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Olympian Advice on Preventing Sports Injuries

Neither Olympians nor weekend warriors are immune to tendonitis, ankle sprains, low back problems, and knee pain.

Although common, these injuries often can be prevented with proper conditioning.

"Activities like tennis, softball, cycling, volleyball, or basketball can cause people to exert a lot of pressure on their muscles and joints," says Scott A. Rodeo, M.D., a former competitive swimmer who was a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Committee medical staff. He's now a New York City orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine. "The most common cause of injury is going too far, too fast, too soon, but it can often be prevented if you bring the body along slowly."

Prepare to play

Before starting or changing an exercise program, get the OK from your health care provider. Once you're cleared, then start your workouts gently and slowly, and work up to more aggressive training or play. Use the 10 percent rule: When changing your activity level, increase it in increments of no more than 10 percent per week.

"If you normally walk two miles a day and want to improve your fitness, don't suddenly jump to four miles," says Dr. Rodeo. "Slowly build up to more miles until you reach your goal."

Before starting your workout, always warm up first. Your warm-up should include three to five minutes of low-level cardiovascular exercise such as light jogging, brisk walking, or cycling and easy movement patterns to mimic your sports activity.

When your muscles have warmed up, you should stretch, focusing on the muscles you will use in your exercise routine. Hold each stretch for 20 to 60 seconds. Don't stretch to the point of pain.

When you begin your exercise, listen to your body. If you feel pain, stop. "As you age, you may find you lose flexibility or your body can't tolerate the same activities it once did," Dr. Rodeo says. "You can prevent injury by modifying your activities to accommodate your abilities."

After finishing your exercise routine, take time for a cool-down. A cool-down can help minimize lightheadedness and sore muscles, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) says. During your cool-down decrease the intensity of your exercise. Continue this for five to 10 minutes and follow with light stretching, the ACSM says.

Use good technique

Learn the correct technique for your sport or activity and practice it. This can help keep you from putting undue stress on your joints.

"Olympic athletes work long and hard to maximize their movement patterns and allow for efficient movement," says Dr. Rodeo.

Lessons are a worthwhile investment, whether you're a beginner or have been playing sports for a long time. Proper form and instruction reduce the chance of developing an overuse injury, such as tendonitis or stress fractures.

In addition to good technique, you should use the proper equipment for your sport. Bicycle helmets, kneepads, and protective goggles are examples of equipment that must fit properly and be worn consistently. Make sure whatever equipment you use is in good condition.

Strive for regular exercise

Don't be a "weekend warrior." Compressing your physical activity into one or two days can lead to overuse injuries and won't improve your fitness. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week.

Develop a fitness program that includes not only aerobic exercise, but also strength training and stretches.

"Besides providing a total-body workout, a balanced program will keep you from getting bored and reduce your chance for injury," Dr. Rodeo says.