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Dr. Christina Kane: Get your joints and muscles ready – and safe – for spring and summer sports, exercise

Man and woman stretch

Fully stretching and warming up is crucial to avoiding injuries. One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking they can start at full throttle.

When warmer weather finally calls us to the great outdoors — maybe to play baseball, run track, cycle the Berkshires, enjoy a few golf rounds, hike the Appalachian Trail or even just walk around the block after dinner — it’s important to get your body ready for that long-awaited return to motion.

Doing too much too soon or too fast can cause serious injuries that will put you back on the couch in winter Netflix-binging mode. Whether you’re a high school or college athlete, a longtime fitness enthusiast or a grandparent who simply wants to join the kids for some backyard fun, there are basic tips you can follow to condition your joints and muscles for an active, injury-free season.

Go at it gradually. One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking they can start at full throttle, without fully stretching and warming up. That’s when ankles twist, ACLs tear, muscles get strained and other orthopedic injuries happen. Have the patience to gradually build your strength and endurance. Start warming up weeks before your activity begins and before every workout.

Focus on form before frequency. The way you do it, the actual form and mechanics of whatever activity you’re into, is more important than how often you do it. There are right and wrong ways to pitch a baseball, run a race, clear a hurdle, swing a racquet, kick a soccer ball or do anything else that requires focus, precision and repetition. Doing it the wrong way may not only put you on the losing side of competition; it could put you on the injury list.

Get proper coaching, watch the winning athletes, do whatever research you need to make sure you can develop and execute the proper form for your activity. Once you’ve got the form down, you can increase frequency and intensity. Give it a rest now and then. The best performers in sports understand the importance of giving their bodies a break. If you’re a high-frequency player, take at least one day off a week to let your joints and muscles recover, regain stamina.

Mix it up a little. It’s well documented that athletes who play the same sport year-round are more prone to overuse injuries than those who play multiple sports. Cross-training with different activities for different seasons offers variety and versatility, while reducing injuries.

Remember the RICE. To treat the inevitable strains and sprains that come with athletic activity, follow the simple RICE acronym for self-managing minor injuries: Rest. Ice. Compress. Elevate. See a doctor if you fail to improve.

Choose your shoes wisely. Nothing can cause injury faster than the wrong shoes, cleats or other equipment worn for sports or exercise. Invest in sensible shoes and break them in beforehand.

Check the field conditions. Even if your body’s conditioned and ready to go, a poorly groomed track, field or other surface can be catastrophic for players, runners and riders. Make sure your field of play has no uneven ground or divots.

Stay hydrated. Water is an essential to injury prevention. Dehydration can cause muscle cramps, heat stroke/exhaustion and other injuries. Drink water throughout the day and replenish fluids adequately during workouts.

Feed yourself right. There’s a key connection between the food you eat and the way you perform. Good nutrition is the fuel of champions.

Get a full night’s sleep. Lack of adequate sleep is one of the biggest health deficits of all, even if you don’t play sports or exercise. If you’re looking for peak (or even passable) performance, make sure you get those winks.

Listen to your body. It’s the best detector of orthopedic problems. Don’t play through the pain hoping you can run it off.

Christina Kane, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon with Berkshire Orthopaedic Associates, an affiliate of Berkshire Health Systems.

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