At first glance, the idea of injury prevention can be challenging to conceive, especially for athletes who battle frequent injury. Instead of teeter-tottering between building performance potential and backsliding into a recurring injury, your athletes can and should establish a concrete foundation to prevent injury before it starts.
Determine the barriers your athlete has within their sport (ie: poor swim or run mechanics), weaknesses, mobility restraints, or tissue dysfunction. If the athlete frequently suffers from injuries, it’s essential to have a professional, such as a physical therapist, assess their condition prior to beginning a training program.
Poor mechanics and mobility can be caused by a multitude of factors such as joint stiffness, tissue length, tissue mobility, or poor body awareness at a neuromuscular level (proprioception). A professional eye can assist in determining the cause of performance restraints which oftentimes leads to injury.
As the coach, this assessment should guide your judgment and help you prescribe the appropriate type of exercise.
Build a Solid Foundation
One of the biggest causes of injury is an imbalance between the muscles that move the body and the muscles that stabilize the body. As coaches and athletes, we spend a lot of time working on the demands of our sport. Time in the weight room with specific goals should not be disregarded. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how strong the athlete is if their body is not stable.
When discussing stability, the topic of conversation turns to the core, and for good reason. It’s important to note that core stability is not a simple function of strength, but rather timing. The core works to stabilize the body milliseconds before movement occurs. Let’s take running for example. Stance time in running is very short (0.12-0.25 seconds) and the body needs to be stabilized before the foot even hits the ground. As a result, if the athlete takes the time to focus on core stability, they will improve not only their running economy but also the way their entire body fluidly absorbs the movement, leading to a lower likelihood of irregular shock absorption and consequential injury.
Move Smarter, Then Move Stronger
As mentioned above, we must be able to control our bodies. Teaching the athlete how to use their muscles for “go,” rather than “show,” will help to stabilize the body. For example, if the athlete can’t achieve proper spine and core control, the hips and pelvis will always be unstable.
The best muscle to educate yourself on, as a coach, is the transverse abdominis. This muscle works deep within the core as a feedforward mechanism, meaning it activates milliseconds before any actual movement. So, just by thinking about movement, this muscle acts to stabilize the body.
When it comes to core work, movements need to be dynamic. Our sport is very dynamic, so our exercises need to match that. Enhancing early activation of the core will improve muscle coordination and sport-specific movement skills. Once your athlete is stable, then they can become strong and powerful.
Apply Appropriate Exercise Dosage
If your athlete is feeling a niggle or excessive fatigue, don’t be afraid to rework the training week. Changing around an athlete’s workload can reduce the risk of injury while improving workout quality. This doesn’t have to mean reducing volume or intensity, try just rearranging things to give the athlete a bit more relief at different times. I recommend moving around concentrated intensity and shifting hard days.
Let’s take a triathlete for example. Their schedule calls for running and biking on Tuesday and Thursday and swimming Monday, Wednesday, and Friday throughout the workweek. If the Tuesday run didn’t go well due to the athlete experiencing knee pain, then instead of running on Thursday, give the athlete an extra day off of running and run Friday instead. If you’re hesitant about the athlete running the full duration of the Friday run, shorten the session by one third and either add a short run on Saturday or add the missed duration to the Sunday long run.
There are plenty of creative ways to mitigate training load throughout the week so the athlete can stay injury-free and prioritize de-loading the body when needed.
Know When to Ask for Help
A simple rule of thumb to follow is what I call the 24/48 rule. If an athlete is experiencing a non-sinister pain that doesn’t require immediate care, reduce training stress for the first 24 hours, adapt the training plan, and remain in communication with the individual. If their pain lasts greater than 48 hours, refer them to the appropriate medical professional.
Knowing how the medical system works in regards to accessing your sports specialist is important. Many states offer Direct Access to physical therapy, meaning the athlete can access their PT without a script from the doctor. This will allow the patient to bypass expensive and time-intensive obstacles prior to seeing their physical therapist.
I hope these guidelines help you maintain injury-free athletes. Be confident in your approach to modify training, know when to ask for help, and create a healthy foundation for a season of training and racing.