Sunny days are here again, and you're aching to get outside and get a taste of spring by jogging a few miles, teeing up for a round of golf, or playing a few sets of tennis. But before you do, experts say, you need to prepare your body for your exercise program -- especially if you used the cold weather as an excuse to become a couch potato.
"People should put their pride in the back seat and not go out and try to run 10 miles on the first day after a winter of little or no physical activity," says Brian Crites, MD, head team doctor for more than 650 varsity athletes at the University of Maryland. "The 'no pain, no gain' mentality doesn't work -- you have to take it slow."
Even with the first warm days of the season calling your name, taking it slow means starting from square one: If you've been less active for a while, see your doctor before you start any new exercise program.
"Try to schedule your yearly exam to correspond with the start of spring, so you can get a clean bill of health and tell your doctor you are going to start gearing up your activity level," says Crites, who is also associate team doctor for the Baltimore Ravens.
After your doctor signs off on your health, start with a slow exercise program -- an easy walking regimen and a stretching routine, Crites advises. This will help prepare you for most casual sports, like jogging, golf and tennis.
"If you have taken the winter off, start your spring training by walking for 10 minutes every day or every other day for a week, and then the next week, walk for 15 minutes," Crites tells WebMD. "From there, work your way up by five-minute intervals each week to a 30 to 40 minute walk. And stretch as well, using a proper technique -- which means don't bounce."
This is a lot slower than most people want to go, Crites explains, but after about a month of conditioning, you'll have built up enough flexibility and endurance to move forward with a more strenuous exercise program.
Ready for Round One?
When you are ready to take your first jog or play your first game of the season, take it easy.
"A good starting point is to begin at a level that is manageable using common sense, and underestimate your ability," says Alan Davis, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at The Cleveland Clinic. "You regress a tremendous amount over the winter if all you present to your body is a chair at work during the day, a couch at night, and a bar stool on weekends. If you then you go out and try to exercise right off the bat, you put your body at risk for some form of an overuse injury."
Davis, who is also head team doctor for the Cleveland Barons Hockey Club, recommends that golfers start practicing at the driving range with slow and easy swings, and work their way up to a faster swing. Golfers, he says, should also incorporate stretching and strengthening into their exercise program to target the lower back, trunk, and arms, and should prepare for walking on uneven ground.
Tennis players, meanwhile, should concentrate their exercise program on the upper body -- work on stretching and strengthening the shoulders and arms, and should prepare their bodies for the stop-and-go pivoting and sprinting actions of tennis.
"People sometimes go out and serve the ball 100 times on the first nice day of the season, and then they come in with an injured rotator cuff or elbow tendon," he tells WebMD. "It is doing too much, too soon."
If you're a jogger, he says, you should start your exercise program with a walking regimen and from there, try to improve either your speed or mileage by about 10% a week. "Jogging 10% faster every week, or increasing your mileage by 10% a week, is usually a safe way to go," he says.
Preventing Pain and Strains
This all sounds like a lot of work before you even start the spring sports season. But without the right exercise program and plenty of preparation, you're at risk for injury.
"The most common injury we see is muscle soreness," Crites says. "A person will come in and say, 'I hurt here,' and it's usually their muscles being sore from too much activity, too fast."
If you do overdo it, RICE -- Rest, Ice, Compression (with an elastic bandage) and Elevation -- will usually help lessen the damage, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. In all but very mild cases, a doctor should evaluate your injury and establish a treatment and rehabilitation plan, if necessary.
"If muscle pain lingers on for more than two weeks, or gets progressively worse, then they should have it checked out," Crites says.
There's a lesson here: After you prepare your body for spring sports, then spend the warm-weather months healthy and active, don't let it all go to waste by hibernating next winter. Stay strong for the next warm-weather sports season, so you don't have to start that exercise program all over again.
"First, you have to accept the fact that it is better to exercise on a daily basis every day of the year -- no matter how cold it is outside," Davis says. "The body can maintain a good level of conditioning year round if you practice a reasonable level of exercise. If you really don't want to go outside during winter, a stretching program is a good idea, or try a stationary bike or some form of home equipment, or join a health club."
And next spring? That exercise program will be second nature.
Originally published April 21, 2003.
Medically updated March 25, 2004.