If you're planning on participating in soccer, running, tennis, cheerleading, gymnastics, soccer, or any other sport, give yourself time to get in shape before jumping into the season.
You'll not only be faster and have better endurance, you'll also be less likely to suffer an injury that may prevent you from finishing the season.
The right training, combined with good nutrition, goes a long way toward keeping you in the best shape all season long. Here's what experts suggest.
Keep Your Knees Safe
After puberty, your pelvis is wider than a guy's pelvis. And that gives you a greater Q-angle -- the angle from hip to knee.
"This puts a woman's knee at greater risk when landing," says C. David Geier Jr., MD, director of the Medical University of South Carolina and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery.
To understand why, imagine a circus performer walking on straight stilts versus walking on stilts that start out wide at the top and become narrow near the bottom.
Plus, your knee's femoral notch -- which is where your ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) is located -- is narrower than a man's. And hormonal fluctuations throughout your menstrual cycle (which may contribute to "looser" joints) may also make your knees more prone to ACL injuries.
"Women are two to eight times more likely to tear their ACL, which commonly occurs during activities such as jumping and landing," says Eric Lee, MD, orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif.
An ACL tear will put you on the bench. So keeping your knees healthy should be a top priority.
You're more likely to land with less hip and knee flexion than boys, meaning you land with stiffer legs. That makes an injury more likely, Lee says.
A sports coach can teach you how to land properly and reduce the risk of injury.
Also consider including agility drills in your routine. Agility involves changing direction while moving quickly. Becoming more agile may help you land in a better position, Lee says.
Here are more tips:
- Strengthen the muscles around the knee (quadriceps and hamstrings) with leg extensions, leg raises, lunges, squats
- Incorporate (supervised) jumping and plyometric (explosive) exercise training
- Include stretching the muscles used in the sport (i.e. shoulder stretches for swimmers, leg stretches for runners, etc.)
If you have flat feet or other foot issues or imbalance, see a podiatrist.
Your sport may have a season for competitions. But your training needs a year-round approach.
"A well-rounded, year-round program should contain strength-training and cardiovascular training, as well as stretching and good nutrition," Geier says.
Balance training, plyometrics (explosive training), strength, and stretching may reduce the risk of ACL injuries in pre-season and in-season training programs, according to a study published in the Aug. 17, 2009 issue of Knee Surgery, Sport Traumatology, Arthroscopy.
The key? Don't do the same thing every day and don't do too much, too soon. You need to cross train, and you need a periodization program, which means tweaking your training throughout the year so you don't burn out and get injured.
"Cross training and slowly increasing intensity allows you to build up your fitness and avoids ramping up activity all at once," Geier says.
Make a Plan
It's best to have a strength training coach design a periodization program geared toward your specific fitness level and time of year (off-season, in-season, or post-season), Lee says.
"For example, off-season training begins six weeks before your first match and typically focuses on strength training," Lee says. In-season workouts involve more high-intensity training done less often, allowing you to focus more on your sport.
Geier recommends the following general pre-season and in-season training rules:
- Don't ramp up the intensity or the length of your workouts by more than 10% per week, and don't do both at the same time. Either raise the intensity or the length, and that's it for that week.
- Don’t do the same workout every day. For example, switch running sessions with swimming, bicycling, or other no-impact training, as well as weight training
- Mix in solo and group activities for variety.
- Consider a stretching or yoga session once a week for flexibility.
- Get proper supervision by a strength and conditioning specialist whenever possible, especially during weight training or dangerous (cheerleading, acrobatic) moves.
Cross training can also keep you motivated. "Burnout is very high at the high school level," Geier says. "Training can get boring, so doing different things makes it less likely to feel like a job."
Eat for Performance and Health
To perform at your best, you need good nutrition -- and that includes getting enough calories.
"Many young women athletes don't take in enough calories," says Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, an ACSM health fitness specialist and a dietitian in Washington, D.C. "You need to nourish yourself both for growth and development as well as for long-term health and wellness and fueling your body for your sport."
Taken to an extreme, you could lose your menstrual period, develop eating disorders, and make bone loss more likely. You may also make injury more likely.
For the basics of healthy eating, you may want to check out the government's new MyPlate web site. For specific nutritional programs to support your activities, consult a sports nutritionist.
If you're not sure if your eating habits are healthy, talk to a doctor or registered dietitian.