- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

The weekend warrior staring at the face in the mirror often won’t admit the truth. It’s not the face of an 18-year-old anymore.

“No matter how young you want to feel, you aren’t,” says John Lally, a retired athletic trainer who for years helped keep the Washington Bullets flying high.

Mr. Lally isn’t immune to the syndrome.

“I’m 61, but I think I’m 35 until I try to do something,” he says.

Weekend warriors can keep battling for years if they heed the advice of experts like Mr. Lally. Sports doctors, trainers and strength-conditioning coaches keep student athletes and professionals on the field, not the trainer’s table. Their tips can do the same for occasional athletes.

Mr. Lally, who also worked with the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Cubs, says the best way to start is by taking it slowly.

“If you’re trying to walk or run … you don’t try to do a marathon on the first day,” he says. Many occasional athletes dive head-first into a new sport.

Should, say, a runner take things too fast, Mr. Lally says to apply ice to the knees, keeping a cloth between the ice and the skin to prevent frostbite.

Mr. Lally blames the rush on our sped-up society.

Occasional tennis players “just jump out of the car, grab their racquet and start slamming balls,” he says.

Warming up is something everyone should do, even the professionals.

“With the Bullets, we had the players do two laps in the gym before we did our stretching,” Mr. Lally says, comparing the process to warming up a car’s engine before taking it for a spin. “Then, we do our stretches, about 15 to 20 minutes.”

Dr. Kenneth Fine, director of sports medicine at George Washington University, says the amateur athletes he runs into typically ask him how to deal with injuries, not improve their skill levels.

People typically envision contact sports such as football or hockey when it comes to such injuries, but even a “dignified” sport such as tennis can leave players in pain if not performed properly.

“Make sure your technique is as efficient as possible,” Dr. Fine says. “Tennis elbow can occur when there’s a break in the kinetic chain.”

The key is to channel one’s energy from the larger muscle groups, such as the legs, to the smaller ones, including the arms. Pitching coaches, for example, are perennially telling their hurlers to “throw” with their legs.

A tennis player who serves with his or her feet still planted is just asking for trouble, Dr. Fine warns.

Stretching should be part of any athlete’s preparation, but adding workouts with dumbbells can add muscle mass and prevent body breakdowns.

Augie Maurelli, Georgetown University’s head strength and conditioning coach, says a few simple squats can benefit people participating in virtually any major sport.

“The squat is the most economical and effective movement for injury prevention,” Mr. Maurelli says, adding that the movements can help lower the alarming number of knee-related injuries that occur with professionals and amateurs alike each year, particularly women.

“The movement itself benefits across gender lines,” he says.

Walking lunges offer more strengthening potential, and little equipment is needed beyond a pair of dumbbells or similarly sized hand weights. Side lunges help with lateral movements, he adds.

The occasional athlete can perform step-up movements using a chair to isolate the quadriceps, he says.

Drew Cleary, the Washington Wizards’ current strength and conditioning coach, says sometimes exercises meant to build bulk can be detrimental to an amateur athlete’s game.

Take the aforementioned squat, an exercise Mr. Cleary has no problem embracing for most athletes.

Mr. Cleary says his players tend to be so long-limbed that the exercises aren’t a good fit for them. Others contend that performing squats with the toes pointed outward — at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions — can build muscle. Mr. Cleary, however, says that method takes the leg abductor muscles on the outside of the hips out of the equation. Those muscles are key to a basketball player’s ability to move laterally.

He suggests performing squats with the toes pointing forward instead.

For players who want to improve their speed and agility on the court, he advises some basic footwork drills, such as jumping over hurdles or running paths around cones or other obstacles.

Such tasks help develop the pathways from the muscles to the brain that “make the athlete aware of how the body moves and why. If you get out of alignment, you can create overuse syndrome,” he says.

Weekend warriors sometimes don’t know when to quit, he says. That ratchets up the chances someone will limp off the court.

“Don’t try to play one or two games longer,” he says. “You know when you’ve had enough; then you’re done. Don’t try to play for three hours. You’re going to get hurt.”

The most common basketball injuries he sees with nonprofessionals involve the ankle and knee.

“If you have the ability to wear ankle braces, I’d obviously advise that,” Mr. Cleary says, adding that injuries often happen when one player steps on another’s foot or a player puts his or her foot down the wrong way.

Mr. Lally says breaking down the needs of one weekend warrior versus another demands a specialist’s touch.

“It’s really hard to tell an individual what they need to do,” Mr. Lally says. “We had a player with the Bullets with great upper body strength but legs like a chicken. He worked so hard on his upper body but neglected his legs.”

Mr. Lally says genetics gave him strong legs, but other athletes need to assess their personal strengths and weaknesses. A competent personal trainer will give an objective evaluation, he says.

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