As fall sports resume, athletes who were idle for much of the summer are pumped to get going again. But it’s important to prepare correctly to help avoid injury.
Novant Health sports medicine offers answers to common parent questions about training, warmups and cool-downs, dehydration and diet to help young athletes stay healthy.
What is the biggest physical concern as young athletes restart activities?
One, they're not as in-shape as they were before, obviously. They are going to be more susceptible to injuries. Novant Health sees a lot of hamstring, groin and hip flexor strains right off the bat. The other big thing is, it’s also hot, and they haven't gotten out in the heat yet. We have to worry about heat illness.
What is the best way to ease back into a sport?
You definitely want to start gradually. You can't be doing too much, too fast. The best thing to do, as far as injuries go, is to make sure you're starting with a proper warm-up. We really encourage dynamic warm-ups, where you stretch with active movements first. Then, it's always good to do a cool-down after practice to help your heart rate and blood pressure get back down to normal. You should also do some more static stretching to increase flexibility and range of motion.
What about the difference between soreness and pain?
Kids are going to be sore getting back into it, but you really want to look for pain. You don't want to see pain. If you're in pain before, during or after practice, then you're doing too much, you're pushing something too far. If you are experiencing pain, you need to stop and let your athletic trainer know.
How can athletes adjust to the rising heat?
It takes 7-10 days for your body to acclimate to the heat, so you want to make sure you're gradually increasing the volume and the intensity over that period. Players should be seeing their coaches start their first few practices at a lower level, and then slowly increasing them. Kids also need to make sure they're hydrating.
Talk about the importance of hydrating, which doesn’t mean gulping water 30 seconds before you hit the field.
In general, throughout the day, you want to drink half your body weight in ounces. So, if you weigh 100 pounds, that's 50 ounces of liquid. That's during a normal day. Drink in small intervals, not all at once.
For exercise, you should drink 17-20 ounces two hours before exercise and then an additional seven to 10 ounces about 10-20 minutes before exercise. If the practice or game is longer than 60 minutes, you should add in some Gatorade so you can replenish electrolytes. If it's less than 60 minutes, usually water is OK. The goal during exercise is to replenish so you're matching your fluid loss with your fluid intake to prevent dehydration. You can do that based on your body weight.
For example, you weigh yourself before an exercise period and you're 100 pounds. Then you exercise for an hour, weigh yourself again and you're 99 pounds, so you've lost one pound. One pound is about 15 ounces of fluid. That means during one hour of practice you need to drink 15 ounces of fluid to make up for the fluid that you will be losing during practice.
What are some signs that may indicate a player is dehydrated?
On the field, they start not looking quite right. Usually they're doing fine and all of a sudden there’s a decrease. With heat exhaustion they can be pretty moist and pale in the face. They'll start getting disoriented . They may also begin vomiting or even faint. That's someone we need to get off the field and cooled down before it gets more serious.
Why is cooling down important for an athlete's body?
It's a really good opportunity to recover. If you’re running a race and you're going at 100% and you come to the end, you do not just want to stop, because your heart rate and blood pressure are super high. If you stop, it can make you lightheaded or even faint. The goal is to slowly go from high intensity to no activity. If you're sprinting at 100%, move to a jog, and then a walk. You want to cool down for about five minutes, to encourage your body to slowly decrease heart rate and blood pressure down to normal. It's also a good opportunity to do some stretching, because your muscles are warm and there's a lot of blood flow. It's also a good opportunity to work on increasing some flexibility and range of motion, which leads to better performance down the road.
What about diet, and how it can make an impact on how you perform on the field?
Make sure you eat a meal with carbohydrates, fruits and vegetable, protein, and healthy fats (like olive oil) 2-4 hours before the game. An hour before the game you can eat a light snack. After the game, we want to replenish the carbohydrates. And, that is a good time to get your proteins in. You’ll want to do that 30-60 minutes after the game, because that's when your body's going to be able to absorb it more versus two hours later or something. If you have far to drive after practice, pack some food for the day, as opposed to waiting 90 minutes to get home.
What should a parent look for in a youngster who may be struggling with an injury?
Look for any difference in them physically, perhaps a little limp or if they’re complaining about something hurting. Your athletic trainer is watching a lot of kids and it might be hard for them to notice that your child just doesn't seem to be running quite as fast or may be favoring a leg a little bit. Parents know their kids and they know what they look like when they play. Any kind of physical difference is going to tell athletic trainers that something is probably being pushed a little too far.