Football: Play Like a Champion (Without Getting Hurt)
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Football: Play Like a Champion (Without Getting Hurt)

Each week during football season, dozens of college and professional players—unbelievably strong individuals who spend much of their lives in the gym—are brought to their knees by crippling injuries. That's the nature of the game—contact football is an injury-ridden sport. But don't let that scare you away from a Sunday afternoon game of touch football—most of the sport's injuries occur on game day, when contact is full and all-out.

In fact, according to Randy Dick of the NCAA Injury Prevention Center, the rate of injury on game day for collegiate football players is 36.1 per 1,000—the highest injury rate for any collegiate sport. But during practices, when the pads are often left behind and the rate of contact is lower, football's injury rate drops to a mere 4.2 injuries per 1,000 players. That's fewer injuries than occur during collegiate soccer practices. So unless you're playing in the NFL this Sunday, chances are there's no need to worry.

Still, that doesn't mean recreational football is an entirely safe and injury-free endeavor. You can sprain an ankle, dislocate a shoulder—or just push your body further than it can go, and end up with sore muscles the next day.

Weekend Warriors

"At the professional football level, Monday is not a fun day. It's a demanding game. But even guys [and girls] who play touch on Sundays are running hard and have a fair number of collisions," says Stephen Rice, MD, co-director of the Jersey Shore Sports Medicine Center.

As with most sports, especially if you haven't been working out to stay in shape, "you run the risk of an injury like a pulled hamstring or a torn Achilles' tendon," says Doug McKeag, MD, chairman of family medicine and director of sports medicine for the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Recreational football players also tend to have muscle-related problems like over-stretched or pulled muscles, Rice says. "It comes from doing too much, too suddenly," he explains. And even without a bad strain or pull, your muscles can ache after an hour or two on the field. "Delayed onset muscles soreness is common a day or two after playing." Plus, the collisions that occur even in touch football can lead to bruising.

Stay in Playing Shape

The most important thing you can do to avoid these injuries is prepare your body so it doesn't have to do more than it can handle. "Stay in some kind of shape," Rice says. "Maintain flexibility, do aerobic activities, strength activities, and endurance activities."

Beyond basic fitness, doing sport-specific drills can help prevent a lot of soreness. Try sprints and drills that incorporate lateral movement. "I could go out and run for hours," says Steve Upson, a triathlete who plays in a weekend flag football league. "But it's the stop-and-go and lateral movement that kills me."

Before doing this kind of drill, of course, make sure you're in decent shape and warmed up well. There's no point in getting injured while you're training to prevent injury.

Game Day

When game day arrives, make sure you warm up well. Get your heart rate up with light aerobic activity then incorporate a little harder running to get your legs completely warmed up and ready to go. If you've had trouble with delayed onset muscle soreness in the past, Rice suggests taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Advil or Motrin). "I do it before and after I play," Rice says. Post-game, make sure you ice down any sore areas.

At Least They Wear Helmets

While it's true that you and your buddies are not facing a tackle by Willie McGinest, those guys in the NFL have one advantage over you: Protection. Lots of it. They have shoulder pads and helmets. You have nothing. If you fall, you can hit your head and get a concussion. If you fall on your shoulder, it will separate more easily than a shoulder encased in plastic and pads. Short of donning full gridiron gear, there's not much you can do about this. Just be aware that the risk is there.

Also be aware that your chances of this kind of injury increase with certain weather conditions. "When it's cold, the ground is hard, you'll get a lot more bumped and bruised if you fall," says Dr. McKeag. In rainy, sloppy weather, you're more likely to fall and hit your head.

And like the pros, who don't wear leg protection, recreational players could have to deal with knee injuries and ankle sprains. It's part of the game.

Common Sense

Playing any sport leaves you at risk to get hurt. It's as simple as that. But that's no reason not to play—what fun is that? In football, as with most sports, there are simple precautions you can take to make the game a little safer.

Stay away from concrete. "You don't want to throw the ball out of bounds and into a driveway," says Dr. McKeag.

If you wear glasses, make sure they're strapped on.

Don't play with a leg brace. It could hurt someone else. If you must wear a brace, Dr. McKeag says, make sure it's covered with adequate padding.

Consider arm pads. Some players who know they'll be doing light blocking utilize this protective option.

Warm up well. Yep, we said that before. It's important, so make sure you do it or the hard running, sprinting, and changing directions you do on the football field is going to hurt.

Finding an activity you enjoy like football is a great way to get some physical activity in every week. With common sense and some basic conditioning you can keep yourself in the game all season!

RESOURCES:

American College of Sports Medicine
http://www.acsm.org

American Society of Exercise Physiologists
http://www.asep.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology
www.csep.ca

Healthy Canadians
http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca

References

NCAA Sports Sciences. Available at: http://www1.ncaa.org/membership/ed_outreach/health-safety/index.html.



Last reviewed February 2008 by John C. Keel, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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