The good news is that, through simply knowing what to do and taking a few simple actions, you can dramatically lower your chances of spending time in the treatment room.
But sadly there’s no way of completely eliminating the possibility of getting injured (except maybe for not playing at all – and let’s be honest, who wants to do that?). At some point injury is likely to hit us all – often through no fault of our own.
Injury can be a huge problem. It’s all too common to find people who took time out from football to recover from an injury, but who end up never returning. Either they never fully recovered, or by the time they did their fitness or motivation had totally gone.
This needn’t be you. In this article we’re going to guide you through the best ways to keep yourself injury free, and help you effectively deal with injury if you’re unlucky enough to be hit by it.
Injury is not an area where you want to cut any corners or take any bad advice. So, to make sure that this article was truly informed by an expert, we took the advice of one of the very best: physiotherapist, Nell Mead.
The most common types of football injuries
The majority of football injuries are lower-limb injuries, the most common of which are:
- hamstring strains and tears
- ankle sprains
- groin strains
- Achilles injuries
- knee injuries (ACLs and also twisting injuries).
The type of surface you play on can also have an impact on the types of injuries picked up. If you’re playing in sports halls on hard floors, you might also come across more bumps and bruises as well as occasional fractures.
With 3G turf there are less bumps and bruises, but there can be a lot of grip, and some unexpected stoppages. Depending on the age of the pitch and how well it’s maintained, sometimes the amount of slide, push off and grip can be unpredictable.
Instant ways of reducing your chances of injury
The good news is that your chances of injury can be dramatically reduced by some very simple things:
- Wear the right shoes – badly-fitting footwear, or wearing the wrong type of shoes for the surface can instantly put you at risk.
- Use shin-pads and ankle protection – it might not always be the look you’re going for, but they give you a degree of protection from dangerous challenges.
- Perform a warm-up before playing – a proper warm-up prepares your body for the activity ahead. Sadly, many amateur players skip the warm-up and their only preparation for the game is a hamstring-risking routine of lashing shots at an unlucky goalkeeper.
A physio’s view on warm-ups – Nell Mead
“A warm-up doesn’t always equal fewer injuries. That’s sometimes because all people have done is jogged round for 5 minutes, which isn’t a proper warm-up. You need to be taking your body through its full range of motion that you will be using during a game
Every professional athlete on the planet will do a proper warm-up before they do their sport. There has got to be a reason for that.
A lot of 5-a-side players are over the age of 25, and when you get to that age you need to think of your body as more of a classic car: it will still do a lot of the same things but you need to do more tinkering with it. When you’re younger, you just feel like you can jump in and drive your car, but as you get older it doesn’t work like that.”
Proper warm-ups and wearing the right kit are instant wins, but there are even more things you can do to keep your body injury free.
Looking after your body is really important if you want to maximise the football you can play. Our survey showed that the single biggest reason people didn’t play more football was because their bodies can’t handle it.
Improve your conditioning to prevent injury
Effective conditioning isn’t so much about how much you do, it’s about what you do that really matters. You should aim to focus on two things:
(1) Balance and proprioception – especially good for knees
Proprioception refers to the body’s ability to sense movement within joints and joint position. This ability enables us to know where our limbs are in space without having to look.
As Nell explains “we have cells in our joints and ligaments that tell our brain where our body is in space; it’s part of the balance mechanism. So if your knee is telling you where it is but then something happens unexpectedly, if the message doesn’t get to your brain quickly enough to allow you to protect yourself, it can put you at risk of injury.”
In simple terms, the better your proprioception, the less chance there is that you’ll find yourself crumpled on the floor after your knee or ankle unexpectedly buckled on you after you reacted (or failed to react properly) to something.
The good news is that you can train your body’s proprioception. Nell recommends two methods in particular:
- SAQ training (speed, agility, quickness): this helps the body react faster and better. The more you can train your body to stop, start and change direction efficiently, the better you will be at it and the lower your chance of getting injured.
- Wobble cushions / balance boards: This, relatively inexpensive piece of kit helps improve balance and coordination whilst standing. It can be used to work on core and lower body strength and to stabilise and strengthen muscles and joints. Nell has her clients standing on them and doing squats, even progressing to them doing it with their eyes shut to really sharpen the nervous system.
Nell’s advice on wobble cushions:
“Go out and get a wobble cushion, and stand on it with your knees slightly bent. If you’re doing any of the exercises wrong, it will tell you: because you’ll fall off it. Wobble cushions are a fantastic bit of kit.
They won’t sort you out completely but they will improve your neural pathways between your brain and your knees. If you could use it for 10 minutes a day, that would be fantastic. I even know clients who take it into the office and use it as they are standing taking phone calls.”
The wobble cushion Nell recommends to her patients is available here on Amazon*.
A lot of people’s daily routines involve significant time spent in static positions such as sitting on transport or at a desk, or standing for long periods.
That’s not always great physical preparation for exercise. Our daily routines often mean that we’re not utilising the muscles we need for sport anywhere near as much as we could. This can develop inflexibility.
The benefits of flexibility are something that many of the pro footballers are tuned in to. Ryan Giggs, for instance, famously put his career longevity down to regular yoga sessions – a form of flexibility training. Considering he was still playing top level football for Manchester United until age 40, it’s worth listening.
You can do simple stretches after exercise, at home. It’s also worth getting a foam roller like this one*, which allows you to self-massage muscles that are tight simply by rolling the affected body part over it. Both will give you gradual improvements in your flexibility and reduce the risk of injury.
When injury has already occurred – how to treat it:
The majority of minor injuries sustained playing football can be treated with RICE – the acronym that stands for ‘rest, ice, compression and elevation’ – without specialist intervention.
Even just by using simple RICE techniques you can significantly shorten the time that you spend out injured. If you’ve got mild sprains and strains then you need to be applying these techniques to get you on the mend. See our easy guide to managing injury using RICE for the full detail.
There are times, however, when you need to do something more than that. The first of those is where you’ve got a serious injury. Usually it will be obvious what’s a serious injury simply because of the pain it is causing or the way it is limiting your movement. In this circumstance you may need to see a doctor or a hospital immediately.
But then there is a second type, one that can be tricky to know what to do with: there are those injuries that you thought would heal on their own but do, in fact, need some assistance from a physiotherapist.
Do injuries get better with time?
“Most injuries, as long as you keep moving normally, will get better”, says Nell, “but if you don’t move normally you’ll start compensating and this will lead to problems.”
“If you can move normally and put the normal amount of stress and strains through your muscles, bones and tendons then it will heal better because it’s all about the force that you put through it.
If you put normal forces through an affected area then it will start to regenerate and heal normally. If you put wonky forces through it then it will try to heal wonky!”
That, of course can give you longer-term issues. That’s why it can be beneficial to see a physio rather than manfully struggling on for weeks in the hope that your injury will magically heal.
If you’re wondering if you need to get your injury looked at then you’ll want to check out our article: should I see a physio.
- For all of us injury is a real threat to our continued enjoyment from playing football, so it’s worth taking some precautions.
- Chances of injury can be significantly reduced by just simply wearing the right footwear, wearing shin pads, and by warming up.
- You can also train your body to be able to better protect against injury – especially useful if you’ve been injured already and need to strengthen as well as protect. When you’re doing this, focus your ability around improving two things in particular: balance and flexibility.
- If you find yourself already suffering from injury, most minor sprains can be effectively treated with rest, ice, compression and elevation (“R.I.C.E”). But if your injury is serious, or isn’t healing well within a week, it’s time to see a specialist.
Huge thanks goes to Nell, Mead Clinical Director of London-based Victory Health & Performance for help with this article. If you’re in London and looking for top-notch physiotherapy services, book yourself an appointment with Nell.