In my last post on ACL injuries, I posted that overtraining can predispose someone to an ACL injury. Overtraining (spending too much time training without proper recovery) can have some serious health consequences. Overtraining is becoming an increasingly common problem as athletes are starting to specialize in one sport at younger ages. Discussing solutions to overtraining and specialization is always tough since it usually involves telling someone to play less of the sport they want to excel at. Having said that, research and anecdotal evidence both make a strong case for how varying up the sports you play through the year can lead to a healthier and more successful athletic career.
A recent study done at Ohio State University followed 500 athletes for a decade and found that the athletes who specialized in one sport had a 50% higher chance of having a knee injury. That tells us that the risk of injury is there, but doesn’t tell us why. One of the prominent theories is that the repetitive nature of participating in the same sport year-round leads to overuse injuries. The constant grind of playing an in-season sport year-round is demanding on the body, and recovery for an athlete’s bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles can suffer. These breakdowns can lead to weakness and ultimately altered form with athletic movements such as pivoting or decelerating – both motions that are commonly cited as the action being performed at the time of an ACL injury. Another reason for the increased injury risk can be related to mental fatigue as well. The grind of a year-round sport can lead to lethargic practicing and playing – another possible cause of poor form. The final commonly cited reason for increased injury risk is tied to statistics. Playing a sport 12 months in the year as opposed to, say, a 4 month competitive high school season leads to 3 times the number of exposures to potential injury. Increased exposure is just a factor of increased playing time, making this statistic an admitted possible limitation of the conclusions of these types of studies.
Luckily, the solution to overtraining and over-specialization is easy, albeit incredibly unpopular with athletes. The solution is to take some time off of your sport – either with a time of complete rest or a different sport, but honestly, a mix of both is ideal. Taking a week or two off after a season ends is a great way to let your body recover while simultaneously renewing your drive to be active. After you’ve recovered, spending some time training for a different sport is a great way to develop new skills and decrease the risk of developing muscle imbalances. The lack of repetition provided by varying your sports will require you to use your body in new, challenging ways. These challenges will cause your body to adapt, which can lead to improved strength and coordination – two qualities that can easily translate into enhanced performance. It’s not all doom and gloom about injuries, there can be a legitimate benefit to your performance if you vary your sports.
With all of that in mind, I don’t want to come across as anti-club sports. I think developing athletes and encouraging participation is great and am happy these opportunities exist. Just like anything else in life, however, moderation is key to a balanced life. That’s why balancing club sports with other activities during the year is a worthwhile endeavor. Taking some time off might seem like you’re doing your game a disservice, but in all honesty, you’ll probably be a better athlete because of it.
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