Protect yourself from injury when playing sports


In this article:

  • If you’ve taken a break from sports, you need to prepare your body to avoid injury when you get back in the game.

  • Data show that less training time and shorter seasons result in increased player injury.

  • Check out some general guidelines for safe training so you can play again with confidence.

Playing sports can be a great source of joy no matter your age. Sports keep your body active and healthy, and they also help relieve stress and give you a sense of community with your friends and teammates, or at local races and events. But as with any physical activity, there is some level of risk involved – especially if it’s been a while since you’ve been active. That’s why medical professionals and personal trainers recommend training before you begin a new sport or after an absence from an old favorite. If you jump into the game cold turkey, you leave yourself more open to injury.

General guidelines for physical activity

Regular exercise helps prevent chronic illness and improve overall health and wellbeing. Yet only half of American adults get the amount and intensity of activity they need each week.

Wondering how much activity you need? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following recommendations:

  • Children from elementary through high school age should get 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day. Three days a week, these activities should include an intense activitity like running, and muscle- and bone-strengthening activities like pushups, planks, and jumping rope.
  • Adults aged 18 to 65 should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, along with two days of muscle-strengthening activities.
  • For adults over 65, the recommendation is the same as for younger adults, with the addition of regular, simple activities to improve balance.
  • For those adults with chronic conditions and disabilities, the recommendation is 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic physical activity and two days of muscle-strengthening activities covering all major muscle groups.

Challenges with gaps in training

During the pandemic, many people altered their exercise habits – some began vigorously working out to relieve stress while others hit a slump and were challenged to meet fitness goals with either sports or solo workouts. COVID-19 forced everyone from kids and college students to adult rec league players and professional athletes to alter practice schedules and games. These breaks created uncertainty and changes in normal preseason preparation before organized sports competitions began. These factors may have contributed to higher rates of injury in athletes as sports resumed their preseasons and regular seasons.

Data from Providence’s data review of high school athletes during the pandemic

Providence decided to take a closer look at the real-world effects of these changes during the pandemic. Within the greater Portland, Oregon area, Providence evaluated how high school athletes at 22 different schools were affected by shortened sports seasons and preseasons. The data review began in March 2021 and looked at the spring season, which was compressed into only seven weeks instead of the typical 14 weeks (a 12-week season plus preseason time), with more competitions scheduled in that amount of time. Providence tracked injuries and treatments with information from school-based athletic trainers at these mostly public high schools. The reviewers found that, compared to a regular, 12-week season with some preseason training, these athletes experienced increased numbers of injuries (1,588 injuries), including fractures, dislocations, and concussions. That number included:

  • A 37% increase in the number of fractures
  • A 10% increase in the number of dislocations
  • A 53% increase in the number of concussions

A variety of factors were noted as possible contributors to the increased injury rate:

  • The lack of organized sports during the pandemic
  • Decreased opportunities for training
  • Decreased or no access to activities and circumstances that promote general health and wellbeing
  • Decreased ‘preseason’ time before first competitions

Ways to return to your sport safely

If you’re ready to return to your sport or take up a new one, here’s how to safely prepare to get back out there:

  • Strength train and cardio train to build muscle mass and stamina. Both of these things will help you play well and prevent injury. Just remember not to go too hard, too fast. For example, take your time increasing the amount of weight you lift or the number of sprints you run. Set realistic goals for when to step it up.
  • Try yoga or Pilates to improve your flexibility. A flexible body moves more easily and is less prone to getting hurt during the demands of a game.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of water, and sleep well. It may seem like common sense, but often people don’t eat, drink and sleep well enough to take proper care of their bodies while they train. Make all three a priority.
  • Check your gear and your form. Make sure all of your athletic gear fits you correctly, and have a coach or trainer review your form if possible. Lots of overuse (also known as repetitive strain) injuries are caused by gear that doesn’t fit quite right or a move that’s not done properly.
  • Cross-train by trying a different sport than the one you’re returning to. This can improve your balance and general ability because it allows your body to focus on building up different muscle groups than those you use in your primary sport.
  • For children, teens, and college students, consider a sports camp. Any good sports camp will have qualified coaches and trainers who can help ensure that student-athletes return to their sport slowly and safely, helping them avoid injury in the short- and long-term.
  • If you think you may have an overuse injury, check in with your doctor as soon as possible. It’s easier to correct an injury if you catch it early and don’t continue to train or play on it.

Find a doctor

If you need advice on how to begin or continue training for your sport, talk to your doctor. You can find a Providence primary care doctor using our provider directory or a specialist through the Providence Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute.

Download the Providence App

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Related resources

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.


About the Author

We know bones and skeletal frameworks like the back of our hand! The Providence Orthopedics Team is dedicated to providing you clinical advice and insights to help you take care of your bones and joints. Whether it's sports and exercise, diet and nutrition or post-operation topics, we are here to help you understand how to take care of your precious bones.

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