When I ask someone if they work out, a common response I hear is “Yes, I run three times a week”, or “yes, I play hockey twice a week and go skiing on weekends”, or “I play ultimate four times a week”. The list of options that people provide after the “yes” is endless, but more often than not, it does not include actual working out.

Participating in sports is good for you on so many levels: physically, socially, intellectually, and even emotionally. But can playing sports be deemed working out? Can you play sports to get in shape?

I would say that a better question is this:

Should you play sports to get in shape, or should you be in shape to play sports?

The answer to this important question is no, you shouldn’t play sports to get in shape; you should be in shape to play sports.

Why workout?

Working out is what you should do to prepare for the life you lead. For some people, that means preparing their body to be able to walk to and from work; to play with the kids at the park without back pain; or to sit at a desk all day without neck pain. For the athletes among us, it also means preparing your body to be able to jump, run, turn, stop, kick, and throw as well as possible without injury.

My philosophy about training is that we train for our activities so that we can enjoy them more and with fewer injuries. Yes working out does improve performance, but I believe that is merely a fringe benefit. Understanding that injury risk reduction is the primary goal of training is important because most weekend warriors and recreational athletes play sports for fun, and they do not work out outside of playing because running faster or jumping higher is not a priority; they just want to be out there every week.

But then I see the number of these athletes hobbling around with hamstring strains, IT band syndrome, shin splints and back pain, and I wonder if they see the correlation to working out. In fact, anyone who has ever suffered an injury is 19 times more likely to suffer another injury! Wow.

What are the other major risk factors for injury? Asymmetry in range of motion or strength. There are others of course – body mass index, playing surface are also factors.

I believe there is a significant link between asymmetries and previous injury as risk factors. When people return to play from an injury it is usually after being told by their doctor or physical therapist that they are “as strong as they were before they got injured”. But unless the injury was a contact injury, that initial injury occurred because there was a weakness or asymmetry somewhere, so getting back to pre-injury level is not enough.

How do you find out if you are ready to play?

The best system available for assessing and correcting asymmetries is the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). The FMS is a process administered by a strength and conditioning specialist or therapist who will score you through the performance of 7 basic movements, including an overhead squat, a lunge, a hurdle step, shoulder mobility, active straight leg raise, push up and rotary stability test. You will be assigned a score for each test based on your ability to perform these tests, and the compensatory patterns you demonstrate to do them. The practitioner will identify the two tests for which you are exhibit the most dysfunction, and will prescribe corrective exercises to help you regain proper movement.

How effective is the FMS for identifying injury risk? A study of NFL players published in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (Aug 2007, vol. 2, Number 3) concluded that NFL players who scored 14 or lower (out of 21) on the FMS were 11 times more likely to suffer injury than those who scored higher than 14.

Not surprisingly, the FMS has been used by many professional sports franchises, including the Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Cleveland Indians, and Toronto Blue Jays.

And it is not just athletes who have reaped the benefits of the FMS. A separate study was done with firefighters in California. Firefighters who took part in an FMS-directed workout program to improve strength and flexibility had a 62% reduction in lost time due to injury over a one year period (Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology).

For athletes, there are some other great assessment tools that complement the FMS, including core endurance, single leg squat, side-lying abduction, and the Hop and Stop (for acceleration and deceleration). The Hop and Stop test is something you can have a trainer put you through, but you can probably also try it at home on your own – instructions are available on the Athletes by Design website.

It is important to note that it is not the assessment tools that reduce injury risk; it is working out using the strength and conditioning program tailored to your needs that reduces injury risk. That program should contain corrective exercises to improve your movement, as well as strength and mobility work that relates to the activities you will be performing. The main goal of your workout is to get you fit enough to enjoy your sport, but it comes with a great side benefit of also making you “faster, stronger, higher”.

In answer to the initial question, if you play your sport to train for your sport, you are probably not ready to play your sport – or at least not safely. So if you want to continue to enjoy your favourite activities well into old age, it’s probably time to start working out.

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  1. Hey Elsbeth, good article.

    I definitely agree. I recently rejoined a gym to get back into shape to be prepared to play more sports. I think its even more important to ensure you take the time to workout when you have kids. It ensures you can “keep up” with them as you get older. The weekend warrior attitude works for a bit, but is not doubt more harmful than good.

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