is not simply a weakness.
Our bodies experience pain for a reason. Pain is an indicator to stop. It’s not something to be pushed through. If your body is working the way it’s supposed to, you don’t experience pain. It’s only when something goes wrong that you start to hurt. You should be grateful that your body alerts you to danger and you need to listen to it. Even if you’re experiencing a slight twinge in a joint it’s an important message to pay attention to. Though it may start small, a little pain can turn into a major issue. When this happens, you have no choice but to stop practicing, playing, and training.
One reason athletes play through pain is that they don’t know the difference between pain and soreness. If you don’t figure out the difference between these two sensations you will be at great risk for injury.
Soreness is an ache in the muscles that occurs after you have worked them hard. This is normal and not a bad thing. If you are stretching properly and not increasing the intensity of your workouts too quickly, then soreness should remain relatively low. Soreness goes away within a day or two.
Pain is a more acute sensation and can take longer to go away. This depends of course on the seriousness of the injury.
If you sprain your ankle, even a minor sprain, you feel a sharp pain and it hurts to put pressure on the foot. It may be possible to continue playing after a sprain, but the injury does not go away if it is continued to be agitated. The main thing to remember is that soreness feels like you’ve had a good hard workout and pain feels as though something has been broken or damaged.
With a little practice every athlete can learn to listen to her body and treat it with care. If we expect the best from ourselves on the field we have to give ourselves the healthiest bodies to work with.