My promises to you:
This article will cover 99+% of everything you need to know on the topic of preventing injuries,
This article contains methods you’re probably not currently implementing,
Use everything here and you’ll never be injured again. Injuries can’t be perfectly predicted or prevented since you’re always dealing with degrees of risk. These strategies can greatly reduce those risk factors, which is all you can ask from your training.
1) Build tissue capacity
Probably the simplest to understand: Stronger tissue will be harder to break, and stronger tissues will better resist external forces and avoid being pushed intro vulnerable positions.
But there’s levels to this, so let’s break it down.
Compound exercises are exercises that use multiple joints at once, and therefore a large number of muscles simultaneously as well (typically with a few key muscles dominating the movement). For example, squat, RDL, lunge, etc.
These exercises should be the main focus of a good strength training program for athletic development, and will result in increased muscle & tendon strength and therefore contribute to our picture of injury prevention.
Isolation exercises focus on the movement of a single joint and therefore target a specific muscle or muscle group. These can be important for certain muscles that don’t get trained to their full capacity in most compound exercises, and therefore risk being under-trained if not targeted directly. Muscles that commonly need extra attention:
Hamstring - via knee flexion
Isolating lateral core musculature - You won't find a stimulus like this from any other exercise
With the hamstring, for example, you can become quite strong through hinging movements like RDL’s (hamstring activated via hip extension), but the hamstrings can still be quite weak when tasked with bending the knee. So some sort of hamstring curl variation is advised, which can be progressed up to nordic hamstring curls.
Sport-specific contraction types
For the most part, training through a full range of motion with a normal tempo will bring good results, especially if you’ve had less than 1-2 years of consistent training. But we can supplement this work with some more specific loading strategies.
Important note: Concentric = contraction while shortening, eccentric = contraction while lengthening, isometric = static contraction.
Bicep curl example: Concentric = lifting the weight, eccentric = lowering the weight with control, isometric = holding the weight part way up
Revisiting the hamstrings, while they have a large concentric role in sprinting, many hamstring injuries occur during the eccentric contraction. Therefore it is a good idea to train the hamstrings with heavy, controlled lengthening.
The hip flexors have large concentric demands as they propel the leg forwards during sprinting at high velocity, so training can focus on either a heavy/slow concentric hip flexion or a light/explosive concentric hip flexion.
With the calf/achilles, there is a massive isometric demand when sprinting as the muscle contracts to prevent the heel from collapsing under extremely high forces (main role is maintaining stiffness), so training can focus on heavy isometric contractions for time.
2) Increase range of motion and active range of motion
When a joint has a limited range of motion, it doesn’t take much displacement to put it in a position beyond it’s capacity, a position where damage will occur. It also means you have less working space, and therefore time, to decelerate a movement.
The reason for the emphasis on “active” range of motion is because stretching is not enough. We can become more mobile through stretching, but all that does is create positions the joint can get pushed into, but not positions we can control. Your active range of motion is determined by the positions you can move into without an external force pushing your joint there. Having a partner push your leg up into a hamstring stretch would show your passive range, but lifting your leg unassisted would show your active range. The gap between the two represents positions you can access but not control, so the goal is to close the gap while increasing total range of motion.
We will do this by frequently using our full active range with some intensity with something like CARs, but can also do things like lift-offs to strengthen our end-ranges. Do this alongside your stretching and you’ll see great results.
Strengthening hip internal rotation, specificially focusing on a max effort contraction at end-range:
3) Exposure to “worst case scenario” for your sport’s volume and intensity
This is where true sport-specificity comes intro play. Some athletes will do a lot of running to condition themselves for their sport, but this is just one aspect of conditioning. You will be conditioned from an energy system (aerobic, anaerobic) point of view, but not from a volume & intensity point of view. Properly preparing for these factors is the key to optimal sport preparation and injury prevention, since many injuries are the result of a workload that is significantly higher than you’re prepared for.
Worst case scenario intensity
Here you’re thinking about velocities and forces. What are the highest speeds you can expect to hit in a sprint at some point in a game? How violently, and from what speeds, will I need to decelerate or make a cut from? How much force will my legs experience when I land from my max effort jump? What kind of forces will I face from contact with another player or with the ground?
Let’s say you’re a soccer centreback and you’re thinking to yourself “I don’t have to sprint as fast or as often as other positions, so I don’t really need to prepare for top speed sprinting.” While it’s true that your sprint demands are less, you have to expect that at some point you will find yourself sprinting at 100% intensity. You must prepare for that instance, otherwise it could be the thing to break you.
Training for this means putting yourself in positions to get exposure to top speed sprinting, hard cuts and decelerations, max effort jumps with various take offs and landings, and some degree of contact prep without putting yourself at risk.
We won’t start with these intensities, but the goal is to build to them at some point shortly before your season starts.
Worst case scenario volume
Here you’re thinking about total workloads. Duration, distance, etc. But not just preparing for four 10-minute quarters of a basketball game, but considering that those four quarters will consist of intermittent bouts of high, moderate, and low intensity activities. Being able to run for 40-minutes will do very little in terms of preparation.
Let’s use a soccer example because I can use some real numbers as reference. At the professional level, over 90 minutes of play, you would expect to see:
Total distance = ~10.5-12km
Distance ran over 60% top speed = ~800-1200m
Number of accelerations and decelerations = ~100 each
So if I were to ask you who is going to go into the season better prepared and at a lower risk of injury between:
Athlete A: Focused on running long distances (13+km) to over-prepare for the demands of a match.
Athlete B: Focused on accumulating >1000m of high intensity running distance and >100 accelerations and decelerations to over-prepare for the demands of a match.
I would hope the obvious answer is athlete B, especially when we consider that the total distance numbers are made up of a decent amount of walking and slow jogging (things you don’t need a ton of preparation for).
The point is to look at the aspects that are going to break you down if you’re not ready for them. If you’re a basketball or volleyball player, you would want to add in a consideration for the number of jumps over the course of a game.
A great way to train for this is actually just live scrimmage. It sounds simple, but what’s going to better prepare you for the demands of playing better than… playing? But we should also look to exceed those demands, which can be done in three ways:
Decreased size of play: Playing in a smaller space will increase the number of actions (runs, cuts, jumps) you end up making.
Decreased density of play: Playing in a large space with less players than usual will increase the distance covered, and usually the distance covered at high speeds as well.
Supplemental high speed running: Even with constraints and wide open play, you will often not get enough volume of high speed running. The nature of sport with the ongoing state of fatigue and complexity of play typically prevents you from achieving meaningful doses of near-top speed sprinting, therefore it can be very important to get some isolated dose of this outside of play. This could look like max effort sprints with long rest periods, or submax (70-80%) repeated sprints with shorter rest.
Max effort sprinting: Timed for feedback & increased competition (and therefore effort)
4) Exposure to chaos
This sort of goes hand in hand with the previous topic, because the importance of this is going to depend on how much of your preparation is based in live play situations versus individual conditioning trying to mimic the loads of live play.
If you do everything described to this point (strengthen relevant tissues, increase active range of motion, and replicate the physical demands of your sport without much live play), there will be an important factor missing: Chaos.
See, typically everything you do individually will have a lot of structure. Weight lifting in a controlled setting, running in straight lines, cutting in pre-determined patterns, etc. You’re not having to react and change your movement based on an unpredictable stimulus, you’re not having to deal with contact, and you’re not jumping or landing in awkward ways.
This chaos is important because:
It physically prepares your muscles, tendons and bones for the variety of forces that come with this chaos.
It develops the neuromuscular control to react to, and get out of, those awkward positions.
Therefore it is important to use live play as conditioning where possible, or whatever competitive type of actions you can get like 1v1 play.
It doesn't get much more chaotic than this:
To this point, we’ve covered everything relevant to short-term preparation for injury prevention. Basically, everything you could do within your pre-season to be as prepared as possible. But there is a longer-term topic we should address before concluding here, and that’s the improvement of your biomechanics in various movements.
One of the most common issues that presents itself is the lack of stability and control over the arch of the foot. This instability means it would be a lot easier to roll an ankle due to the fact that the foot is constantly rocking
back and forth in an uncontrolled fashion, but is also causes issues up the chain by causing the knee to cave inwards when the arch collapses. This is an example of something that should be addressed in your training if it’s something you deal with. It can take an extended period of time to truly correct things like this, but it is an important part of the process.
It can be a challenge to identify address some of these things on your own, but most people have at least one thing that can be cleaned up from a biomechanics standpoint which would have implications either to injury risk or performance. It is often worth it to get an experienced eye to assess you.
Do you want to train this way? Covering all your bases, enhancing your performance, and reducing the occurrence of injuries? Sign up for my individualized training programs today!