Seth L. Sherman, MD, a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Missouri Orthopaedic Institute, often works with athletes who have been sidelined by injury.
In the first installment of a three-part series about optimizing your athletic performance, Sherman offers tips on how to train like an athlete and avoid common mistakes that could lead to injury.
Call in the pros
No one becomes a world-class athlete overnight, and jumping right into a rigorous training program can get you into trouble.
“Formulate a game plan for what you're trying to accomplish,” Sherman said.
To do that, Sherman recommends working with trained experts, including physical therapists, athletic trainers, strength-and-conditioning coaches or personal trainers. Start with a visit to a physician for a physical so you know at what level it’s safe to begin your program. These professionals can recommend modifications, alternative exercises and stretches to get you on the right path to meeting your fitness goals.
Focus on form
Even in the world of college and professional sports, it all comes down to basics.
“If you start with poor form or you start with high intensity or high-impact loading, you’re at risk of overloading your joints,” Sherman said. “You may damage your cartilage, ligaments or meniscus. You need to have proper balance, coordination, strength and flexibility to shield the loads from the smooth surfaces inside the joint spaces. That’s why it’s so important to have good technique.”
Powerlifters work with trainers to carefully test the limits of their strength. If you’re more of a weekend warrior, you also need to monitor your workout to avoid injury.
“Use more reps and less weight instead of trying to do one lift and max out,” Sherman said. “That's where you can really cause a lot of harm.”
Choose exercises and machines that work several muscle groups simultaneously rather than isolating just one. Aim for slow but steady gains, and always use a spotter.
Cross-train to promote overall strength
Cross-training is essential to help you reach peak fitness safely, especially for younger athletes who are active in a year-round sport.
“Early specialization in only one sport can be dangerous for our young athletes,” Sherman said. “You can still be passionate about your major sport but also cross-train to protect your body and mind from burnout.”
Choose another sport to play in the offseason or simply pick up a different type of exercise to stay in top form. A wider range of activity will work your underused muscle groups, which will help your performance in the long run.
Give yourself a break
Pushing yourself too hard is counterproductive and may result in injury.
“Active rest is critically important,” Sherman said. “Give your body time to recover between intense workouts.”
Focus on different muscle groups on different days to spread out your exertion. If you’re wiped out after an especially intense workout, it’s OK to stay home from the gym the next day. Do a less strenuous exercise, such as yoga or a brisk walk, if you don’t want to skip your workout completely. And don’t forget to stretch.
Listen to your body
This piece of advice is fairly straightforward, but Sherman said it’s often ignored.
“Listen to your body,” he said. “That's something we often don’t do. Meaning, if you have pain, you don’t want to push through it. Pain could mean that you’re using improper form, or it could be evidence of an injury.”
Either way, something’s not right. Check your form with a professional, and see a doctor if pain persists.