Exercises to Prevent Common Athletic Injuries

Injury Prevention Exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • A sports injury typically occurs when your muscle is overloaded beyond its ability to handle the stress placed upon it, either due to lack of conditioning or trauma
  • Simple exercises can help strengthen weak points to help prevent injuries from occurring in the first place. Exercises for ankles, knees, hamstrings, shin splints, and more are addressed
  • 7 non-invasive and safe methods to recover from athletic injuries are also included

By Dr. Mercola

If you're as passionate about exercise as I am, you've probably experienced some form of sports injury at some point in your life, and you know all too well just how debilitating and frustrating it can be to recover from it.

High intensity interval training (HIIT), which is a core component of my Peak Fitness program, is key for reaping optimal fitness results. Special care needs to be taken, however, to prevent injury if you're new to high intensity exercises like sprinting.

Several people I know became injured using sprinting as their first foray into HIIT. I also injured myself by ignoring the recommendation to stretch properly before sprinting.

That said, just about any exercise can lead to injury if you fail to take body mechanics into account, and/or push harder than your current level of fitness will allow.

Injury typically occurs when your muscle is overloaded beyond its ability to handle the stress placed upon it, either due to lack of conditioning or trauma. At the point of overload, you may either tear the tissue, and/or your nervous system will deactivate the muscle through a series of reflexes called proprioceptors.

When other tissues and muscles take over to protect the injured site, this adaptation "locks" into your neurology, which leads to altered or adapted movement patterns. Essentially, it alters how you move and use your body.

While this takes stress off the injured muscle, allowing it to heal, the adapted muscle is at a mechanical disadvantage, making it more prone to injury in the future. This can set into motion a vicious cycle of progressive injuries, cascading out from the original source.

The key, of course, is to avoid injury in the first place. And, if you do get injured, address the injury to allow it to heal properly, so you don't end up with a long-term problem.

Injury-Preventing Exercises for Your Ankles

The featured article in Pop Sugar1 details dozens of injury-preventing exercises. By strengthening your weak areas with specific exercises, you may avoid painful and potentially costly injuries down the road.

For example, weak ankles can set you up for a sprain if you don't strengthen them first. Three simple exercises that can help ward off such a fate include:2

  • Plantar flexion using a resistance band to strengthen your arches. This will also help prevent your ankles to roll inward (over pronation) when walking or running
  • Dorsi flexion with a resistance band to strengthen the front of your ankles
  • Lateral hops to help strengthen not just your ankles but also your entire lower body, providing stability for quick lateral moves

Exercises to Prevent Knee Injuries

Knee pain is a very common problem. Dead lifts (which help strengthen your posterior chain), side-lying leg lifts, donkey kicks, and wall squats are all examples of exercises that can help stabilize your knees and prevent pain or injury. For even more examples, please refer to the slides in the featured article.3

One of the most common sports injuries, especially among runners, is iliotibial (IT) band syndrome,4 which occurs when the ligament running from your hip to your shin, down the outside of your thigh, becomes tight and/or inflamed.

The IT band attaches to your knee, so when it's tight, just about any kind of knee movement can become painful as the IT band is pulling your knee out of alignment. There are many exercises that can prevent this situation, including the following, which are demonstrated in the featured article:

  • Cross-legged stretch
  • Wall stretch
  • Single leg bridge lift
  • Side lunges
  • Foam roller

A foam roller is an inexpensive fitness tool that has many uses, and I highly recommend getting one. Spending just a few minutes on it every day can help release a number of different trigger points, increase blood flow, and improve tissue quality while simultaneously engaging your muscles and building strength.

Foam rolling can be done both before and after a workout, but pre-workout sessions should focus on problem areas whereas post-workout sessions can focus on all of the muscle groups worked that day.There are also rolling massage sticks that you can get on Amazon that also work quite well.

Besides your IT band, other target spots include your hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. Below is a quick Runners World video demonstrating a simple foam roller exercise for your IT band. For more tips on how to correctly use a foam roller, and how to avoid common mistakes, please see my recent article: "5 Foam Rolling Mistakes to Avoid."

Click here to learn moreClick here to learn more

Tackling Tight Hamstrings

Tight hamstrings is another common problem area that can lead to pulled muscles and sprains. Proper stretching techniques can help you stay loose and limber to avoid this. Studies have shown that stretching benefits connective tissue, triggers the growth of the protein filaments inside each muscle cell, which is essential to proper body movement, and improves the performance of your "spindle receptors," which help protect your muscles against further injury. A stretching routine should be a regular part of your workout, whether you're battling injuries or not. Examples of effective hamstring stretches include:5

  1. Tipover tuck hamstring stretch
  2. Scissor hamstring stretch
  3. Hurdler stretch
  4. Rounded back forward bend
  5. Reclined hamstring stretch

Hamstring stretches are particularly crucial if you're doing sprints. While sprinting is a simple form of high intensity exercise that does not require any kind of equipment and can be done just about anywhere, any time, it's also one of the most dangerous. Unless you're in phenomenal shape and have special training in sprinting, it's really important that you start gradually, and make sure to perform the recommended stretches.

I did not follow this advice and when I first started HIIT eight years ago. As a result I tore one of my hamstring muscles, which caused me pain for about four years. The stretching exercises I demonstrate in the video below eventually helped me recover, but I suggest you avoid making the same mistake and just do the stretches before you start sprinting. The stretches I recommend are so-called Active Isolated Stretches (AIS), not static stretches, and include the following:

  • Hamstring I stretch (straight: 10 reps)
  • Hamstring II stretch (foot twisted slightly left: 10 reps)
  • Hamstring III stretch (foot twisted slightly right: 10 reps)
  • Rolling your hamstrings using a foam roller

How to Prevent Shin Splints

Shin splints can be caused by a number of factors, including stress fractures in your tibia (shin bone), tired muscles, flat feet, or lax arches. A simple prevention exercise is basic calf raises, or alternating walking around on your tippy toes, followed by walking on your heels. To target the muscles all around your lower leg, do stationary calf raises with your feet internally and externally rotated as well. Other beneficial exercises include leg raises, performed sitting in a chair, with a two to six pound dumb bell between your feet, and foam rolling your calves and shins.

If you suspect you have a shin splint, stop running as it will only get worse. Instead, focus on strengthening exercises such as those just mentioned, until the pain has dissipated. Running on too-hard a surface is a common contributor to shin splints, so rather than pounding the pavement, try running on softer surfaces, such as the beach, nature trails, or grassy areas.

Effective Treatment Strategies for Athletic Injuries

Last but not least, as an all-around injury prevention strategy I highly recommend Foundation Training, which is based on exercises that teach you to optimize your posture and decrease all sorts of bodily pain. Foundation exercises can significantly decrease your risk of any number of exercise injuries. Many professional and Olympic athletes use this technique. But, should your prevention attempts fail and you do end up with an injury, what then?

Athletic injuries often require no treatment per say, so much as they require rehabilitation, or a chance for your body to heal. All of the following methods offer non-invasive and safe ways to recover from athletic injuries. Just be sure to take your recovery seriously, as staying physically active and athletic is one of the best things you can do for your health, and you may not be able to continue if you're struggling with chronic pain from an improperly healed sports injury.

K-Laser Class 4 Laser Therapy If you suffer pain from an injury, arthritis, or other inflammation-based pain, I'd strongly encourage you to try out K-Laser therapy. It can be an excellent choice for many painful conditions, including acute injuries. K-Laser is a class 4 infrared laser therapy treatment that helps reduce pain, reduce inflammation, and enhance tissue healing—both in hard and soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, or even bones. These benefits are believed to be the result of enhanced microcirculation, as the treatment stimulates red blood cell flow in the treatment area. Venous and lymphatic return is also enhanced, as is oxygenation of those tissues.
Ultrasound Treatment Recent research6 suggests ultrasound treatment may be a quick and minimally invasive treatment for plantar fasciitis—a painful condition caused by inflammation of the tissue (plantar fascia) running along the bottom of your foot, connecting your heel bone to your toes. The novel ultrasound therapy uses ultrasonic energy to cut and remove damaged tissue while sparing healthy tissue. In this study, patients reported a 90 percent improvement or more after two weeks.
Whole Body Vibration Whole body vibration (WBV) involves standing on a platform that sends mild vibratory impulses, which activate muscle fibers, through your feet and into the rest of your body. Your muscle spindles fire secondary to the mechanical stimulation produced by the vibrating plate, and this rapid firing of the muscle spindle causes a neuromuscular response that leads to physiological changes in your brain as well as your entire body.

Since injuries can leave cellular memories behind, using WBV stimulation allows your body and brain to rapidly de-imprint these old cell traumas, re-imprinting with positive, healthy information. This allows for better and more efficient rehabilitation of injuries from sports than traditional methods of therapy.
Advanced Muscle Integration Technique A novel therapy used by many professional and elite athletes that is useful for many common injuries focuses on interrelationships between muscle function, range of motion, and restriction that contribute to pain. This technique, which incorporates multiple muscular skeletal techniques, acupuncture points, trigger points, and other alternative modalities, can oftentimes resolve injury-related pain in minutes, accelerate rehabilitation, and can dramatically help improve athletic performance.

Using this technique on the foot and ankle, recovery time for grade 1 and 2 type ankle sprains can potentially be reduced to minutes, compared to the 4-6 weeks required when following conventional treatment for a sprained ankle.
Chiropractic One of your first considerations should be a well-trained chiropractor who has special interest in sports medicine. One particularly useful technique is Applied Kinesiology, which is a form of muscle testing. It is important to do your homework though and ask around for some good recommendations. If you don't get great results don't give up, you just may need to try another chiropractor.
Acupuncture Meridian-based energy therapies like acupuncture are quite useful for treating a number of health problems; pain in particular. Other therapies such as guacha, cupping, and moxibustion—the burning of herbs on or over the skin—can be used to support tissue healing.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) Traumas and injuries can leave cellular memories in your brain or body tissue that impede normal body movement or function, even after they're healed. EFT, which is a type of emotional acupressure, helps you to release these "memories," clearing your body of negative energy and facilitating healing.