There are many reasons that an athlete might need to take time off training. Injury, illness, and family commitments can all lead to a reduced ability to train. But the recent Covid-19 pandemic has meant an unprecedented number of athletes have been unable to stick to their usual fitness regimes.
As the vaccine rollout continues, athletes are returning to their sports and preparing to compete once again. But without access to gyms, equipment, and their coaches, many have found it tough to maintain their training programs over the past eighteen months.
As a coach or an athletic trainer, your mission is to guide your athletes return to their previous level of performance. But a long period without their usual resources means that they, and you, cannot simply jump back in where you left off.
What Are the Risks of Injury After a Long Break?
After so long away from their usual training regimes, most athletes will find that their bodies have adapted to their reduced activity levels. They will likely have lost some strength and conditioning, as well as some of their previous flexibility and range of movement.
As we know, mindset is just as important as physical fitness in competitive sports. Athletes train their minds as much as their bodies. But they will have fallen out of the habit of driving themselves and getting the most from their fitness. They may also struggle to adapt to their current level of ability, expecting too much and overdoing their training as a result.
Few athletes will have had the resources to stick to their nutritional plans during the pandemic. This, coupled with reduced physical activity, may have led to weight changes that will affect their performance.
Extra weight can add stress on joints and increase the risk of injury. And both weight gain and weight loss will lead to a change in their center of gravity, throwing off the athlete’s balance and making it more likely they will suffer from tears and sprains.
Injury prevention is an essential part of the role of any coach or trainer. You’ll need to work with the athletes in your care to devise training plans that take into account their increased vulnerability and reduce the risks.
Knowing some of the common injuries that can occur after a long break is crucial to preventing injuries in athletes. These can include:
Sprains and Strains
Sprains and strains are some of the most common injuries encountered by athletes and are much more likely when returning to training after a long break.
Strains occur when muscles and tendons are overstretched or twisted. Sprains happen when ligaments are stretched or torn through overuse or sudden stress, such as a fall or a twist.
Athletes who are accustomed to performing at a certain level may struggle to adapt to their reduced fitness, making them more prone to overusing and overstretching their ligaments and muscles. This leaves them vulnerable to sprains and strains.
There are three levels of sprains and strains. Grade 1 occurs when muscles or ligaments are stretched, but not torn. Even this minor form of strain or sprain can mean another two or more weeks off training.
Grade 2 sprains and strains involve partial tearing of the muscles or tendons and require at least 6-8 weeks of recovery.
The most severe form is grade 3. This is a complete rupture of the ligament or muscle and is a serious, potentially career-ending injury. Depending on the exact injury, recovery could take three to six months. Surgery might be required to repair the rupture.
A bulging disc occurs when the spinal discs between the vertebrae become compressed. The compression pushes the disk outwards, causing it to ‘bulge’. It most commonly occurs in the lower lumbar region of the spine and can cause back pain and spasms, as well as weakness in the legs, knees, and ankles.
Bulging discs also increase the risk of a herniated disk, which can have a significant impact on mobility.
Athletes are already at greater risk of bulging disks due to their physical activity. But the risk increases after an extended period of rest, especially if they are attempting to lift heavy weights.
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is located at the front of the knee joint. It is particularly vulnerable to sprains or tears, especially in athletes who participate in high–energy sports that require lots of running and fast changes of direction.
Footballers, soccer players, and basketball players are all prone to ACL sprains. The injury is also more common in female athletes.
Gaining weight after a long break can also increase the risk of an ACL injury. The additional weight puts more stress on the knee joint, making damage to the ligaments more likely.
When the ACL tears, it requires surgery to repair. While some recover well, the athlete may never return to competitive sports at the same level.
Avulsion fractures happen when a ligament or tendon pulls away from the bone, taking a small fragment of bone with it. They can occur anywhere but are especially common in the ankle and knee.
Avulsion fractures can require surgery to repair. If the bone isn’t displaced, it might be possible to get away with a cast instead. Either way, it is several months of recovery time.
Athletes who haven’t been able to keep up their training regimes are more prone to avulsion fractures since exercise promotes bone density. An imbalance in the muscles can also make avulsion fractures more likely.
Properly managed, microtears aren’t necessarily an issue. Resistance exercises and weight training rely on microtears to kickstart muscle hypertrophy and build strength.
However, overloading the muscles and causing too many microtears in one go reduces the body’s ability to repair those tears and lay down new muscle fibers.
This is especially the case if athletes lack good nutrition and adequate rest. Athletes who have been on a break are more likely to overtrain and cause issues with microtears.
Overworked muscles are also likely to become sore and inflamed, making it necessary to take a break from training. Coaches must ensure athletes train appropriately so that new muscle fibers are laid down in the correct direction, or they risk compromising the athlete’s mobility.
Shin splints are an inflammation of the tendons and muscles along the tibia. This is a common occurrence after physical exercise, especially if an athlete is returning to training after a long break.
Although shin splints are not a severe injury, they mean the athlete will need to take a rest from training. And they should expect to return at a lower level of intensity, or the problem will reoccur.
Often known as ‘runner’s knee’, patellofemoral syndrome is a frequent injury for athletes, especially women. It involves pain and stiffness in the front of the knee, making it harder to perform everyday activities.
Repetitive motions and an unusual level of activity can cause patellofemoral syndrome. Athletes who are newly returning to their training regimes will likely be experiencing both.
How Can You Help Athletes Avoid Injury?
The risk of most injuries increases when athletes attempt to train at a level above their current capabilities. One of the most vital things you can do as a coach or trainer is to ease athletes back in slowly as they return to training.
It is natural for athletes to be anxious to return to their previous performance level as quickly as possible. Help them to understand the risks. Explain why they will need to start slower than they might like. Ultimately, an injury will delay them far more than a well-paced training plan will.
Start by assessing where they are currently. Explore their fitness level, range of motion, and mindset before designing a new regime.
Nutrition and hydration are also crucial components of a successful return to training after a break. Coaches and athletic trainers will need to work with their athletes to re-establish nutritional plans and ensure they are adequately hydrated.
Spend some time understanding how your athletes have been eating and exercising during the pandemic compared with before. That should include finding out what supplements they have been able to take and in what form. They may not have had access to high-quality nutrition and supplements.
Once you have a clear idea of their current fitness and how well they have been able to keep up their nutrition, you can put a plan in place to ease them back into training. Find the fine line between pushing them too hard and not pushing them enough.
Don’t be afraid to take your athletes back to basics. Regaining strength and mobility is crucial. Warm-ups and cool-downs will be even more vital than usual as their bodies readapt to the demands of physical activity. Deep stretching and bodyweight exercises are also important in the early weeks.
As their stamina and strength grow, you can start to increase the pace. You can also begin working on building their endurance.
And don’t forget to schedule in rest days. Athletes will need time to recover, build muscle, and manage the mental load of returning to training. Rest is an important part of injury prevention.
Frustrating though it may be, athletes who attempt to return to their previous training plan straight away put themselves at risk of injury, as well as burnout. It takes constant work and excellent nutrition to keep a body at such peak performance. Few athletes have had the opportunity to maintain those things during the pandemic.
As their coach or trainer, your role is to assess where they are now and develop a new training plan that considers their current fitness levels. With care and persistence, you can help them reach their goals without injuring themselves in the process.
Curious to how you can use nutrition to reduce injury risk? Watch our free, on-demand webinar, “Nutrition Strategies to Reduce Injuries and Facilitate Healing.”