Most of us are familiar with the huffing, puffing and aching muscles that always seem to accompany pre-season conditioning for sports; you’ve either experienced it yourself, or witnessed it in your children. This year, there’s an additional reason to make sure your kids ease into exercise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many activities being canceled, including youth sports. That, in combination with the lack of recess and physical education classes due to online learning, has resulted in kids being less active.

With spring and summer sports starting up again, it’s important to make sure children are properly prepared to get back into the game.

Conditions for conditioning

According to Jeremy Rush, MD, pediatric orthopedic surgeon with Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Sports Medicine Program director at Nemours Children’s Health System, conditioning is exercise or training that improves an athlete’s performance and helps prevent injury.

“A good conditioning program incorporates different components like strength training, power, agility, endurance, flexibility and stretching, and coordination,” he explained. It’s important to note that conditioning programs vary based on the child’s age, sport and previous conditioning level.

Dr. Rush recommends six to eight weeks of conditioning before participating in a full-strength sporting event. He also suggests seeking the guidance of an experienced professional, like a physical therapist, school athletic trainer or personal trainer. A pre-sports physical with your child’s pediatrician or primary care physician is a good place to start.

Heating up

In Florida, the spring and summer months can get very hot, and our bodies need to acclimate to the heat. Nicholas Peterkin, MD, a family physician with Baptist Primary Care who specializes in sports medicine, suggests building heat tolerance slowly.

“It’ll take the body up to 48 hours to make the changes to accommodate to a hotter environment,” he said. These changes will improve your ability to sweat and help manage body heat. To help with this process, his recommendation is to start exercising in small amounts, 15-20 minutes max for the first few days. This will give your body time to increase your heat tolerance and lower your risk for heat-related injuries.

Because everyone sweats at a different rate, hydration is important. Peterkin advises consuming sports drinks for activities longer than 45 minutes at a time. He explains that sports drinks are better than water in these cases because they were designed for endurance sports. “The salts and sugar added help avoid dehydration. Good hydration can offset fainting or muscle cramping.”

Sleep tight

According to Dr. Peterkin, most sports injuries happen when a person is tired. When our muscles are tired, our risk for injury increases. This is because tired muscles are more prone to tears. Additionally, sleep deprivation can decrease mental alertness, which can lead to technical mistakes.

“Athletes need to rest well and listen to their bodies, including taking breaks when needed,” he said. If a child stays up late doing homework or surfing the internet the night before an early game or practice, he or she may become sleep-deprived and at increased risk for injury.

Put me in, coach!

Young athletes should be fully participating in practice for one to two weeks without any difficulty or pain before entering a game or competition. It’s important for these kids and teens to be honest with their parents and coaches about their physical condition. No one should play through the pain just to get back in action.

If a child appears to be hurt, Dr. Rush notes it’s important to remember there’s a difference between being sore and being injured. “It’s one thing if a player is sore after practice and it goes away the next day,” he said. “If the pain is still there the next day, or it’s getting worse, it may be time to call your doctor.”

Wolfson Children’s Hospital was ranked among the 50 Best Children’s Hospitals for Orthopedics by U.S. News & World Report. If your child has an injury that isn’t getting better, Wolfson Children’s Hospital and its partner, Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, Jacksonville, provide comprehensive pediatric orthopedic and sports medicine services for kids and teens of all ages. For information, call 904.697.3600.

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