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Sport Specific Injuries: Track & Field

When you look at the huge mass of events held in modern Olympic competitions, it’s a little surprising to think that for the first dozen or so Olympics (hosted in ancient Greece in the original stadium in Olympia) the only event was the “stadion” run – the equivalent of a 200 meter sprint. Today’s track and field events can be as short as an indoor 50 meter dash or as long as a marathon. Athletes can be as specialized as a world-class shot putter or as versatile as a decathlete. But despite the variety of events, the basic mechanics of running, jumping, and throwing involved in every track and field competition can lead to injury if athletes do not take the necessary precautions.

Acute (sudden) injuries are not as common in track and field events as in many other sports. An athlete may strain his or her shoulder or back while throwing, fall while hurdling, land improperly during pole vault, or become tripped up during a race (while sprinters must stay in their assigned lane, that is not the case during races longer than 400 meters, and quite a bit of jostling and elbowing can occur). Tragically, athletes can also sustain injury by being hit by a javelin or discus, so caution and common sense must be taken when practicing with or around these items.

What track and field events may lack in dramatic acute injuries, they make up for in sometimes vicious overuse injuries. As their name implies, these injuries surface when athletes over work their muscles and tendons without adequate rest between bouts of activity. Shin splints, “runners’ knee,” patellofemoral syndrome, illiotibial band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and tendonitis are all examples of common overuse track and field injuries.

Because the primary treatment for an overuse injury is rest (which can be extremely difficult for an athlete to agree to, especially during the season), it’s best to prevent overuse injuries from occurring in the first place. There are several ways to do this:

Stay conditioned during the off-season. Work on building base mileage and spend regular time in the weight room so your body will be well-prepared when practices start.
Increase gradually. Many athletes become injured from the “too’s” – too much, too fast, too soon. Vary your workouts and don’t increase your overall workload by more than 10% per week. Experienced track and field coaches will know the fine line between pushing their teams hard and pushing them to injury.
Wear the proper footwear. Use orthotics if necessary, and change athletic shoes every 300-500 miles.
Make stretching a habit. Stretch several times a day, paying special attention to trouble spots. You can also get a foam roller to massage sore muscles and speed recovery.
Be serious about nutrition. To perform its best, your body needs a small snack about an hour before exercise and another within 30 minutes of finishing. Choose high quality sources of carbohydrates and protein; for example, have half of a whole grain bagel spread with peanut butter before practice and a tall glass of milk afterwards. In addition, be mindful of what you eat and drink during the rest of the day. Water with sliced lime and cucumber will be much more helpful to your body than a 20 oz. bottle of soda.

If despite your best intentions you still find yourself with an overuse injury, don’t despair – follow these steps to get back on track:

Begin treatment early. In general, the longer you’ve had an overuse injury, the longer recovery will take, so it’s best to nip it in the bud at the first symptoms.
Treat minor pains with RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) and avoid activities that aggravate your injury.
See your physical therapist for injuries that don’t show improvement within seven days.

Track and field events are some of the most popular sports in the world, both for participators and spectators. Keep injuries at bay with these tips, and have a great season! Keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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