Spring Training
How to Stay in the Game All Season

By Marian Jones   Fox News
NEW YORK — A lone athlete stands on a ball field under a cloud-whipped sky, scowling at the heavens for delivering yet another sidelining injury.

William Tolan/FOXNews.com
Photo Essay: Betting on Batting

Ka-booom. The sky opens up. A voice thunders out:

"Youu did nooot streeetchhhh."

"I know, I know," the athlete says. "I should stretch. I should warm up. I just ... I don't have time."

"Yooouuuu mussst fiiind tiiiiiime." Ka-boom.

It's quite unpleasant when the sky opens up to tell you something — especially when it's true. But spring training will turn into summer spraining if you don't properly prepare your body.

"You get in shape to play sports. You don't play sports to get in shape," says Dr. Robert P. Nirschl, head of the Nirschl Orthopedic Sports Medicine Clinic in Arlington, Va.

"If you've been idle over the winter, you have to recondition yourself," adds Dr. Stephen G. Rice, co-director of Jersey Shore Sports Medicine Center in Neptune, N.J.

This reconditioning happens through steady, light activity, Rice says.

Betting on Batting

We think of softball as a fun social outlet, but it can lead to injuries. "The real problem is a person who is 50 pounds overweight, sucks down beer all day long, goes to a company picnic and ruptures his Achilles tendon playing softball," Nirschl says.

Nirschl recommends that people who have had prior injuries get a good workup from a specialist to diagnose weak points before heading out onto the field. The specialist can then recommend strengthening and stretching exercises for these areas.

Rice, who's played on adult softball leagues for 30 years, advises any amateur player first go out about six to 10 times before the first game.

"If you use the analogy of the Major Leagues, first they start out in spring training, they start out stretching and throwing really lightly to get used to participating," Rice said. "Next they start batting practice," he added. "But they don't do 1,000 swings the first day."

Preparing for Court

The same basic principles that apply to softball conditioning also apply to tennis: Get in shape gradually, stretch and strengthen.

But tennis' start-stop-thwack-type of movement requires additional precautions.

William Tolan/FOXNews.com
Photo Essay: Preparing for Court

"The main thing to do is to stretch, especially the calf muscles and the hamstrings," says Dr. Lloyd Nesbitt, author of an article on tennis fitness in the May 1998 issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.

"It's also important that you wear tennis shoes, not running shoes," Nesbitt adds. "Tennis shoes are built for side-to-side motion and running shoes are built for forward motion."

The tennis shoes should have a finger-length of toe room to prevent a condition known as "tennis toe," Nesbitt says — a blackening of the toenail which happens when the toe repeatedly jams into the front of the shoe during the sport's frequent stops.

At particular risk are women who wear high-heeled shoes — they often have tight calf muscles which can snap if they are not stretched out.

Body Prep

Rotator cuff injuries — tearing or inflammation in the group of shoulder muscles that control throwing and overhead reaching — are common among tennis and softball players.

To avoid these problems as well as tennis elbow, Nirschl recommends light upper body weight lifting, including wrist curls, elbow curls, rows and military presses.

On the aerobic side, jogging is good preparation for most spring sports, provided you stretch, start slowly and do it in moderation, doctors recommend. "A running program helps maintain a good level of play [in tennis] and is good exercise for lower leg muscles," said Nesbitt.

Finally, the common sense rules of activity apply to spring sports just as much as other activities: Drink plenty of water, use equipment that fits you and get an expert to teach you proper technique.

The extra efforts you make can keep you from missing the best part of the season. Just don't expect a voice from the sky to be your motivation.