Planning to run the Seattle Marathon on Nov. 26, but your longest run still has not cracked the double-digit mile mark? Want to join an...

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Planning to run the Seattle Marathon on Nov. 26, but your longest run still has not cracked the double-digit mile mark?

Want to join an adult soccer league even though most of your exercise comes from scooting around in the office coaster chair?

Think it would be fun to play dodge ball for the first time since, well, the third grade?

Warning: You may be risking shin splints, tendinitis, stress fracture or worse.

Even if you are fit, making sudden, unaccustomed demands on your body is as unwise as sliding head-first into home plate — it is needlessly dangerous. Too many recreational athletes fail to prepare their bodies for their chosen sport, making themselves vulnerable to overuse injuries.

“If you are 30 years old and you throw overhead in a basketball game for two hours, the rotator cuff is seeing a strain it hasn’t seen since Ronald Reagan was president,” said Dr. John O’Kane, team physician for the University of Washington Huskies.

Conditioning — exercises that build muscle tolerance for specific stress and loads — is crucial for preventing injuries. Every sport, whether bowling or touch football, makes particular demands on the body. Conditioning allows the body to acclimate itself to the tasks by gradually mimicking the sports’ actual motions, said O’Kane, associate professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at UW.

If you get hurt …

Stop playing immediately. Warning signs of injury include excessive muscle fatigue and a deep tingling sensation or throbbing in one area. If the pain does not go away with rest, self treatment may be required. For mild sprains, strains and other minor injuries: Try R.I.C.E.:

• Rest the injured joint or muscle, for weeks or months if necessary. You can do other activities during recovery, such as walking if you hurt your elbow.

• Ice the injured part to reduce pain and swelling for 10-20 minutes several times a day for two or three days after the injury. Do not apply heat (including hot baths) during the first 72 hours.

• Compress the affected area with tape or bandage to prevent fluid accumulation.

• Elevate the injured site above your heart to reduce swelling.

Take nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. Do not take the medication for more than 10 days without physician’s advice.

Start moving once the pain and swelling subside. Gently regaining your range of motion will help prevent scar tissue from forming. You can try stretching after a couple of days’ rest.

Cross-train your recovery with exercises that focus on a noninjured part of the body. For instance, you can swim after an ankle injury.

Get medical help if …


Pain, numbness or disability is severe.

Injury involves the eye.

You can’t move.

Minor injury persists after three weeks of home care.

You have an infection, pus, red streaks or swollen nodes or fever.

Injury is marked by bleeding, immediate swelling or bruising.

Legs, fingers or other extremities look shorter than normal or are in an unnatural position.

Bone is exposed.

The last three symptoms could indicate a fracture. Immobilize the body part by splinting it with a stiff object or by taping it to another part of the body (e.g. one toe to another toe). Then see a doctor.

— Swedish Medical Center

“The Mariners don’t show up on the first day of the season and just start throwing at 90 miles an hour,” he said. “They go to spring training.”

Hazards of rec jocks

Staying physically active undisputedly lowers your chances of developing certain diseases and dying prematurely. But playing recreational sports, particularly competitive team sports such as basketball, also carries risks of injury.

Jennifer Lesko, director of Therapeutic Associates — Queen Anne Physical Therapy, said “quite a few” of her patients are otherwise fit and healthy people who injure themselves playing sports after work or on the weekends. She said people mistakenly use regular gym workouts as all-purpose training for their sports, regardless of whether they involve kicking, throwing or hitting.

So a player who hasn’t done a single rotational movement exercise and then pitches six innings in a softball game is an injury waiting to happen.

“It’s not that they’re weak. It’s just that those specific muscles are weak,” Lesko said.

A German study published this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that out of 7,124 adult Germans who regularly played recreational sports, 5.6 percent got hurt seriously enough during the previous year to require medical attention.

In 1993, researchers at the Center for Sports Medicine at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco tracked 986 volunteers for three months in one of the more comprehensive studies to consistently compare the injury rate of various fitness activities. Close to half of the participants, or 475 people, reported an injury, ranging from “ache-pain” that did not hinder play to contusions and fractures. Team sports had the highest injury rates; running was close behind. Walking and riding stationary bikes were the safest activities.

Another study in 2001 looked back at 1986 survey responses from 5,000 Dallas men and women and found that 16 percent of the men and 14 percent of the women had suffered a sports-related injury during the year prior to the survey. An injury was defined as any self-reported injury involving the muscle, tendon, bone, ligament or joint.

The most common injury sites were the ankle, knee, back and arm. The fittest and most active people suffered up to four times as many musculoskeletal injuries as more sedentary and less-fit people. The researchers theorized that the former group was at greater risk because they played longer, harder and more frequently. The study appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Sport-specific conditioning

Game plan for injury-free playing


Accidents happen, but you can take precautions to minimize your chances of getting hurt.

Basketball

• Wear medium-top shoes designed for basketball.

• When landing after jumping, bend the knees to absorb the impact.

• Take three steps to stop gradually instead of making abrupt, one-step stops.

Tennis

• Avoid landing on the ball of your foot.

• Wear two pairs of socks to absorb the shock.

• Start a backhand swing from the shoulders

• When serving, bend your knees and raise your heels, distributing your weight evenly over your heels.

Bicycling

• Ride in an upright position whenever possible.

• Change positions on the handlebar frequently.

• Use toe clips or clipless pedals to ensure proper foot position.

Source: Swedish Medical Center

Even favorites such as dodge ball and kickball, which can seem deceptively safe, can cause trouble for the unconditioned. Just ask Noelle Smithhart.

Smithhart, 26, played kickball for three seasons in the Underdog Sports Leagues, a Seattle company that attracts people interested more in recreational fun than in athletic feats. She did almost no exercises to prepare for kickball, which requires punctuating long stretches of idle standing with bursts of sprinting. Her sole exceptions were occasional yoga and stationary stretching just before games.

The point of playing kickball “is just like it was in elementary school, running around and having fun,” said Smithhart, a real-estate marketer. “Kickball is the exercise.”

But during her first chilly evening game, Smithhart pulled a hamstring. Then she injured it again at another kickball game.

Smithhart ideally should have begun conditioning exercises for kickball two or three months before the season began, said Dr. Ben Kibler, medical director for Lexington Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Lexington, Ky. Kibler has done studies on how sport-specific conditioning can help improve games and reduce chances of injury.

Kickball requires flexibility, quickness and agility. Doing 10-yard sprints would be a good way to prepare for kickball’s stop-and-start style, Kibler said. Kicking sports also demand a balance between the front and back muscles in the legs, as opposed to muscle balance between left and right legs as in running, he said.

O’Kane of UW said poor muscle coordination makes you more prone to injury. For a throwing sport such as baseball or basketball, O’Kane recommends targeting the muscles that control the shoulder blades and the rotator cuff (muscles and tendons that form a “cuff” over the shoulder) for two or three months beforehand. Pairing push-ups and lateral pull-downs would be one example. Follow the exercises for two or three weeks, then start making easy throws and increase the intensity over six weeks. After that, you’d be ready to play.

The key to conditioning is to give your body time to adapt to the stresses it will face in actual sports. O’Kane said that when muscles are pushed beyond their capability, it can lead to overuse injuries resulting in microscopic tears. Inflammation then accompanies the microtears, a condition known as tendinitis.

Getting fit to stay fit

Joel Jamieson, founder and director of EndZone Athletics, a Kirkland club that offers sport-specific conditioning programs, recommends that players spend at least 30 minutes three times a week on pre-sport conditioning exercises. In addition, people should do regular cardio activities such as running to stay in shape, he said.

Training aid on the Web


Rutgers University Comprehensive site offers workout schedules for various sports; www.scarletknights.com/ strength/.

Boston Marathon training program www.bostonmarathon.org; top right, under “extras,” select “Marathon Training.”

Lexington Clinic Sports Medicine Center Illustrated exercises for flexibility, agility and strength; www.lcsportsmed.com

Special Olympics Detailed advice on developing muscle strength by body location, such as arms and shoulders and back and abdomen. For all athletes. www.specialolympics.org.

For overall muscle strength, Jamieson emphasizes free weights or body-weight exercises such as pull-ups. Weight machines are not ideal, because they prevent you from having to stabilize or coordinate your movements, he said.

“In sports, you’re moving in three dimensions,” Jamieson said. Machines “lock you into a specific range of motion.”

Jamieson suggests limiting weight machines to no more than 30 percent of strength training.

Using proper form is just as important as frequency and duration. People too often round the lower back during exercises instead of standing erect with their chest out, he said. Another common no-no, Jamieson said, is swinging the weights rather than moving them deliberately.

“People do not understand the proper way to get fit for a sport,” he said. “They have never been taught how to prepare for it.”

O’Kane of UW said that any risk of injury from recreational sports should be balanced against the benefits of fitness on longevity and health. He said your 30s can be a critical time to develop habits that will determine the shape you will be in as a 90-year-old.

“Every decade you get older, it becomes imperative to stay active if you want to be active,” O’Kane said. “The clock is ticking on people in middle age.”

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com