Enjoying spring weather after sitting on the couch all winter could lead to injuries. Get the insider's 411 on how to be a weekend warrior injury free. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Enjoying spring weather after sitting on the couch all winter could lead to injuries. Get the insider’s 411 on how to be a weekend warrior injury free. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

As the weather warms and ball fields beckon, weekend athletes emerge from winter cocoons to run and play.

And sometimes stumble.

Quicker than you can say “shin splints,” an injury can send a returning athlete back to couch-potato status.

It doesn’t have to be that way, say sports medicine experts.

Just knowing that you need a little prep time before you spike a volleyball or slog through a mud run can make all the difference.

“A lot of times, we see people take the winter off,” said Kim DeLaFuente, ACSM-CPD, a community exercise educator with Spectrum Health Healthier Communities. “There’s going to be a fair amount of deconditioning that takes place over that period of time.”

And those weakened muscles raise the risk of injury, said Phillip Adler, ATC, manager of the Spectrum Health Medical Group Sports Medicine team.

Middle-aged athletes—40 and older―are most at risk of a tear or sprain, he said. Muscles become less hydrated and less flexible over time―and less able to go from zero to 60 without a hitch.

But it takes the mind a while to catch on.

“We haven’t given up our youth and we haven’t realized we have actually aged,” Adler said.

He listed some of the most common injuries of weekend athletes:

  • Achilles tendon rupture
  • Tennis elbow
  • Plantar fasciitis (pain in the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot)
  • Ankle sprain
  • Shin splints
  • Rotator cuff tear
  • Low back pain

Ouch.

Before you reach for the TV remote, know this: Just because you took the winter off, that doesn’t mean you might as well sit out the summer, say the exercise advocates. And just because you sat in front of a computer all week, you don’t have to continue that pattern on the weekend.

Research shows health benefits even for weekend warriors. A 2004 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found athletes with no major risk factors reduced their death rates with just one to two workout sessions a week.

“I think that’s a really positive message,” DeLaFuente said. It means that even if you don’t manage to work out most days of the week, as recommended, you can still reap benefits from weekend fun.

Movement is crucial. And Americans simply suffer from a lack of it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes of exercise a week. That’s 2.5 hours―out of a 168-hour week. But only 20 percent of Americans reach that mark.

In 30 years as an exercise coach and advocate, DeLaFuente sees a growing need for scheduled workout times. As technology turns more tasks into sedentary ones, an active lifestyle “truly is becoming optional. We have to become more intentional about moving,” she said.

How to do that without injury? Ease in, rather than jump in, advise Adler and DeLaFuente.

They offered eight suggestions:

1. Test out your abilities before tackling a big athletic hurdle

Get back into running with a couch-to-5K program. Before you play the first softball game of the season, walk around the block twice and see if you’re winded.

2. Stretch

Do yoga or Pilates (preferably throughout the winter). The muscles and ligaments that run from the foot to the back all are connected―and prone to injury if they are tight. If they don’t stretch, runners can pop a hamstring or heel cord.

3. Focus exercises on the part of the body that will be most in demand

If you golf or play tennis or baseball, work on the shoulder and back muscles needed to swing and throw. If you plan a mud run or obstacle course, consider what muscles need to get in shape to make that happen.

4. Work on the core

“It’s not fun to do these balance exercises and these little exercises that challenge your core and tighten your stomach,” Adler acknowledged. But a strong core makes it easier to train the rest of the muscles. Core-strengthening exercises should be a daily habit, like brushing your teeth.

5. Do strength training

That can involve weight lifting or body resistance exercises. But it does not have to be intimidating, DeLaFuente said. “Simple things like climbing stairs will increase leg strength.”

6. Take a look at your footwear

How many miles do you have on those running shoes? It may be time for a new pair.

7. Seek out help

Consult a certified personal trainer, join a class or look into instructional videos.

8. Go slow

Get moving. And focus on the upside. Regular physical activity can help keep weight in check, lower risk for heart disease and diabetes, improve your ability to do and enjoy daily tasks and lead to a longer life.

“The more sedentary we are, there is going to be more risk for injuries,” DeLaFuente said. “But there also are more opportunities for gains.”