Every athlete has to wrestle with injuries, but the real trouble comes when they turn into long-term problems that sabotage your sporting and fitness goals. So whether you’ve knackered your knee, smashed your shoulder or shredded your ligaments, there is an alternative sport out there to rekindle those athletic aims.
The Expert Panel
Ian Horsley, clinical director of Back In Action in Wakefield
Chris Bramah, physio at Salford Running Performance Clinic
Michael Harrop, specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist at Pure Sports Medicine in Kensington
Alex Hunter, clinic director at Six Physio in Finchley Road
Foot and Ankle Stress Fractures
The problems: “High-impact activities can cause stress fractures and reactions around the foot and heel,” warns Harrop. The metatarsal bones [in the mid-front area of the foot], the talus [the large bone in the ankle] and calcaneus [heel bone] are all vulnerable.
Who is at risk? “Stress fractures are normally caused by the feet repeatedly pounding against hard surfaces, so runners and joggers are at risk,” says Harrop. Footballers and basketball players who play on hard courts and pitches are also in the danger zone.
Consider switching to: Anyone with long-term foot and ankle issues can still enjoy outdoor action. “You can take up rowing, kayaking or swimming,” suggests Harrop. “Body combat sports and gym weights are also good for people with this problem.”
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The problems: Extreme forces on the Achilles tendon, which connects your heel bone to your calf muscles, can cause swelling and tears, wrecking your ability to run or jump. “When it’s a longer-term issue, it can be very debilitating,” cautions Bramah.
Who is at risk? “Achilles problems are very common with 5km and 10km runners who like to push on at a faster pace,” says Bramah. “Running fast causes your Achilles to be loaded with up to nine times your bodyweight which can lead to tiny but repeated traumas.”
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Consider switching to: “Cycling is the perfect solution for long-term Achilles injuries,” advises Bramah. “It produces minimal load on your Achilles because it is more of a knee-dominant sport, but it also provides a similar outdoor, competitive vibe to running.”
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Long-Term Knee Injuries
The problems: “Serious knee issues include patellar tendinitis or ‘runners knee’ [damage to the tendon that connects the kneecap to your shinbone] and Iliotibial Band Syndrome [inflammation of the ligament on the outside of the thigh],” explains Harrop.
Who is at risk? “Knee injuries are usually associated with football, hockey and tennis, where there are lots of changes of direction,” notes Harrop. Skiers can also suffer problems.
Consider switching to: “Swimming is great for those with long-term knee issues,” says Harrop. “Your bodyweight is halved in the water so it reduces the impact. And don’t ditch running either: “Running off-road can lessen the impact on your knees,” he says.
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The problems: “Tears to the quad muscle don’t normally lead to long-term injuries, but if hamstrings are torn or strained multiple times, often they don’t come right,” cautions Hunter. Dodgy hamstrings can rule out most forms of explosive running.
Who is at risk? “Hamstring injuries are mainly caused by sprinting movements in sports such as football, rugby, tennis and squash,” explains Hunter. Cricket bowlers can also endure hamstring troubles.
Consider switching to: “Road cycling or mountain biking is your best bet as pedalling uses the quads and glutes,” advises Hunter. “Troublesome hamstrings will still tolerate slower running and hockey is a safer option if you have hamstring issues,” suggests Harrop.
Hip Labral Tear
The problems: “In your hips there is a ring of cartilage called the labrum, which sits around the socket of your hip joint and helps keep the thigh bone inside the hip socket,” explains Hunter. “If it gets shredded over time, it can be a long-term problem.”
Who is at risk? “The main cause is twisty-turny sports like football and tennis, but also sports in which your leg comes up above 90 degrees – like when riding a bike or doing deep squats in the gym,” says Hunter.
Consider switching to: “Boxing is a good choice and swimming is gentle on the hips,” reveals Hunter. Yoga and Pilates are good alternatives, but don’t rule out lower-limb work: “Walking, hiking and hill-walking can be very good for people with hip injuries,” adds Horsley.
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Chronic Back Pain
The problem: “It is easy for any athlete to herniate a disc, pull a muscle, or impinge a nerve in the back, which can cause serious long-term discomfort,” explains Harrop.
Who is at risk? “Golfers and racquet sports players can experience stiff backs, as well as people who lift overhead weights,” says Harrop. Cyclists aren’t immune to dodgy backs either: “If you ride in an unnatural position, you can suffer chronic pain,” warns Bramah.
Consider switching to: “Cardio exercise is OK, as long as you don’t aggravate your back,” advises Harrop. Swimming is one alternative: “It takes stress off your back, and boosts postural and core control so you could return to your primary sport,” adds Bramah.
The problem: “The main two long-term arm injuries are tennis elbow – pain on the outside of the elbow – and golfer’s elbow – pain on the inside of the elbow,” says Horsley. “Both can seriously restrict your movements.”
Who is at risk? “Tennis players – particularly those who play with wet and heavy balls – and golfers are the main candidates as they suffer repeated inflammation, but you see it in any sport where a grip is involved, from weight-training to cricket,” says Horsley.
Consider switching to: “A move to badminton and squash can be positive: you still get to enjoy a racquet sport, but there is less burden on the wrist and the object being hit is lighter,” explains Horsley. “You can always move into running and cycling, too.”
Finger and Wrist Sprains
The problems: “Sprains to the fingers, thumbs or wrists are really common,” explains Harrop. Although they seem innocuous, they can cause major discomfort over time.
Who is at risk? “Skiers and snowboarders can suffer a lot of finger and wrist injuries from falling, and rugby players are also at risk from tackling players,” notes Harrop. Cricket batsmen and climbers can also suffer dislocations and sprains.
Consider switching to: “American football players suffer with this and they respond by using weights machines in the gym,” says Harrop. “They can still work their biceps, chest and triceps but machines are less demanding on their fingers and wrists.”
The problem: “Recurrent dislocations of the shoulder can be a long-term problem because even after successful surgery, you don’t want to risk doing it again and lose your upper-body mobility,” warns Hunter.
Who is at risk? “It is usually a problem in contact sports like rugby where the shoulder can be injured through tackling, but it is a big risk in wrestling and MMA too,” says Hunter. Skiers, gymnasts and mountain-bikers can also suffer dislocations.
Consider switching to: “There is no reason why you can’t enjoy CrossFit and weight-lifting,” says Hunter. “And rowing is an excellent substitute: they can do some hard sessions and enjoy the same team environment but their shoulder is kept in a stable environment.”
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