The past year has been an unusual one for all of us. If you're normally active, or day we say it, an athlete, have you managed to stay active as we have swung in and out of various lockdowns? Gym closures, not being able to have a hit at hockey, the cancellation of summer leagues and minimal playing over the winter has not only been frustrating, but also leaves us all a little exposed when it comes to returning to the sport we love.
It is well recognised in sports medicine circles that specific load is one of the best ways to protect ourselves from injury, or - to put it another way - playing or training for our sport protects us from potential injury in that sport. It's not perfect of course, as injuries do happen, and circumstances can be out of our control. However, as physiotherapists, we know that if you have a period of time out, whether it’s a break from a sport, or an injury, or even just a lazy (holiday, food and fun) off season, this return to training is the time where we tend to see a spike in injuries. This is especially true during pre-season as this tends to be the period where we have to pay back the coaching staff for the past few months’ indulgences!
We are plainly in a strange and unique time, returning to sport signals a return to some semblance of normality, even if we can't hug, shake hands or high five just yet. We can adapt, and we'll continue our stick taps after matches (while we maintain our social distancing) to appreciate the efforts of our teammates and opposition. The challenge will come for many though as the training starts to increase.
Even if you have remained active during lock down, your training may not have covered all the demands of the sport. You may have done lots of straight line running, but your groin muscles may not like you as you suddenly return to changing direction or pressing the opposition in training. Maybe you enjoyed those leisurely jogs in the park, but your hamstrings tighten at even the thought of accelerating after that through ball that's gone just a little long and leaves you a 40 yard sprint to chase it down.
Even the asymmetrical nature of the game may have become more than a little unfamiliar with a few months with your stick left in the cupboard next to your work ID card. Remember lunging or getting low to defend? How are the back and hamstrings feeling after a year of working at a less than ideal home desk set-up doing your Zoom calls?
It's not all doom and gloom though: it's just important to get moving again and to build up sensibly. Not just moving any which way, but in hockey specific ways. This will start to remind your body how to play the game you love and reduce the risk of injury.
Aerobic Fitness: If you've managed to keep running through all the lockdowns and not succumbed to the call of all that boredom-induced home baking, well done! Hopefully you've got a good base to work from. Running 10 km is different from hockey running of course, but it is protective when you return to sport. If you've been injured during lockdown or the Zoom calls have been coming thick and fast and you haven't been able to get out as much as you would have liked, then it's a good idea to start steadily and get moving as soon as you can. Even if you need to start gently with a walking program, some cycling, or a walk/jog program (which we would advise if you’ve not laced up your running shoes in months!), just start to get moving.
Injury Management: If you have some ongoing niggles that you haven't sorted yet or a new injury during lockdown, now is the time to get it sorted! Be proactive: don't wait for preseason to aggravate that foot pain; book in and see your physiotherapist. We are open and here to help. If you want to go into a clinic this is possible again but with lots of precautions to protect you and the staff in the clinic. You can also access virtual physio sessions. Many people are unsure of the possible effectiveness of remote physio, but we have seen hundreds of people through lockdown, and the response has been overwhelmingly an emphatic yes! You can hear from one of our patients here about his experience with virtual physio.
Preventative exercises: Certain exercises are protective against injury. Learning to move well and practicing these movements until they become habits can help prevent injury. Our team at One Physio have put together a few key exercises to help prepare you for a return to sport.
Interval Training: Once you've developed or re-established your aerobic base then you will need to work on the ability to repeat higher intensity running efforts and gradually increase your resistance to fatigue. Pre-season training is the time to really develop this with the team, but it doesn't hurt to introduce some interval or fartlek running to your program once you have a good base.
Change of direction work: It's important to re-introduce your body to the stresses of changing direction. You can start down at the park or on the pitch at slower speeds and gradually build the pace and complexity of movement. To reintroduce change of direction, try movements like S-Bends, Zig Zags, Figure 8s and stop and go run throughs. Start just running through the movements and build the pace session to session, and then later add a stick and ball to the session.
Speed Work: Many soft tissue injuries like hamstrings strains happen during different phases of sprinting, so practicing speed work is an important and protective part of your training program. If it's been a while, start at 70% of your maximum speed and have a greater distance to build your speed over. For example you could break the pitch into 3 equal zones and build in the first zone, hold your speed through the second, and decelerate in the final zone. This ensures your body has a nice smooth transition. Later, after you've gradually built over a few sessions to 100% efforts, you could shorten the acceleration and deceleration zones.
Pilates: Pilates is fantastic for improving your body awareness and control. If you can control your spine and pelvis and gradually challenge this control with progressively harder exercises, you develop the ability to provide a stable base for other muscles to function more efficiently. This can be a massive factor in preventing injury, but it also can help improve performance. Reading Hockey has been working with One Physiotherapy to provide physiotherapy classes over the lockdown periods; you can access the recorded classes for a small fee here.
Strength work: Your favourite gym is still closed. It can be difficult to find ways to increase your strength. Start with bodyweight exercises and when you are moving well you can start to add load and be inventive. During lockdown we have had patients filling backpacks and suitcases with makeshift weights or even using the kids to challenge a movement pattern.
If you're not sure where to start, our physiotherapists can help by providing you with an exercise program specific to you. We can perform a movement screening and identify target areas to work on and then via our app based exercise software we can prescribe the right program to get you moving again. Follow the video above, which covers some of the core foundational movements needed to get you ready for sport, and includes instructions for good technique and ways to progress every exercise.
Flexibility: Next to everything else, flexibility can feel like the least important element of your fitness programme, but it’s important to think of flexibility in the context of the demands of your sport. Have you got enough length in those hamstrings to really lengthen your stride for a sprint? Do those groin muscles have enough give to let you lunge low to the ground to receive a pass? Many of us are aware of the stretches we ought to be doing but are not sure what else can be done to improve your flexibility. If you have a foam roller lurking unused in a cupboard somewhere (or even if not, it’s a worthwhile investment) you can follow the video below to improve your flexibility and work out any of those tight spots that develop as you start to increase your training.
Stick and Ball: Hockey pitches around the country are beginning to open up again and some clubs have been very proactive in following PHE guidelines and even providing small group coaching sessions. Reading Hockey Club have done a fantastic job helping people get back out on the pitch again and have made plans for returning to training, which can be found here.
Hitting a ball: This is separate to stick and ball work, as it needs special attention. While it's tempting for the first few steps on the pitch to be followed by a rocket into the top corner or a tomahawk finish to signal your return, your shoulders and back will thank you for a staged return to hitting. Start with some passing over 10-15 yards and gradually increase the distance. Get in front of the goal and knock a few goals in, gradually increasing the intensity and power. Limit the number of hits you make in the first few sessions back to re-introduce your body to the loads.