As lockdown restrictions gradually show signs of easing, many of us are itching to get back to our favourite sport or hobby and are relishing the opportunity to meet up with a few friends for a kick about in the local park or go for a walk in the woods with our loved ones. After over three months of day-to-day restrictions, lockdown has been a time for reflection and contemplation for some and frustration for others.
Here are some top tips for maximising your time now, so that you are less likely to suffer from those irritating niggles later when you return to your sport:
1) Maintain good cardiovascular fitness
Good cardiovascular fitness is simple really – do an activity that you enjoy that gets your heart racing, gets you sweaty and out of breath for at least 30 minutes 5 times per week. This include cycling outdoors or on an indoor static bike, jogging, cross training, rowing machine, skipping, HIIT training or very brisk walking (preferably with some incline!). Walking is fantastic (and it can offer many other health benefits – but having a gentle stroll where you can easily hold a conversation does not count as cardiovascular exercise!).
How does cardiovascular exercise affect the heart?
The heart is a special muscle made up of cardiac muscle fibres (different to the muscles found in your arms or legs – which are known as skeletal muscles). The basic demand of beating to keep blood pumping around our body provides minimal stress and challenge for a healthy heart. By exercising with intensity and increasing exertion, we put increased demand on our heart to supply our muscles with greater volumes of oxygen rich blood at a greater rate. This leads to increased heart rate as well as a more powerful heartbeat or pump action. As this is repeated over time, the heart grows in size (hypertrophies) just like any other muscle, in order to cope with greater demands applied to it in future. Hence you are able to cycle and run for longer and faster without getting as breathless and tired. Your resting heart rate will decrease (as you will have a large, strong, muscular heart which needs to beat less often) and your heart rate will reduce back to normal more quickly after an intense period of exercise (we use this as a way to measure someone’s fitness e.g. how many minutes for someone’s maximal heart rate to drop back to resting rate, immediately after intense exercise – the less time it takes, the more ‘fit’ a person is). Benefits of cardiovascular fitness Good cardiovascular fitness will reduce the risk of mortality from many different illnesses including heart disease, many cancers, obesity associated disorders, diabetes, hypertension and many, many more. Not only will it increase your life span, it will also increase your quality of life, allowing you to continue doing the things you enjoy into older age. This means more independence in your life and less dependence on medication which come with an array of unwanted side effects.
Which exercise is best for me?
Your current level of fitness, your weight and any underlying injuries will help to guide what is and what isn’t appropriate cardio for you to undertake. If you are unsure, consult your local physiotherapist or doctor who can guide you on a sensible programme. Some forms of cardio e.g. high intensity interval training (HIIT) are fantastic for burning calories quickly and working your heart rate to the max, however the risk of injury is slightly higher than for say cycling, brisk walking or jogging, so it is always best to start with more gentle activities and condition your muscles gradually so that they can tolerate more intensive forms of exercise. One mistake we commonly see as a cause of injury is ‘too much too soon’, or the ‘boom-bust cycle’ where people suddenly embark on an intensive exercise programme without adequately preparing their body. This often leads to an overuse injury which can take several weeks to recover from thereby reversing all your hard work and effort which can be very demoralising. Don’t let this be you, if you are unsure get some professional help from a physio who can set you up with a realistic and safe workout programme that’s tailored to your ability.
Physiotherapist or personal trainer?
Although personal trainers have a fantastic knowledge of exercises to increase fitness and develop muscle strength and conditioning, a physiotherapist has expertise in orthopaedic problems and injury prevention. Therefore, it is best to find a physiotherapist with an interest in strength and conditioning who can help you to both find a programme that will help you to achieve your goals quickly but without any unwanted injuries along the way.
2) Maintain good muscle strength
If football or cycling is your main hobby, jumping into the weights room might not be on the top of your priority list when considering a return to play – but it should be! If the pros are doing it then why shouldn’t you, right? For many years weightlifting was considered a niche activity for a small minority of the population (bodybuilders, power lifters and so forth). Fast forward 30 years and every competitive sports man and woman is dedicating a decent chunk (10-30%) of their time to resistance training. Building stronger muscles will allow you to exert more power as well as provide you with more endurance for your sport and will also reduce your risk of injury. There are two types of injury in sport 1) overuse & 2) traumatic injury. Overuse may be tennis elbow for a tennis player or Achilles tendonitis in a football player. Having stronger muscles and tendons will help protect your tendons, making them less susceptible to overload during your sport.
Where trauma is concerned, take an ACL injury in football, having stronger thigh and gluteal muscles will reduce knee torque and allows the knee to withstand greater forces before ligaments are torn.
Where to start?
Get yourself a set of second hand dumbbells (spin lock variety are the most versatile, easy to come by and often the cheapest). You can perform hundreds of different exercises with dumbbells both for isolation (targeting a single muscle group e.g. biceps curl, triceps kick back) or compound exercises (targeting several muscles at once e.g. a squat, lunge or deadlift). 3-4 sessions targeting different muscle groups per week should be plenty, allowing for rest days and ensuring that you allow at least 4-5 days recovery for each individual muscle group. If you are just starting out, it may be best to complete 4 global sessions per week for 6-8 weeks to get your body conditioned to weight lifting e.g. upper body, lower body, upper body, lower body with sufficient rest intervals. Also, ensure that you start with a light weight that you can comfortably perform 10-12 reps of each exercise for 3-5 sets with a 1 minute rest between each, before increasing the intensity.
3) Keep flexible
Despite the limited reliable research in this area, if you ask any sports professional about this topic they will gladly share with you the benefits of a regular stretching regime. Regular stretching does not lengthen muscle fibres, rather it allows muscles to adapt more adeptly to positions in a lengthened state. Among our muscles fibres or sarcomeres are specialised cells including stretch receptors known as muscle spindles. These muscles spindles detect the rate and extent at which our muscles lengthen. Regular stretching of muscles for a sustained period e.g. at least 30-60 second holds, 5-7 times per week, has been shown to improve a person’s flexibility. There is still an argument about what type of stretching is best. Traditional static
stretching (where you hold a stretch without moving for 30-60 seconds) is recommended after activity, e.g. immediately after you finish a run whilst your muscles are still warm. Dynamic stretching where you gently move back and forth in and out of a stretch is recommended before undertaking a sporting activity. The reason we suggest avoiding excessive stretching before an activity is that research suggests that prolonged stretching before an activity temporarily weakens a muscle for up to 30 minutes – not what you need before a hill climb enduro or powerlifting competition! The reason for this is what is known as a neuromuscular inhibitory response that occurs when the stimulus of sustained stretch is applied to the muscle spindles. Therefore, we recommend a rigorous warm up which should be around 5-10 minutes in duration. A warm up should be tailored to the sport you are about to undertake e.g. before football start with gentle jogging for a few minutes and then start to perform multi-directional movements, perhaps shuttle runs or gentle cone drills, and of course – ball work. If you are lifting weights, perform 5 minutes of gentle cardio followed by a light set, i.e. approximately 40% of the maximal weight you intend to lift during your main set, using high reps (15-20 reps).
Why warm up?
A warm up is vital as it prepares the body for the activity it is about to undertake and greatly reduces the risk of a muscle strain. Gentle movements as suggested above help to encourage blood flow to the skeletal muscles as well as gradually elevating the heart rate. This helps to stimulate the nervous system allowing muscles to activate in anticipation for the activity they are about to undertake and it also raises your body temperature to make muscles more pliable and able to cope with sudden changes in length.
The bottom line
– Try and undertake 30 minutes of moderate-high intensity cardiovascular exercise 5 times per week.
– Pencil in at least three 45 minute strength and conditioning sessions per week.
– Take time to effectively warm up for 5-10 minutes before each activity and don’t skip the cool down and stretches – these are just as important as your main workout!
As ever thanks for reading
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