As students head back to school this week, athletes in fall sports are getting their bodies back into the game after summer vacation.
“Whether you have been active all summer or laying by the beach, you probably are not ready for the competitive demands of pre-season training,” said Stephanie Stefanelli, a certified athletic trainer with UCHealth SportsMed Clinic who supports student athletes throughout the Steamboat Springs School District. “It’s important to be mindful of your approach to this increase in energy demand.”
With a fall sports roster that might include football, volleyball, soccer, cross country, cheerleading, tennis or golf, teens and parents should keep safety front and center as student athletes return to the field, gym, track and course.
Heat, hydration and acclimatization
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat illness during practice or competition is a leading cause of death and disability among U.S. high school athletes.
“The best prevention of heat-related illnesses is hydration and proper acclimatization,” said Stefanelli.
Early identification of symptoms such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and fatigue lead to greater recovery rates. Stefanelli stresses building in water breaks and if possible, not practicing during the hottest time of the day.
“Make a hydration plan to focus on drinking water regularly and do not use thirst as your guide,” she said. “Stay ahead of it and be prepared. If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.”
- Monitor fluid intake and loss. If possible, weigh in before and after practice. For every pound lost, drink between16-24 ounces of fluid, or take in 12 ounces of fluid for every 30 minutes of exercise.
- Switch to sports drinks if exercising longer than 60 minutes, and remember that hydration also comes from foods such as watermelon, grapefruit, strawberries and cantaloupe.
- Watch for signs of dehydration and a decrease in energy, coordination and performance. If that occurs, get to shade and cool down with iced towels or ice packs on the neck, armpits and groin, or submerge in an ice bath.
Acclimatization is the body’s ability to adapt to the environment, which in Steamboat means an altitude of 6,732 feet. For those new to town, or those who have been away for the summer, it typically takes from seven to 14 days of continual exposure to adjust. During that period, Stefanelli recommends exercising 90 minutes to two hours per day, continuously or staggered, with a day off during that period.
Other prevention tips
Getting enough sleep and proper nutrition are key to staying healthy for sports. Quantity and quality of sleep is critical to performance as well as mental and physical health. Eat healthy snacks and meals, including “recovery food” consumed 30 minutes after working out and then, a full meal 60-90 minutes after that. Foods can include protein and carbohydrates; dairy, such as flavored milk, smoothies or yogurt are other options.
“You’re burning a lot of calories, and you need to replace them,” said Stefanelli.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I going to my sport with injuries – either pre-existing or a new one that happened over the summer?’ If so, you need to manage it appropriately before jumping back in,” said Stefanelli. “Communicate with your coaches and athletic trainer, and modify activity as needed.”
To avoid injuries such as strains, sprains and stress fractures, Stefanelli said rest one day each week and instead, swap in a low-intensity activity such as yoga, swimming or biking. Also, don’t forget strength training, flexibility and stretching, as it enables muscles to function optimally during activities.
And remember, your muscles aren’t the only part of your body getting a workout: Cardiovascular fitness — meaning how well your heart, lungs and organs use oxygen during exercise — is another benefit of mixing high- and low-intensity exercise.
One last reminder: An annual physical is a requirement for participation in all Colorado High School Activities Association sports.
“This is a great time to talk to your primary care provider about any medical conditions or orthopedic concerns that you may have,” said Stefanelli.