Tips to Safely Return to Sports Following COVID-19
As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, many of us are excited to return to the activities and sports we love! But before we jump right back into these activities, it is important to understand that performing these activities in the same manner as we did over 5 months ago comes with serious risks and a high likelihood of injury. To minimize this risk of injury we have outlined some tips to help you return safely to all the activities you enjoy after this lengthy break away from your sport.
What Happens to Your Body When You Are Not Active?
Believe it or not our bodies love exercise, movement and strength work! This is how all of our tissues, bones and organs stay healthy and regenerate. Without the stress that exercise produces in these tissues they can become weak and tight. A sudden increase in activity can lead to potential injuries such as tendinopathies, joint sprains, muscle strains or excessive soreness, and even stress fractures.
As physiotherapists, we are well aware of the risks that a deconditioned body faces on returning to activity and so we have put together our top 4 tips to ensure that you return safely to your favorite sports!
1. Ensure Your Muscles Are Flexible Before Beginning
This prolonged period of decreased activity leads to muscles that are stiff and tight and can hinder performance. If not addressed prior to returning, this poor flexibility could also inevitably lead to muscle strains or other injuries. This increased time spent sitting around at home creates increased tightness in the hip flexors, long thigh muscle, hamstrings and calves. It is important to ensure that you have restored the normal length of these muscles before returning to any activities that involve running, jumping or ballistic-type movements. Below we have outlined some stretches to address each of these areas. Each stretch should be held gently for 30-60 seconds and repeated 2-3 times.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Before your session a dynamic warm-up which includes slowly increasing heart rate, light stretching, foot work and muscle activation will further decrease your chances of injury. Warm-up programs such as the Fifa-11 have been proven to help prevent injuries in various athlete populations. Try integrating a program such as this into the beginning of your next session.
2. Control the Frequency, Intensity and Length of Your Activity
Going back to your sport at the same level that you left off many months ago is a sure-fire way to injure yourself! Before returning to activity, it is important to create a training plan that allows you to ease back into your sport and the stress that it puts on your body. Some factors that you should consider when creating a training plan are: the frequency of training, the intensity of training, and the length of activity.
When first going out, a couple of lighter sessions will allow your body to adapt to these forces again as well as determine how fit you are. Ensure that you are giving yourself at least 1-2 days between these sessions and that you are slowly building the length of each session. If the intensity of the session increases too quickly and not enough rest is given between sessions, the likelihood of injury on subsequent sessions does increase.
If you are still experiencing muscle soreness, it is probably a wise idea to avoid hard activities that day and instead choose some lower intensity or flexibility-based activities. This could include cycling and a light yoga session to help reduce this stiffness.
Ways to monitor intensity or work in a session include:
Heart rate monitoring
Number of steps taken
Number of tackles in a session (for contact sport)
As your fitness and strength improve, it is important to create a variety in your sessions to always keep your muscles adapting to new forces. This can be a challenging balance to achieve therefore, you should check in with your physiotherapist so they can help you design a plan that is appropriate for you!
3. Let Your Muscles and Body Recover Sufficiently
After a workout it is very important to allow your muscles the rest they need to recover and regenerate. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common occurrence when returning or increasing load on these tissues. Some key factors that can speed recovery include:
Structured rest days
Always being well hydrated
Gentle stretching or light activity
Always listen to your body. General soreness is normal with returning to or increasing your activity but if one area in your body continues to be sore this could be a warning sign of injury. This could warrant an assessment by your physiotherapist to identify the root cause and adapt your program to help you continue to keep moving.
4. Train with Proper Technique and Form
As we’ve highlighted, this prolonged period of inactivity leads to muscle tightness and weakness and this will definitely affect your technique in performing athletic movements. We need these muscles strong and flexible to stabilize our joints during ballistic or compressive type movements such as throwing, running or weight lifting. When these muscles aren’t ready for these types of forces, our body will attempt to compensate for this by overloading other muscles, joints and ligaments, inevitably leading to injury.
An example of this could be a weight-lifter trying to perform a squat with the weight they previously squatted prior to this prolonged break. If their glutes, quads and core are not as strong as they were before, this individual will likely compensate their technique and overload their lower back.
Keeping this in mind, it is critical that you ensure that you are using proper form for your sport on returning. This may mean adapting your running speed, lowering your weight or slowing specific movements. If you do not have a mirror available then even setting up a phone camera can allow you to video your movement during certain movements or drills to ensure that your technique and form look correct. To minimize injury, it is very important to progress these drills so that optimal technique is always performed and muscles are allowed to slowly strengthen.
If you are looking for a tailored plan specifically designed for you and your return to sport, the physiotherapists at Royal City Physio can help you. We will help you minimize any chance of injury on your return to sport or in taking up a new sport. We will do a thorough evaluation, understand your goals and history and design a plan to help you on your way to getting back safely to all the activities you love!
Karen Nichol, founder of Royal City Physio, graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Science in Physiotherapy. She is currently the head physiotherapist for Coquitlam Adanac Sr A's and head physiotherapist for the Police Academy at The Justice Institute of B.C. She is also a member of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, and the Physiotherapy Association of B.C. Book with Karen today.