By Craig Finlayson, MD
With the first snowfall of the year, cooler temperatures have made their return. Unfortunately, the youth sports calendar doesn’t always conform to Chicago’s weather, so let’s take some time to discuss ways to prevent injuries as winter approaches.
Cold weather tends to make the muscles less flexible, which may increase the risk of muscle and tendon injuries, even in young athletes. Exposure to the elements may also result in frostbite or hypothermia. Completing a proper warm-up and maintaining proper body heat are the keys to limiting these cold-weather injuries, but other factors may be equally important.
Check the Field or Court
Prior to a game or practice in cold, inclement weather, the playing surface should be inspected to ensure that it is safe for play. As the snow begins, outdoor surfaces can become hard and/or slippery, which may increase the frequency and severity of falls. If conditions are not safe, the event should be postponed or moved to a suitable location.
Dress for the Weather
Before heading out, make sure your athlete is dressed properly for the conditions. Although the nature and regulations of certain sports may limit the kind of clothes that your child can wear, a layering approach is best and should include the following:
- Base layer: wool or moisture-wicking synthetics
- Middle layer: wool, down or fleece
- Outer layer: wind/water resistant material
Exposed skin should be covered – especially the hands and ears. They are vulnerable to cold injuries, even during strenuous exercise.
Don’t Forget to Warm Up
Once your athlete is dressed appropriately, it’s time to warm up. The goal is to increase blood flow to the muscles and to prepare them for action. If possible, the warm-up may begin indoors or in a heated environment, and the outer layers can be removed.
The warm-up should be at least 10-15 minutes and should include increasingly strenuous exercise as well as dynamic stretching. Begin warm-ups with light jogging and dynamic stretches, and follow that with agility work and short sprints.
Dynamic stretching is important to incorporate into warm-ups and has a number of benefits. It involves stretching a muscle throughout a range of motion and encourages muscle activation as well as elongation. Static stretches, such as holding a fixed position for extended periods, should not be performed during the warm-up period because they may actually impair muscle function during exercise.
A few examples of dynamic stretches are:
- Walking lunges: Step forward with a long stride and drop the back knee towards the ground. Keep the front knee over the ankle and perform in a controlled fashion.
- Butt kicks: Walk forward while kicking the heels in towards toward the buttocks.
- High step: Walk forward while lifting the knee straight up. Start with the lifted knee bent and then progress to a kicking motion with the knee straight.
- Leg swings: While holding onto something stable, swing one leg to your side and then back and across your torso.
Stay Hydrated & Take Breaks
Remember that maintaining body heat requires additional energy and fluids, so make sure that your athlete has had adequate food intake and is well-hydrated before and during outdoor events. Lastly, don’t forget to take a break from the cold and warm up as needed.
By following these tips, we can help make this a safer season for our young athletes.
Dr. Craig Finlayson is a surgeon in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.