Sporty teensHigh school spring sports season has arrived. Many school districts like Seattle Public Schools  recently began practices – for baseball, softball, lacrosse, tennis, track and field, and soccer.

As the season begins, it is important to review the ways teens can keep themselves healthy and injury-free as they embark on what should be a carefree and fun experience.

Sports injuries are unfortunately common during the spring season. Common injuries include overuse injuries such as tendinitis of the shoulder and elbow, as well as sprains and strains of ligaments and muscles.  Acute injuries, such as fractures, concussions, and tears to ligaments in the knee including the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), also occur frequently.

Unfortunately, the frequency of these injuries is on the rise. In October, for example, a study from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found a more than 400 percent increase in ACL ruptures in children and adolescents over the last decade.

An Eight Step Guide for Parents To Keep Teens Injury-free

Step 1: Start Slowly

Athletes should gradually increase the frequency, intensity and duration of their sports training to avoid overuse injuries.

Step 2: Always Warm-Up

Athletes should build a warm-up into their sports routines. A new study from researchers in Sweden found that female soccer players aged 12-17 who performed a 15-minute twice weekly neuromuscular warm-up program saw a 64 percent reduction in the rate of ACL injuries.  “Many sports injuries like ACL tears occur from increasing activity too quickly. Light stretching and jogging before practices and games will help warm muscles to make them more flexible and ready for activity,” said Cordelia Carter, MD, surgeon in the department of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at Seattle Children’s. “Specific to ACL injuries, you can help avoid them by building neuromuscular training activities like plyometrics and box jumps into warm-up routines. These activities combat ACL injury risk factors such as poor core strength, improper knee landing alignment, quadriceps-hamstring muscle imbalance, and poor overall conditioning.”

Step 3: Use the Right Gear & Seek Treatment for Injuries Promptly

Using the right equipment and safety gear for the sport can lower the chance of getting hurt. Some examples of safety gear are mouth guards, pads, eye gear, and helmets.

Step 4: Cool Down and Stretch

Cooling down with stretching after activity can help prevent injuries by helping muscles recover. Teen athletes should always build cool down activities into their exercise routines.

Step 5: Drink Plenty of Fluids

Your athlete needs to stay hydrated, whether they feel thirsty or not, so it is critical for them to drink fluids before, every 20 minutes during, and after exercising.  Water is usually the best choice for hydration, but a sports drink can be a good choice if your teen has been active for more than one hour. Sports drinks help replace sodium and potassium lost in sweat. They also provide energy. The downside is that sports drinks often contain a lot of sugar. Dehydration can cause muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations and lightheadedness.

Step 6: Sleep 9-11 Hours Each Night

We cannot underestimate the benefit of a good night’s sleep to a teen athlete’s health.  “Even adolescents who are no longer gaining in height are still rapidly developing, particularly their brains, which won’t stop developing until their mid-twenties,” said Seattle Children’s RN Jen Brown. “Teens need approximately 9-11 hours of sleep a night. Encourage them to set a regular bedtime at least nine hours before they have to get up in the morning.”

Step 7: Eat Healthy

Healthy eating is critical for your teen athlete – not just during the sports season – but all year around. Teen athletes need to eat well-balanced meals, with food from each of the main food groups — grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meat and beans. Most young athletes will eat the amount of food their body needs on their own.

Don’t Diet. Unhealthy eating habits, like crash dieting, can leave teens with less strength and endurance and poorer mental concentration. Similar performance issues can come up when teens try to increase their weight too fast for sports where size matters. When a person overeats, the food the body cannot immediately use gets stored as fat. As a result, teens who overeat may gain weight, not muscle, and their physical fitness will be diminished.  If a coach, gym teacher or teammate says that your teen needs to lose or gain weight, or if you are concerned about your teen’s eating habits, talk to your doctor. The doctor can work with you and your teen or refer you to a dietitian to develop a plan that allows your teen to work on their weight in a safe and healthy way.

Eat well on game days. The meal itself should not be very different from what they have eaten throughout training.  A meal three hours or more before activity should have plenty of carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein but be low in fat because fat takes longer to digest, which can cause an upset stomach. High-fiber foods may also cause some stomach upset, so it is best to avoid these foods until after the game.  If your teen eats less than three hours before a game or practice, serve a lighter meal or snack that includes easy-to-digest carbohydrate-containing foods, such as fruit, fruit or vegetable juice, crackers or bread.

After the game or event, experts recommend eating carbohydrates (fruit, pretzels, etc.) within 30 minutes after intense activity and again two hours later. Your teen’s body will be rebuilding muscle tissue and replenishing energy stores and fluids for up to 24 hours after the competition. So it is important that the post-game meal be a balance of lean protein, carbohydrates and fat.

Step 8: Get a Sports Physical

By now, your teen should have already received their annual sports physical exam which most schools require before clearing an athlete to participate in sports. If your athlete hasn’t yet received a sports physical appointment this school year, one should be made as soon as possible. This exam is different from a yearly well-child checkup and includes sports-related questions and evaluations to make sure young athletes are ready to compete safely.