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a woman grasps her knee mid run

It started out like any other workout. On a cool, fall evening, I rushed through a 40-minute jog, not bothering to warm up or stretch. The next day I sat through a conference. That evening I sat some more, writing up a report. The next morning I couldn’t get out of bed. My right leg buckled under me when I tried to stand. I remember feeling stunned and a bit confused. My body was letting me down.

Only in retrospect – after long stints of physical therapy and a gradual recovery – did I realize how much I’d taken my body for granted, and how much I’d done to push it past its breaking point.

Better Safe Than Sorry

As I was approaching 30, my body had tried to warn me (more than a few times) with aches and twinges, but I continued to push it through the daily gauntlet of work, play, chores and obligations. I was a chronic-overuse injury waiting to happen – a combination of bad training, bad form and bad luck.

Stretch? Sure, every weekend. Condition? Well, that’s why I’m running, right? After all, I was in great shape. Right up until my back went out.

Now I know better. I also realize just how common (and dangerous) my “unbreakable” attitude was. Typically people don’t read articles about sports injuries unless they’ve had one. But unless you get smart about injuries and how to avoid them, chances are good that before long you’ll end up where I did – in pain and out of commission.

Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m not an athlete, I don’t play sports, and I don’t even run or lift weights, so that will never happen to me.” Think again. Then check out these four golden rules of sports injuries:

1. If you move, you will injure yourself eventually.

This means you. Yes, you, shunner of organized sports. You on the elliptical machine. The term sports injury is something of a misnomer. Most of us understand that breaking a wrist in-line skating may affect our ability to work as well as work out. But what we don’t get is that poor sitting posture may adversely affect our tennis swing, or that poor form on the Stairmaster or in the weight room may rear its ugly head at the office in the form of shoulder, neck or back pain.

It’s all connected and it can happen to anyone, anytime. The more conscious you are of this fact, the less likely you are to get into serious, repeated trouble.

2. Ninety percent of sports injuries fall into two categories.

So says Andrew Feldman, M.D., author of The Jock Doc’s Body Repair Kit and veteran sports medicine physician. They are either acute injuries – such as a fracture or ACL tear from a tumble down a ski slope – or they are repetitive/overuse injuries, such as shin splints and tennis elbow.

In either case, no matter where the injury is or who you are, the body needs time, rest, and rehabilitation to heal. If your injury is of the second type, there are probably also some changes you need to make in your routine in order to avoid a relapse.

3. Age matters.

Our culture is constantly selling us on the possibility of immortality. But no matter how young at heart we may be, body chronology doesn’t lie. Muscles tend to shorten and stiffen over time. Bone mass dwindles. Flexibility diminishes.

The cold truth is, the older we get, the more we have to work just to maintain where we are right now. If you want to take on new sports or activities injury free, be prepared to work for them – and work for them a little harder and more carefully as you age.

4. Patience really does win the race.

Both acute and chronic injuries often stem from impatience. We do too much, too soon. We don’t take the time to learn proper form first. We don’t build a base of strength. We skimp on warming up and stretching. We don’t have time to shop for new running shoes, and we really don’t have time to see the doctor about that nagging pain.

Somewhere along the line, somebody told us we could stay in shape with a commitment of just 30 minutes a day. While it can be done, too many of us strive to race to, from and through all of our workouts in that amount of time. We plow through our routines like maniacs, or dredge through them like mindless automatons. That may work for a while. And for a time, our bodies may also lead us down a primrose path – bouncing back no matter what we do to them.

But sooner or later, those days come to an end, and whether you get injured at 18 or 80, it hurts worse if you also have to kick yourself for some fool thing you did that set you up for the injury in the first place. Unfortunately, according to sports-medicine specialists, this is almost always the case.

8 Strategies to Help Prevent an Athletic Injury

The good news is, there’s plenty you can do to avert disaster and keep your body on the healthy straight-and-narrow. All it takes is some foresight and a bit of willingness. Here are the things you can do now to ward off injuries tomorrow.

1. Minimize training errors.

Has your workout changed lately, or have you been doing the same routine you’ve done for decades? To stay as healthy and injury-free as possible, experts recommend getting periodic fitness assessments from a doctor, physical therapist or physical trainer. Even if you aren’t experiencing any pain or problems, experienced physical trainers will be able to spot training errors, muscle imbalances or problems with form that may lead to trouble down the road. “More people should take advantage of us,” says Jim Carver, personal training manager at Minneapolis Life Time Athletic Club. “If you come across some exercise or approach you want to try, go to a trainer and ask his or her opinion first. Get some pointers or ask them to watch you do it.”

2. Work with good gear.

Dr. Peter Hanson, a sports medicine physician at Shoulder and Sports Medicine in Minneapolis, suggests getting expert help with your equipment. “Instead of grabbing a new bike off the sales floor at a mega-store, go to a bike specialty store, and ask them to help do a bike ‘fit’ for you,” he advises. “And get advice about running shoes from a running specialty store. Employees at a specialty store will know more about how to fit your feet, what kinds of shoes suit your stride and how often you should replace them.”

3. Don’t ignore pain.

Doctors and trainers frequently cite cases where patients mistakenly waited until a stress fracture turned into a broken hip or tibia. If you’re not sure whom to consult, ask around at the gym. Once you’re in a doctor’s office, Feldman says, ask questions about education and training, and ask for patient references.

4. Take a holistic approach.

Your fitness plan should include the conditioning you need for overall health as well as for individual sports. A good conditioning program will encompass all the elements (e.g., form, strength, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility) that your body requires to perform smoothly. This goes for everyday activities as well as sports.

Sitting all day long at your job, for instance, is hard on your muscles and bones, so you need to know how to decompress your spine and strengthen abs (which are holding you up) as well as how to strengthen and stretch your legs, arms, shoulders and neck (which can get cramped, atrophied or misaligned).

Take a cue from yoga, a lifelong regimen practiced by thousands of people to simultaneously build full-body strength, flexibility and alignment as well as peace of mind.

5. Stretch!

We all think we’re doing it, and doing it right. Think again.

Check your routine with a trainer at the gym or with a sports-medicine or physical-therapy book. Chances are you’re skipping major muscle groups that you didn’t know you needed to train. If you’re a runner, for instance, you may not know that you should be stretching out the lat muscles of your upper back. And some experts say if you’re not taking at least 20 to 40 minutes to stretch before and after strenuous exercise, you’re hastening your demise.

That’s right – 20 to 40 minutes, twice. You’re probably balking (or laughing), but experts like Feldman insist it’s the surest way to a long, active life. Just look at Kareem Abdul Jabbar, he says. The legendary basketball star attributed his longevity in the sport to his faithful stretching routine.

If you know there is no way you are going to find 20 to 40 minutes pre- and postexercise, do at least a basic warmup before and some basic stretches after each workout. And do them slowly (hold each stretch for at least 20 seconds, no bouncing!). Then include one yoga class or flexibility-focused workout in your regimen at least once a week to compensate.

6. Support your body nutritionally.

Getting all the necessary vitamins, minerals, proteins and essential fatty acids keeps your body strong (so you resist injury) and helps it heal and rebuild itself more effectively (should you sustain an injury). If you are over 30 and experience an over-use injury, consider taking a daily amount of joint-strengthening formulation containing glucosamine and chondroitin. The synergistic effect of this combination aids in repairing cartilage and lubricating joints, reduces swelling and inflammation, increases mobility and helps minimize pain related to overuse injuries.

7. Neutralize injury.

No matter how careful you are, injury may strike anyhow. A slip on an icy patch, a collision with a stray ball, a freak accident – they happen. To minimize downtime and complications, seek medical help to rule out breaks or other injuries requiring intervention. Working with a chiropractor or acupuncturist may offer pain relief and aid healing. A professional can also advise you about how and when to begin rehabilitative training, as well as when (and if) you should get back to your normal routine.

8. Get Smart.

Check out a good book or Web site on sports injuries to help you learn basic avoidance and rehabilitation techniques.

This article originally appeared as “A World of Hurt” in the March/April 2002 issue of Experience Life.

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