In the sporting arena soft tissue injuries are hugely common. Not only are they common, but they play a massive part in the overall outcome of matches, from amateur level all the way up to the professional tier.
With the increasing advancements in health, fitness and various kinds of therapy, it actually baffles me at how many pro-level athletes are still continuously getting non-impact based injuries these days. The tools for players and coaches to prevent this are out there, so why is this still happening?
By the end of this article I endeavour to give you have a clearer understanding as to what you need to do to train effectively for injury prevention and how you can seamlessly blend this into your current performance training regime.
The basic principle
Let’s start with the basics, when I speak of soft tissue injury in this setting I am referring to injuries affecting muscle, tendon and ligament tissue. In this context it is very simple, the stronger you are (especially in the eccentric phase of a movement, including how well you can absorb force) the less likely you are to get injured. Essentially, our eccentric strength is fundamental to preventing injury, but other factors like fatigue and flexibility play into it too. Read on to find out how…
What is eccentric strength?
Eccentric strength refers to when the muscle lengthens under tension or load (for example, the downward part of pretty much any training movement). It is easy to think of eccentric strength in a gym based setting, however it is present in all aspects of our everyday lives as well as in sport.
The easiest way to think of how eccentric strength affects athletes is when they are running and they work to slow themselves down or change direction. At this moment of deceleration when the heel strikes the ground hard, the hamstring muscle group is worked hard eccentrically which can cause injury if the muscle is not strong enough. Hamstring injuries are the most common in all sports and it has been widely shown that eccentric strength and the ratio of strength between the quadriceps and hamstrings has a lot to do with this. This simply means that if the quadriceps muscle strength greatly outweighs the strength of the hamstrings muscle, a higher risk of injury can be present.
How do we train eccentrically?
There are two main ways in which I get my clients to train their eccentric strength. The first of these is the most basic and should be a part of everyone’s training plan. This method is simply accentuating the eccentric portion of any lift, especially when strength training.
The way to think about this is simply slowing the downward phase of the movement, this lengthens the time under tension (TUT) of the whole movement while placing a huge focus on the part we want to strengthen. If you haven’t already read my piece on tempo then scroll to article 3, which will explain this in more detail.
For a quick example let’s think about a bench press – take 3 seconds to lower the bar to your chest then 1 second the press it back up and you’ll quickly improve your overall strength as well as your eccentric strength. Yes, it makes training harder but trust me it’ll be ten times more effective.
The second way in which I train my clients to improve their eccentric strength is to teach them how to absorb force. This couldn’t be more simple and is often avoided due to it being somewhat tedious to most people. The majority of trainers or trainees will just past this and go straight to plyometric work, however this can be a little risky if the athlete cannot absorb ground reaction forces well.
Think about the most basic drill (for example, jumping off a small step and landing in a half squat position) and think about how this can apply to performance as well as injury. If you didn’t guess it already, for performance this drill works to teach the athlete how to land in a strong and stable position in which they can then take off from with improved power. From an injury perspective this teaches any athlete to control their own body position either when landing or transitioning between movements, if someone cannot do this they put themselves at risk of multiple types of musculoskeletal injuries at the knee ankle and hip joints.
Training only eccentric reps
This is a slightly different way of working your muscles but slightly awkward as most of the time you’ll need a spotter to help, otherwise it doesn’t work at all and you’ll end up pinned under a bar-which nobody wants!
How to do it:
Let’s take the bench press, for example. Start by loading the bar up with roughly your one rep max (if you don’t know what this might be, note the point at the bottom and apply it to your 3 rep or 5 rep max). Un-rack the bar and lower it to your chest as slow as possible and then press the bar back up with the help of your spotter (this should not be a struggle/forced rep) and then repeat.
When relating this to sports performance, how we use this to train the hamstrings is of the upmost importance. Lucky for us we can train these without the help of a spotter. When training hip extension we can use the eccentric of a Romanian deadlift and use a conventional deadlift for the concentric part. When we train the knee flexion pattern we can use two legs on the concentric part of the curl and a single leg for the eccentric portion.
On average, you are 40% stronger eccentrically than concentrically so bare this in mind when selecting weights while training with this method.
Fatigue and its effects on injury occurrence
It is well documented that fatigue has a huge effect on injury rates in sport and it is no surprise that the majority of these happen in the last third of playing time. The majority of all injuries also occur to the musculoskeletal system.
Fatigue affects every part of us. When the central nervous system becomes fatigued our decision making and our landing/body positions become greatly challenged, which increases our risk of injury, especially in the form of muscle strains. When our energy systems and force producing mechanisms become fatigued it should go without saying that we have are at an increased risk of injury.
The take-home from this part is simple, get fitter. Yes, it’s most people’s least favourite way to train simply because it’s hard but improving your conditioning (whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic) will decrease your risk of injury by prolonging the time you can control your own body and perform at your best.
The many variables and different ways to train like this make it too long of a topic to fully cover in this blog, however contact me directly for more information and you never know, I may do a blog solely for it in the future.
Flexibility’s effects on injury.
This is often a forgotten topic by many when looking at injury prevention and sports performance. When referring to flexibility here, I mean the range of motion available at a joint or in a movement pattern.
In research conducted on muscle injuries, reduced flexibility of the hamstrings has been shown to be one of the leading factors associated with injury. This is because, in sports which require a large amount of sprinting, jumping and changes in direction at speed, we require a muscle/tendon unit which is compliant enough to store and release high amounts of elastic energy which will obviously benefit performance. Without sufficient flexibility the demands of this elastic energy will quickly exceed the capacity of the muscle/tendon leading to an increased risk of injury.
Becoming more flexible isn’t difficult, it just requires attention and patience. Head to my Instagram page and scroll down for my mobility series and keep your eye out for my new #mobilitymondays coming soon to aid you all in this process. Until you do seek out specific mobility/flexibility exercises the first thing you can do is just start doing something related to it, because I guarantee half of you reading this haven’t stretched in a very long time! Anything you do right now will be a good starting point.
Training for injury prevention is of huge importance to a lot of us, so let’s do it right. It’s always very simple, just never very easy. Take the points above into account- get stronger, get fitter and get more flexible. Give your workouts 10% more effort and you’ll be greatly rewarded in the long run.