Staying Healthy and Injury-Free During Summer Practices
It’s no secret that Texas summers can be extremely hot and humid, making it a less-than-ideal time for doing a lot outdoors, especially preseason practices. Despite the heat, many athletes, spirit squads and marching bands practice outdoors leading up to the upcoming school year, which can be hard on your child. We spoke to J.D. Shields, a certified athletic trainer and athletic training outreach manager on the staff at Texas Health Sports Medicine, to learn about the biggest risks when training outdoors this summer and how you can best prepare your child to have an injury-free preseason.
If your child has been spending more time indoors than outdoors this summer, suddenly spending long hours outside in the heat could potentially lead to injury, which is why Shields suggests getting acclimated to the heat before preseason training starts.
“At least a week, ideally two weeks, ahead of time, start exposing yourself to the heat,” Shields explains. “You can start with 20 minutes in the heat followed by a 10-minute break, and progress to 30 minutes in the heat followed by a 10-minute break, and so on until you work your way up to the amount of time you’ll be out in the heat during practice.”
Shields adds that it’s important to do activities outdoors around the same times your child will be practicing, because the environmental conditions will be similar to what they will be experiencing on a daily basis.
When you sweat, you lose sodium. Sodium is vital to control how much water is in and around the cells in your body. When you have too little sodium in your body, it’s referred to as hyponatremia, and it can cause many symptoms similar to dehydration, such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue and muscle cramps, along with an increased risk of injury.
When temperatures soar, dehydration is a valid concern among parents, coaches and athletes alike. But staying hydrated doesn’t necessarily mean drinking gallons of water. In fact, Shields says drinking excess fluids can actually contribute to hyponatremia.
“You develop [hyponatremia] from drinking excess fluids and not eating. What is traditionally taught is hydration, but what is lost is the nutritional component,” Shields explains. “When I speak to athletes about dehydration, I always couple it with nutrition. Think of dehydration in terms of your food intake as well as your fluid intake. If you are only concerned with adding water to your body to counteract dehydration, you’re going to further dilute the sodium levels in your body. Instead, look at it as replacing 50 percent of weight lost through sweat with food and the other 50 percent with fluid.”
As for sports drinks which have sodium and other nutrients and minerals lost through sweat, Shields says he suggests only drinking one serving per workout.
“I don’t push [sports drinks] because I don’t want that to be a sole source for sodium,” he explains. “I would aim for just one sports drink per workout because I don’t want athletes to think the sports drink is a meal replacement.”
Don’t be Afraid of Salt
While many are told to limit their sodium intake, athletes who work out in the heat need sodium, as referenced earlier. As Shields mentions, one of the best ways to keep your sodium levels up and counteract the amount of fluid you’re taking in is by consuming well-balanced foods that offer protein, carbohydrates and sodium.
“For so long we’ve called breaks during practices ‘water breaks’ but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a snack during that break,” Shields says. “If you can prepare a snack ahead of time to have during your break, that’s good — but be smart about your snacks. Think in terms of what is the bare minimum and what is going to take the least amount of time.
“For example, if you’re going to pack some fruit, make sure it’s already peeled or chopped up, so you’re not spending time during your break preparing the snack before you even have the opportunity to eat it.”
Some simple snacks to pack include:
- Beef jerky and crackers
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Energy bars
“I always say if you want to pack fruit, sprinkle a little bit of salt on it so that you’re replacing that sodium loss,” Shields adds. “I tell my athletes that and they look at me funny, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!”
Make Time for Recovery
There’s no doubt that after a long day outside, your child will be tired. While summertime can make it easy to blur bedtime rules that are normally hard and fast during the school year, adequate rest and recovery are important aspects when preventing injuries.
As a general rule of thumb, the harder the workout, the longer the rest and recovery should be. Although it may be tempting for children to play a quick pick-up game between morning and afternoon practices, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least two hours between two-a-day practices to allow for sufficient recovery and rehydration. According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers require about eight to 10 hours of sleep each night to perform at their best.
“If you know you need seven or eight hours of sleep, then you need to count back from what time you have to wake up and give yourself a hard time for lights off, electronics powered down and eyes closed,” Shields says.
Another pivotal piece of recovery involves stretching, something that Shields says many young athletes forget about or underestimate the value of.
“Be consistent with your stretching,” he explains. “If you take 15 minutes out of your day to stretch, even if you commit to stretching at that time every day, 24 hours are going to pass before you stretch again. I always tell my athletes, ‘for every hour you’re awake, spend one to two minutes of that hour stretching.’ So if you’re awake for 12 hours that day, you have at least 12 minutes of stretching that you’ve done throughout the day, and that’s really what’s going to target and alleviate soreness and prevent injury.”
Muscle soreness is a common complaint during preseason practices due to working muscles that may not have been worked before or in a long time. While soreness may be common, pain shouldn’t be. Shields explains that any soreness that may be present before practice will most likely be alleviated by the end of practice, but if the pain your child is experiencing at the beginning of practice is the same or worse at the end of practice, that’s a cause for concern.
Some injury red flags to be on the lookout for from your child are:
- Deformity of the painful limb
- Warmth or tingling
- Significant decrease in range of motion
- Inability to walk or add pressure to affected limb
“We all modify our gait when we are sore, but if we slow down and attempt to walk normally, we can achieve that,” Shields says. “But the absolute inability to walk naturally is a red flag.”
If the injury is not severe, athletes may utilize the R.I.C.E. method, which stands for the use of rest, ice, compression and elevation for 48 hours to decrease pain and bring swelling down. Over-the-counter medications may also provide some relief. Aspirin and ibuprofen will reduce both pain and swelling, but while acetaminophen will relieve pain, it will not help with swelling.
If the injury does not improve with the treatment noted above or gets worse, the child should see a doctor as soon as possible.
Preparation is the Key to Success
Above all, Shields says having a successful preseason starts with preparation; preparing for training outdoors, preparing a strategy for nutrition and hydration, and preparing for good rest and recovery.
“Success is a learned behavior,” Shields explains. “To ward off any failure, you have to prepare ahead of time.”
Nutrition is something that Shields says he often sees fall through the cracks, but it can be easily fixed with some simple preparation. A few questions he suggests you talk through with your child before preseason training include:
- “What time is your practice in the morning, and what time do you need to wake up to eat a nutritious breakfast?”
- “Are you going to have time to get a snack during practice or should we pack a snack?”
- “Do we need to pack a lunch for you to eat during practice or will you have the opportunity to leave?”
- “Will you be able to come home straight after practice and eat a snack, or should we pack multiple snacks?”
Asking these questions can help highlight steps you and your child can take to better prepare and identify needs or opportunities for potentially missed meals. For example, if you identify that your child may be in a rush in the morning before heading to practice, you can plan to pre-cook some bacon or sausage and make breakfast burritos the night before that can be easily popped in the microwave in the morning to ensure he or she doesn’t miss out on a meal.
“Many times when I talk with a student-athlete who is showing signs of overexertion, injury or heat exhaustion, I ask them when the last time they ate was, and more often than not they haven’t eaten in a significant period of time,” Shields says. “I’m talking 12 hours, even 24 hours. And it’s not out of malicious intent; these kids are just so busy with everything that’s going on in their lives that they don’t even realize it’s been that long since they’ve eaten. So preparation is really the key to success. Take a little bit of time to make sure you’re going to have snacks on hand or lunch prepared, whatever you need to make it easier for your child to get the nutrition they need.”