With the warmer weather, we are tempted to jump back into summer ball sports – basketball, soccer, softball etc. It's great to get back outside, but too often we dive in with inappropriate vigour and intensity. We dangerously base what we expect of our bodies on an outdated – or even superhuman – image of ourselves.
Picture a softball player who hasn't stretched all year (or in decades). He lunges for a ball and – unsurprisingly – strains his groin. Or a soccer player who rolls her ankle by overzealously weaving through oncoming players.
If a sport's required athleticism is greater than your body's current capacity, playing it will make you feel at best demoralized and unfit, and at worst will result in injury.
The solution? Create an appropriate training regimen. Take into account your fitness and injury history, your current capacity, your goals and the demands of the sport. As I tell my clients, "Get in shape to play your sport; don't play your sport to get in shape."
Creating an appropriate training regimen
1. Progress gradually.
The body adapts to specific stimuli. Even if you exercise at the gym all winter, you are not necessarily "sport ready." Gym machines including the bike and elliptical strengthen the cardiovascular system but do not prepare the body to jump, weave, lunge and throw.
Ease back into your sport gradually. Practise skills and drills before playing a full game; it is harder to curb intensity and duration during a game. Make your first few games pick-up, fairly relaxed and short. Gradually increase the competitiveness, frequency, intensity and duration of games.
2. Train weak links.
If you haven't been training regularly, your weak links are probably not currently evident, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Unless you are the rare individual who spends their off-season getting stronger, your weaknesses will reappear as you increase your training.
A weak link will at best decrease your athletic performance, and at worst it will contribute to an injury.
Whatever your specific weakness is, train it.
For example, to support your knees – a typical weak link in ball sports such as basketball and soccer – strengthen your glutes with multijoint strength exercises such as squats and lunges, and single-leg exercises such as the step-up or single-leg hinge.
Single-leg hinge: Stand on your right leg with your left toes behind you only lightly touching the floor. Hinge at your hips, chest out and back flat. Don't round or arch your back. Your right knee should not cave in. Use your right bum muscles to hinge yourself back up. To make it harder, lift the left leg. Switch sides.
3. Think "nervous system," not muscles.
Get "sport ready" by training the nervous system; work to improve motions and movement patterns rather than muscles. For example, include a forward lunge to prepare you to catch a baseball rather than thinking of the lunge as a "leg" exercise.
Also, consciously include exercises that improve proprioception. Proprioception is the neurological feedback loop between the body and brain. It allows your brain to know where you are in space and then react appropriately. Ball sports require a high level of agility, co-ordination and balance – all of which require proprioception.
To improve proprioception, prioritize exercises that challenge balance or that require reaction.
To target balance, try exercises balancing on unstable surfaces – think squats with both feet on the Bosu or a lunge with the back foot on a stability ball.
You can make any traditional strength exercise (e.g., squat, lunge, V sit) a reaction drill by adding an auditory cue or a medicine-ball pass.
Try reaction squats. When you hear an auditory cue drop down quickly – athletically – into a squat. Engage your bum and core to stand up and repeat. With a partner, react to their voice. Solo, set your phone alarm to go off every few seconds and react to the beeps. If you have a training partner, add a ball toss.
4. Don't overtrain; prioritize recovery.
Be mindful that every sport puts specific stresses on the body. Include appropriate recovery. Schedule days off – not just from actual games, but from the movement patterns and specific stressors needed for the sport. For example, many athletes attempt to improve their jump with plyometrics (jump training). Plyometrics are absolutely beneficial when used in appropriate doses, but jumping is hard on the body. Schedule a few low-impact workouts a week – possibly water running or Pilates.
Other ways to prioritize recovery include stretching, using the foam roller, staying hydrated, eating well, getting regular massages if possible and always considering variables such as biological age and injury history. As you age – especially if you have a history of injury – your body will likely require more recovery and longer warm-ups and cool-downs.
Be smart. Space out your games, warm up, recover well, strength train and train your weak links.