You can plan workouts around an intense, busy schedule and skip a session every so often, but nothing throws a wrench in your progress like an injury. Generally speaking, even the ones that don’t totally take you out of the game are frustrating. The weeks and even months after an injury don’t really reflect a time to get faster or stronger, it’s more of a time to recover and return to your pre-injury levels. Oh, and the ongoing pain—that sucks too. So, injuries should be prevented whenever possible, and whether you’re currently healthy or not, it’s worth it to take a few minutes to look over these tips on how to do your best to avoid some of the most common sports and fitness-based injuries.
1. Plantar fasciitis
A common ailment for runners, plantar fasciitis develops when the band that runs along the bottom of your foot, connecting the heels to the toes (the plantar fascia), becomes inflamed and painful. In several cases, this causes strong heel pain upon getting up out of bed or walking around after any long period of rest, but more severe cases make it feel like you’re walking on broken glass all day long. Clearly, you won’t be running on this (not well, anyway), and it’ll likely bring about a painful, forced break from all cardiovascular activities for a while.
“[Plantar Fasciitis] can develop very quickly or it can happen over a long time, getting a little bit worse every day,” says Anthony Wall, director of professional education for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He mentions that running with improper footwear even just a few times can cause PF to pop up, and that there’s often a number of causes. Always make sure you’re running in sneakers that provide the right amount of support, and if you have flatter feet and/or run frequently, some special inserts on top of that might be necessary. Fast weight gain can also cause issues, and the same goes for running with a bad gait—Wall explains that unnatural form, sometimes brought on by previous injuries, can restrict the movement of the ankles and feet, which can lead to inflammation of the fascia.
2. Lower back pain
According to a number of studies, the vast majority of American adults have a prolonged bout (two weeks or more) of lower-back pain at least once in their life. The risk factors add up if you’re active, whether you’re bending your back over while cycling, frequently lifting heavy weights, or putting strain on your back while sprinting. But your day job may be why those movements are difficult, and might be the main culprit of potential back pain. “We’ve gotten to the point where we spend a lot of our time in the seated position leaning forward,” Wall says. “What that tends to do is create incorrect movement patterns through the hip flexors, the glutes, and the lower back. And so, over time, you end up having this imbalance between the strength of the muscles in the front of the body and the strength of the muscles in the back of the body.”
So, how to prevent this annoying affliction? Just get moving some more—a standing desk is better, but if that’s not really possible, walk around in the office more often—visit people’s desks instead of sending e-mails, Wall says. Also, make sure your range of motion is where it needs to be—do simple back exercises and stretches but also ensure the strength and mobility of the hamstrings, hip flexors, and other areas that strain the back if they’re not where they need to be.
3. Hamstring pulls
A very common sports injury often brought on by sharp, abrupt movements like jumping, twisting, or turning mid-game, one of the keys to avoiding a hamstring pull is realizing you need to address more than just the back of your upper leg. “Most people just think of the hamstring as the back of the leg, but it actually connects to the fascias in the feet, the lower body and all the way up to the upper body as well,” Wall says. “It’s a long connective tissue that runs through the body.” So you can address the hamstring itself with box jumps and post-workout stretches, but you still have to have good flexion through the lower back, hips, and ankles as well to give your hamstrings the best chance at staying healthy.
4. Ankle sprains
This universal setback for players of any sport that involves quick changes of direction (that’s pretty much all of them), ankle sprains seem practically bound to happen from time to time when you’re making all those crazy cuts and movements. And if you’ve had ankle sprains before, you know you’re increasingly more prone to getting reinjured again and again, even after “healing.” Well, the truth is that the pain can subside, but you still need to build up your defenses to prevent future occurrences. So, tape it up or wear a brace if need be, but also work on your balance, flexibility, and strengthen the muscles around the ankle through exercises like calf raises or single-leg squats. These aren’t the muscles that make the ladies swoon, but they might prevent a sprain the next time your ankle rolls over.
5. The “big play” injury
The ball was right there—you couldn’t help but dive for it. Your wrist was just collateral damage. The rest of this list focuses on specific areas of the body that often suffer sports injuries, but your brain also plays a pretty big role in preventing the easiest of injuries to avoid—the ones where you knowingly put your body in harm’s way to pull off a crazy play. So, unless you’re in great form, don’t man up against the best basketball player on the other team who plays a few hours a day, and don’t try to get on ESPN with an insane diving catch in center field (no one’s filming it, and that’s probably a good thing). Also, don’t slide into second base—you’re wearing shorts and there are glass shards all over. In all likelihood, you’re a grown man and no one’s scouting you out for the pros, so take it back a notch.
6. Tennis elbow
This swelling of the tendons that causes pain in the elbows and arms can be brought on by a number of repetitive arm-swinging activities aside from tennis, like weightlifting or handy work around the house. Tennis elbow doesn’t usually hinder you from executing the movements you want, but it makes them more painful and puts greater strain on other parts of the body like the lower back, which can, of course, lead to more injury and discomfort. “Your body wants to do the movement and it will do it, but it then puts an unusual amount of stress on areas that are meant to take that,” Wall says. He says strengthening the muscles around the shoulder (kettlebell workouts, arm circles, etc.) and forearm (grip strength) is of the utmost importance, since those can help carry the load for your overworked tendons.
7. Quad strains
According to Wall, people with a history of quad problems often have some bad movement habits engrained in their exercises, often in lunges, squats, and back-extension movements. If you’ve had quad issues, it’d probably be a good idea to get your form checked out by an ACE-certified trainer, since Wall mentions that most people stress a particular muscle group too much when they bend their knees. “Depending on the person, they’re putting too much stress on the back or the quads or the glutes,” he says. And of course, make sure you’re not pushing your legs too far too fast. Gradually work that strength up.