I have been prompted to write this article after many years treating the ‘over 35’s’ soccer player in my clinic, and being one myself. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it!) this demographic is one of the most common presentations during the winter months.
You may be the one – at 36 your son or daughter has just signed up to play with the U6’s. Whilst having a soccer background (or maybe played rugby but thats just too hard now) in your teens and early 20’s, marriage and family have kept you off the pitch for more than 10 years. You are a good 10kg heavier than when in your prime. You probably haven’t performed 80 minutes of aerobic activity with repeat sprint efforts for some time. Someone at the club suggests at that the Over 35’s are looking for some players and you think ‘why not, I used to love playing soccer!’ After all, like most of us your brain still thinks its 21, but the frame carrying it around may not be travelling quite as well as it used to.
I hear this every season from the person who has limped in with either an acute knee injury (often an ACL tear), or a hamstring, groin or calf tear. Other patients describe felling great in the first game, only to succumb to a severe case of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) 2-3 days after, subsequently tearing a hamstring at the next training session. As I found out after my first couple of seasons back playing, injury is far less common in players who have continued to play year in and out, than in those who have had a break, even for a year or two.
So how do we go about preventing these injuries? The most important first step is general conditioning. The mistake lots of us make, is to train once or twice and get straight in and play a game. Realistically the decision to play should be made at least 3 months before the season starts. A running based conditioning program should be undertaken for at least 6 weeks prior to even starting football related activity. Start with jogging three times a week and build up to more intense and faster conditioning sets like sprints or shuttle runs. Soccer involves a combination of both continuous low intensity running (as you track
the ball or another player on the field) and repeat sprint efforts (getting to a contest or chasing a loose ball). Most of us haven’t trained with that degree of endurance or intensity since we were a lot younger, and then try to reproduce it on ageing hamstrings for 90 minutes (with a short break for oranges). It really is a recipe for injury.
As you get closer to the start of the season, then a period of 6 weeks of soccer specific practice, involving a continuation of speed and endurance conditioning, including playing games in training should be performed before playing actual matches. This will hopefully provide a more ‘soccer hardened’ body, able to withstand traumatic injuries to the knee and ankle, as well as one more able to recover faster after games.
The last components of a successful training program would ideally include addressing some ‘prehabilitation’ exercises and recovery techniques. I think the majority who are able to complete a conditioning program as described above would be ahead of the pack, but these last components are the ‘extras’ that may prevent injury. This would include a flexibilit
y program (not just a 2 minute stretch before training!), particularly for the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors and calves. These should be performed on most days, and especially days after training and games. Exercise should involve strengthening for the thighs and buttocks (squats, lunges, etc), core strength and proprioception or balance exercises. ‘Core strength’ (a fashionable term for the deep muscles supporting the spine and pelvis) is definitely helpful in preventing hamstring tears and injuries around the groin.
Proprioceptive exercises involve using devices like a ‘wobble board’ or (even standing on a pillow with your eyes closed) to improve balance sense. This has been shown to reduce the incidence of acute injury to the knee and ankle.
Recovery techniques would after a game should also be considered. A post game warm down and stretch before reaching into the esky is recommended. Low intensity exercise the day after a game such as going for a walk, a swim or a light bike ride will aid muscle recovery and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A massage 1-2 days post game will also facilitate muscle recovery. Be careful not to neglect post game hydration, and ideally not just with alcohol!
If you do get injured then getting the problem treated early will expedite your return to the field and prevent the injury becoming a constant niggle throughout the season.