May 29, 2020, 11:41:09 AM CDT Oct 22, 2020, 2:03:03 PM CDT

How athletes can safely return to sports after social distancing

5 tips to avoid injury when getting back in the game

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Whenever an athlete takes extended time away from training and play, such as during recovery from a sports injury, it's important to take steps to safely return to play. Athletes of all ages recently faced a unique situation when spring sports seasons were cut short due to social distancing measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

But as sports leagues start to take steps to reopen, many athletes are getting ready to get back in the game. The experts at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine share tips to do so safely.

What happens during a break from sports

While short breaks from a sport can allow the body much-needed rest and recovery, a prolonged decrease in physical activity can affect athletic performance. When you aren't active, your body begins deconditioning, losing muscle strength, speed and skill. Troy Smurawa, M.D., Director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at Children's Health Andrews Institute, says athletes may face both physical and mental challenges from not training or playing during social distancing.

"Many athletes lost motivation or access to the facilities they need for training since many were closed," says Dr. Smurawa.

Physically, this affects all three parts of the "training pyramid." This pyramid includes:

  • Force or muscular strength
  • Cardiorespiratory endurance
  • Speed and skill

All these aspects play a role in an athlete's performance. For instance, athletes need both endurance and skill to continue to throw strikes for nine innings. Most athletes rely on coaches and trainers to ensure their training is comprehensive – it can be hard for athletes to achieve that on their own at home. They may begin to lose skills related to the entire pyramid or just one or two parts of the pyramid.

As young athletes return to sports and training, they may notice physical effects such as:

  • Decreased endurance
  • Lack of concentration
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor technique
  • Reduced strength
  • Slower speed

Away from their sport, an athlete might also face mental health difficulties such as depression or anxiety. "Many athletes rely on their sport for stress release," says Dr. Smurawa. And because these athletes are not with their peers, Dr. Smurawa says they also lose the social aspect of playing the sport.

Tips to return to sports safely

With these possible difficulties, returning to sports presents its own challenges. However, there are things an athlete can do to increase the chance of a healthy return to sports.

1. Mentally prepare.

Athletes should focus on having a positive attitude and motivation to get back in the game. While many will feel excited about returning to sports, they should be prepared to feel a little slower or weaker than before – and that's okay. This is temporary; strength and skills will return. Know that you can't jump back in and speed up the training process. Mentally prepare for a return to sports by imagining plays and skills and focusing on what you can control.

2. Take it one step at a time.

Regaining physical abilities has to be done slowly, in stages and steps. Skipping steps or jumping in too quickly can lead to poor outcomes such as injuries or peaking at the wrong time in the season. Training too much, too soon or too fast can also risk the body and expose it to overuse injuries. Doing higher level skill activities when the body is not conditioned also adds risk for acute injuries, like an ACL tear.

3. Make a plan.

Having a plan and a set training schedule can help with both the mental and physical challenges of returning to sports after a break. Every training session should have a goal or a function. Athletes should work with coaches and trainers to develop a return to play plan.

4. Focus on nutrition.

As training intensity and frequency ramps up again, athletes should be mindful of nutrition strategies to boost performance and help accommodate these demands. Brittany Wehrle, Performance Dietitian with Children's Health Andrews Institute Sports Performance powered by EXOS, shares a few nutrition tips to prepare:

  • Adjust energy intake: Athletes who reduced their portions in response to a decrease in training should consider ramping up their intake once again to support the energy demands of activity.
  • Plan for success: Plan out meals and snacks in advance so that you don't have to turn to convenience foods or takeout.
  • Don't forget about hydration: Good hydration practices start well before your training session starts. As a rule of thumb, aim to drink between 0.5 and 1 ounce of fluid per pound of your body weight daily – and that does not include what you drink during activity. If you cramp easily or are a salty sweater, consider incorporating electrolytes as well.

5. Work with your coach.

Coaches will need to modify schedules and expectations. Athletes may not be as conditioned to the summer heat as in the past, for instance. Or they may not be as ready for the first day of camp. Athletes need to be eased back into training.

"Coaches should understand that this is not the typical athletic experience, so being an advocate for them will help an athlete move forward," says Dr. Smurawa.

Overall, athletes, coaches and trainers should expect it to take 4-6 weeks before athletes are back at their previous level of performance. They may not see any improvement at all for the first two weeks of training.

Playing sports during COVID-19

Though sports and training sessions may be starting back up, COVID-19 is a continued health risk to be aware of. Coaches, athletes and parents need to work together to make a plan to minimize the risk of getting or spreading the virus.

"Every program should have some type of plan on what to do, focusing primarily on keeping infection from spreading," says Dr. Smurawa. "It's important to enforce that plan with students and athletes."

Dr. Smurawa recommends all programs use infection prevention techniques such as:

  • Encouraging athletes to keep their hands away from their face
  • Frequent cleaning of equipment
  • Frequent hand washing
  • Minimizing contact between athletes in practice as much as possible
  • Monitoring for sick athletes
  • No sharing of equipment
  • Washing clothes or uniforms after every wear

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued more considerations for youth sports during COVID-19. With the right planning, athletes can get back in the game safely, reducing risk of both injuries and infection.

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As sports start back up after social distancing, young athletes are preparing to return to play. An expert at Children's shares ways to avoid sports injury when getting back in the game. Click to tweet.

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The first pediatric institute of its kind in the region, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our wide range of services available to help athletes stay healthy and improve their game.

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