Although all athletic activities carry some risk of injury, spring sports seem to be particularly problematic with respect to injury potential. This is partly due to the abrupt action components of the most popular spring sports, and partly due to insufficient levels of physical conditioning.
Abrupt Action Components
The three most popular spring sports are golf, softball and tennis, all of which require abrupt action components rather than more consistent playing effort. For example, almost all of the time spent completing 18 holes of golf is relatively low on the physical exertion scale. However, the periodic golf drives involve an explosive swinging action that places considerable stress on the musculoskeletal system.
Softball is similar in the swinging aspect, but offers a complicating factor with an all-out sprint to first base following a hit. This cold-to-hot running action has been responsible for numerous hamstring pulls and other muscle-tendon injuries.
Other than the pitcher and catcher, playing the field is about the same as batting from an activity perspective. You may spend several minutes standing still, then suddenly you move as quickly as possible to the ball and throw it as hard as possible to the appropriate base player. The abruptness of these high-effort movements increases the risk of injury.
Tennis is a more active sport, with a large percentage of movement time. However, the game of tennis is characterized by stop-and-go activity, with abrupt forward, backward, and lateral movements requiring high acceleration and deceleration forces. These often repeated actions can overstress the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the lower body, and the frequent swinging and serving movements can cause considerable trauma to upper body joint structures such as the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Understanding that these spring sports require abrupt muscle actions should underscore the importance of keeping warm, staying loose, and stretching before every golf drive or batting experience. Be sure to dress warmly, preferably in layers that can be easily removed at appropriate times. It is also advisable to keep moving, such as walking instead of using golf carts, and shifting your weight from foot to foot when playing the field in softball. Prior to driving or batting, spend at least one minute stretching the trunk and shoulders and taking progressively harder practice swings. Softball players should also warm-up and stretch their leg muscles in anticipation of running to first base or farther.
Physical Conditioning Components
One of the risk-factors associated with spring sports is the fact that they follow the typically less active winter season. Although some fitness enthusiasts do exercise throughout the winter months, the conditioning activity may not be appropriate for their spring sport selection. For example, treadmill walking/jogging and stationary cycling are excellent exercises for conditioning the cardiovascular system, but they have little application to swinging a club or bat, sprinting bases, or accelerating and decelerating abruptly on a tennis court. While cardiovascular conditioning is strongly encouraged from a health perspective, an effective spring sport preparation program should emphasize strengthening and stretching exercises for an injury resistant musculoskeletal system.
Recommended Strength Training Program
Although it is tempting to target specific muscles, an overall muscle strengthening approach is far more advisable. Comprehensive muscle conditioning reduces the risk of overuse and imbalance injuries, and enhances performance potential more than doing a few selected exercises. For example, our golf conditioning program includes strength exercises for the front thigh, rear thigh, inner thigh, outer thigh, low back, abdominals, chest, upper back, shoulders, front arm, rear arm, forearms and neck. Over the past three years, our golfers significantly increased their driving power, and experienced no injuries during the golf season following their strength training program.
Because one set of each exercise stimulates a positive and productive muscle response, single-set strength training is an efficient and effective means for improving musculoskeletal fitness.
You should use a weightload that can be lifted between 8 and 12 repetitions in proper form. This corresponds to approximately 75 percent of the maximum weightload you could use, and represents a safe and sensible training resistance. To ensure progressive strength improvement, you should increase the weightload by about 5 percent whenever 12 good repetitions can be completed.
Although your swinging actions are fast, your strength exercises should be performed at a slow and controlled movement speed. Moving relatively heavy weights quickly involves a lot of inertia and momentum that can easily overstress your muscles and joint structures. For most practical purposes, each repetition should be performed in about 6 seconds, taking 2 seconds for the lifting phase and 4 seconds for the lowering phase. It is also advisable to exhale during the lifting phase and to inhale during the lowering phase of each repetition.
Because full range strength is essential for safe and successful sports performance, try to perform each exercise through the full range of joint movement. That is, do your best to move carefully through the positions of joint flexion and joint extension. However, do not move into positions that cause discomfort in or around your joints.
Training 2 or 3 days per week should produce excellent results, so long as you follow the recommended training principles and procedures. Generally speaking, about 8 weeks of regular strength training is desirable prior to initiating your spring sports participation.
Recommended Stretching Exercise Program
Stretching is probably more art than science, and basically involves a gentle movement that extends the target muscle until it is taut, but not traumatized. That is, stretches should be kept within the comfort zone and never pushed to the point of pain. The recommended procedure for enhancing joint flexibility is to move slowly into the stretched position and then pause for about 10-30 seconds. As the target muscles relax and lengthen, you may stretch a little farther and again hold the final position for about 10-30 seconds.
Stretches for golf, softball, and tennis should target the hip and shoulder muscles. Of course, to be most practical, the recommended stretches should permit performance while playing the activity. For example, the Leg-Up Hamstring Stretch can be done almost anywhere. Simply place the heel of your left leg on a bench, bleacher or golf cart and reach your left hand forward toward your left ankle. Hold a comfortably stretched position for 10-30 seconds, and repeat this procedure with your right leg.
Shoulder stretches may be varied according to your creativity. However, a good starting point is the Overhead Shoulder Stretch. Begin by placing both arms directly above your head and clasping your hands loosely. Use your left arm to pull your right arm overhead to your left and hold the stretched position for 10-30 seconds.
Trunk circles are always appropriate as long as they are performed in a very slow and controlled manner. Place your hands on your hips and bend gently to your left, rear, right and front, pausing for several seconds in each position. After completing the circle, repeat this procedure in the reverse direction.
By preparing your musculoskeletal system prior to the spring sports season, and by staying loose during your activity sessions, you should experience both a lower risk of injury and a high level of athletic performance.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is editorial advisor for many publications, including Shape Magazine, Prevention Magazine, Club Industry Magazine, and Men’s Health Magazine, and author of several fitness books including the new releases, Building Strength and Stamina, and Strength Training Past 50. Dr. Westcott was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from IDEA, and the Healthy American Fitness Leader Award from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.