Even recreational athletes live in fear of the dreaded ACL tear that will end their city league softball careers for good. But knowing the warning signs—and doing a few extra exercises in the gym—can keep your risk to a minimum.
Scene: It’s the co-rec softball championship, and you’re standing on third base, the score tied, with a season of fleeting glory only 60 feet away. Your teammate slaps the ball into the no-man’s-land between the pitcher and the first baseman, and as you make a daring break for home, you can see that the play at the plate is going to be close. You slide. And that’s when it happens: a shooting, excruciating pain right at the kneecap. Something is up, and it isn’t good. (Also, you’re probably out.)
If this doesn’t sound familiar, it probably sends a chill up your spine, at least. Whether you play in competitive leagues or are strictly a do-it-for-the-postgame-happy-hour type, knee injuries are one of the active guy’s greatest fears, since working knees are pretty important when it comes to physical fitness. “ACL and knee injuries happen all the time,” says Dr. Guillem Lomas, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health. “There are about 200,000 ACL tears in the U.S. annually, and most of those occur in rec athletes.” Why the imbalance? “Pro players are getting maintenance—nutrition, training room care—that the regular guy does not,” he explains.
Torn ACLs are a lot more painful than sprained ankles or strained calves, and almost always require surgery to correct. Even after months of recovery and intense physical therapy, it’s an injury that can trigger lingering instability throughout the entire body. To minimize the chances that you fall victim to this misfortune, we asked a few experts for hot tips on how to stay on your feet.
It starts in the gym (where else?)
“Most active men focus on strengthening the quads, hamstrings, and calves, but they forget to work on the stabilization muscles surrounding the hips and glutes,” says Dan Giordano, DPT, CSCS, and co-founder of Bespoke Treatments in New York City. Those muscles help to control the lower limbs from the pelvis on down. ”If there is a lack of strength or stability at the pelvis and hips, the compression forces will increase at the knee and ankle, which may cause compensation patterns.” Over time, this combination of compression forces and compensation patterns becomes likelier to end with an expensive visit to the orthopedist’s office.
Some guys are more prone to landing on the injured list—and the older you get, the likelier you are to be a member of this group. “As we progress through the grinder of adulthood, we do less spontaneous activity, and compartmentalize more,” says Lomas. “We assign X number of minutes for exercise, and often end up doing the same tired movements.” This kind of monotony gets problematic for the team sports guy, Lomas explains, since the body moves in not-so-standard ways when it sprints down a court or shuffles between bases.
Watch for red flags
Granted, not all knee injuries happen while sliding into home plate, and those nagging joint pains that get better when you warm up but that never fully subside are definitely getting checked out. And while it’s easy to brush off a little inflammation, swelling in the knee is never normal. Do not ignore it—or, even worse, mask it with a brace, which could cause injury elsewhere by transferring force from the knee to the hip, thigh, or lower back. “Braces have not been shown to prevent knee injuries, and in fact may weaken the muscles that help stabilize the leg by not allowing them to work,” says Lomas.
If your knee won’t stop acting up, or if you find that your range of motion is limited out on the field, don’t be a tough guy. Putting your pride to the side can help nip future injury in the derriere, instead of landing you on yours.
The best form of treatment is having nothing to treat
If you play your weekly pickup game dreading the post-plant pop, try channeling that fear next time you hit the weight room. A few simple preventative moves, says Bespoke Physical Therapy’s Cameron Yuen, DPT, can go a long way towards keeping your favorite joints intact. (You’ll thank yourself later.)
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart in a slight squat, holding a resistance band looped under both feet. This is your starting position. Step out about six inches to the right, placing the whole foot on the ground. Then, bring your left foot 6 inches closer to your right foot. That’s one rep. Do eight reps, and then repeat on the opposite side.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat. Place a resistance band around your thighs, holding tension throughout the movement. Brace your core as if you’re about to be punched in the gut and squeeze your glutes tightly. Then raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. This is your starting position. Slowly march your feet away from the glutes, one at a time. Pause after eight steps, and return to the starting position for one rep. Do 10 reps.
Stand in front of a step or platform that is at least one foot off the ground, and hold a weight—a kettlebell or two dumbbells works just fine. Place your foot on the step and press through the heel to step up. Step down with the same foot for one rep. Do 10 reps, and repeat on the opposite side.
Staggered Romanian deadlift
Begin with your feet in a staggered stance, with most of your weight on the forward leg, and hold a kettlebell or dumbbell again. Sit back into a hip hinge, keeping the knee of the forward foot fairly straight. Push the hips forward to ascend from the deadlift position for one rep. Do 10, and then repeat on the opposite side.