It doesn’t matter what your game is. If you want to be at your best -- on the court, on the field, on the rink, wherever -- you need to know how to get your body to perform at its peak.
Just showing up for practice won’t cut it. You have to get in shape, do what you can to prevent injury, and fuel your body with healthy foods. Here’s how.
Fit to Play
First things first. Before the season even starts, you should already be in shape.
“A lot of youth don’t think they need to get in shape,” says James Chesnutt, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Oregon Health & Sciences University. “They are couch potatoes right up to the first day of practice.”
Don’t let that be you. Practice is going to put a lot of strain on your muscles. Games are even more intense. You have to be prepared. Think about baseball. If you’re a pitcher and your arm isn’t up to the task, your game might not be the only thing to suffer. A weak arm is an easily injured arm.
Chesnutt, who coaches teen sports in Portland, Ore., tells his players that they need to start working out six weeks prior to the season, putting in an hour’s worth of exercise a day (something everyone should be doing already). That means a mix of lifting, cardio training, and active play that revs your heart.
During the Season
Once your sport's season is under way, you can tone things down a bit, says Monica Hubal, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“You want to go into a maintenance phase,” Hubal says.
In other words, instead of trying to build more muscle, you simply want to maintain what you built up in the pre-season. Your body is working hard enough at practice and during games. When you bring too much intensity to your personal workouts, you are overdoing it -- and that is a recipe for injury.
Hubal also recommends that you focus your workouts on the muscles that have to really perform in your particular sport.
“A lot of boys lift weights like body builders, focusing on the pretty muscles,” Hubal says. “But you have to tailor your routine to what’s taking place in your sport. Nice biceps might help you get the girl, but they won’t be much help in your sport.”
She points to soccer as an example. “If you are going to training for soccer, building upper-body strength won’t help a lot.”
Keep in mind: It’s not all about lifting weights.
“When teen athletes hit the gym, they don’t add aerobics their workout,” Chesnutt says. "Take football players: They train with weights but they don’t run.”
That’s a mistake. Your heart needs a workout, too. So include cardio exercises in your routine. Spend some time on a treadmill, an exercise bike, or an elliptical trainer. Or just get outdoors and go running.
Know Your Limits
Exercise is essential, but too much exercise can be a quick ticket to the bench. Your muscles, after all, can only do so much before they need a break. Working them too hard is courting injury.
Don’t skimp on warming up and stretching. Do five minutes of light exercise, followed by a few good stretches before working out. Stretching may help make the tendons more flexible, which could help prevent injury. There’s some debate about that, but Hubal says “stretching gets more oxygen to your muscles. That revs them up and helps them perform at their best.” Remember, never stretch before warming up, and don’t stretch so far that it hurts.
Space your workouts so that your muscles get a chance to rest. It takes at least a day for them to repair and strengthen themselves. So mix things up by doing upper-body strength training one day, then focus on your legs the next, and another day on your core muscles like your abs. (Don’t forget the cardio!)
You should also vary the sports you play, rather than playing the same sport year-round. “We recommend that kids don’t specialize in just one sport,” Chesnutt says. “If you do, you risk overuse injuries.”
If You Get Injured
You need to know what to do if you are injured, in order to heal and to prevent making a bad thing worse. That is not always easy.
“Boys are very competitive, and instead of telling anyone they are hurt, they play through the injury,” Chesnutt says.
Big mistake. Speaking up about your injury should be a priority. Why? Do the math.
“A strained muscle might keep you out of the game for three to five days,” Hubal says. “That sounds like a lot, but if you do it further injury, you can count on being benched for weeks.”
And even a minor injury can easily turn major if it is ignored.
“The risk goes up logarithmically,” Hubal says. “Five to ten times the risk of further injury.”
So take it easy, but don’t retreat to the couch. Keep exercising, only at a much less intense level. That's called active recovery.
“Be active, but don’t put any stress on the injured muscle,” Hubal says. “You can ride a bike or go swimming, just make sure the exercise is specific to the injury so you don’t make it worse.”
Finally, if you are injured, get good advice -- from a pro -- on how to heal.
“Kids should not be making these decisions, and neither should their parents,” Hubal says. “A sports medicine specialist should be involved.”
Eat Better, Play Better
After a workout or a game, your muscles need glycogen, the fuel they consume while you are active. Your body can make glycogen from carbohydrates.
“You’ve got to have carbs to replace glycogen,” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD. Options include fruits, vegetables, pastas, breads, crackers, and other carbohydrates. Stick to wholegrain products for maximum nutrition. Milk is another option.
Pittsburgh-based Mangieri, who often works with teen athletes, says many boys skip snacks and meals and head straight to practice or to the big game.
The result? “You will feel weaker, tired, slower," Mangieri says.
You don’t want that. So an hour before you play, eat something. Mangieri recommends a banana and yogurt or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, along with getting fully hydrated.
“You want to eat enough to add fuel, without upsetting your stomach,” she says.
Eating is equally important after you exercise. And by that, we mean right after.
“It’s important to get it right away,” says Mangieri. “Ideally within five to 10 minutes, but definitely within 30 minutes. The longer you wait, the longer it takes your body to recover.”
Mangieri also emphasizes the need to stay hydrated. She recommends downing a 16-ounce drink -- water is a good choice -- about two hours before you plan to work out, go to practice, or start a game. Drink another 5-10 ounces 30 minutes before your game, and take breaks to sip water while you're playing.
Keeping your body fueled with good food and plenty of fluids will help keep you playing at your best.