Opinion: Preventing hamstring strains in field sports | The Courier

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Field sports are all the team sports played on an oval or rectangular pitch, including Australian Rules football, soccer, rugby codes, cricket, and hockey. In these sports, an all too common injury is the hamstring strain. The hamstrings muscle group is located at the back of the thigh, and consists of four muscles that collectively function to produce hip extension (thigh rotating backward), as well as knee flexion (knee angle getting smaller). There are many situations in field sports where the hamstrings are vulnerable to tearing due to the often, unpredictable nature of competition where athletes are required to execute skills under pressure. Usually, a hamstring muscle is damaged when it is required to stretch while producing a lot of force. A typical example is the time just before the foot hits the ground when sprinting with maximum effort. Hamstring strain injuries are frustrating for players, but also costly to sporting clubs and the health care system. In the AFL, hamstring strains are responsible for more games missed than any other injury. So, what can be done to reduce the risk of this injury? There are many factors that explain the risk of hamstring strain. HAVE YOUR SAY BELOW. Some that we can’t control are our age (older athletes at greater risk), and injury history. If you have had a hamstring injury before, you are more likely to experience another. However, there are definitely some factors that we can influence to reduce the risk, such as improving running mechanics, and strengthening the hamstrings. These measures are quite complex and require expertise from running coaches and strength and conditioning specialists, so interested athletes should seek out appropriate professionals to provide assistance. One strategy that we can recommend is using a progressive sprint training program. In the past, some fitness coaches used to think that sprint training itself was a high risk activity, and they were very apprehensive about prescribing sprinting in training. However, today it is more accepted to expose athletes to sprint training because this prepares them for the demands of competition. This makes sense because there are crucial situations in matches where you might have to either sprint away from an opponent or have to chase after a player in possession, and the competitive environment means this is performed at 100% effort. A few years ago, we conducted a study with youth athletes at the Maribyrnong Sports Academy. The athletes participated in a 4-week sprint training program in conjunction with their regular sports training. They performed two sessions per week, with sprints over 30-40m at 100% maximum effort, with at least 3 minutes rest between sprints. It was important that the sprints were a long enough distance for each athlete to reach the maximum possible speed that they were capable of, because research has shown that it is only at near maximum or maximum speed (greater than 90-100% of maximum) where the hamstrings have to work near their capacity. After the 4-week program, the average improvement in maximum speed for the group was about 9%. But the really interesting result was that they also improved the maximum eccentric (muscle lengthening) strength of the hamstrings by 6%, which has been shown to reduce the risk of hamstring strains. So an important principle is to aim to reach running speeds at your maximum capacity, or close to it if you want to train the hamstrings to withstand the forces that can cause injury. For a sprint program to be safe and effective, there are some other considerations to follow. First, build up gradually to sprints at 100% of your maximum speed. The athletes at Maribyrnong Sports Academy had a 4-week familiarization period where they gradually increased the speed and number of repetitions they performed. If you increase the training load gradually, the body has time to adapt to the stress. However, if you sprint too fast or do too many repetitions too quickly, the spike in training load could lead to injury. Be prepared to get a bit of soreness in the hamstrings. This is a sign that the muscles have been stressed, and if you allow enough recovery time between sessions (3-5 days), the muscles will strengthen and become more resilient. Finally, make sure that you take into account sprint efforts performed in your sport. For example, if competitive matches and team training sessions cause you to reach maximum speed 2-3 times per week, you really don’t need to do any other specific sprint training. But if only sub-maximum speeds are reached, then some “top-up” speed work should be beneficial. For safe and effective results, it’s best to get some professional advice from qualified coaches or sports medicine practitioners to guide you. Warren Young, Adjunct Associate Professor at Fed Uni Scott Talpey, Senior Lecturer at Fed Uni Brock Freeman, PhD Candidate at Fed Uni

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