Outside, the beaming sun and warm air may shout, "It's spring!" But hit the tennis court, running trail or softball field too quickly, and your body might do some shouting of its own: "It's still winter!"
Just because the calendar changes and the outdoors beckons doesn't mean your body is ready for it. If winter is your off-season, your time to chill out from the rigors of summer sports, you probably need some spring training of your own.
"Take it slowly," advises Lou Lyon, an exercise physiologist at Mercy Medical Center. "Don't feel one week is going to do it. This is what keeps sports medicine specialists in business."
Dr. Cindy Jurss already has seen her first casualty of spring fever. "I just had a gentleman who works in the gym and, when the weather turned nice, ran out to play lacrosse, and he strained his hamstring," said Dr. Jurss, a rehabilitation medicine specialist at the Physical Performance Institute in Owings Mills.
Dr. Jurss can sympathize -- she's a one-time competitive runner who tended to fall out of peak shape over the winter, especially as her career started to eat up more of her time.
To get in shape for your warm-weather sport, Dr. Jurss recommends four to six weeks of training, using the time to slowly build up strength, flexibility and stamina that you might have lost over the course of an inactive winter.
"Your muscles decrease in bulk, strength and elasticity," she said. "A lot of people forget about stretching: It's as important as conditioning and strengthening."
You can start getting in shape indoors even before your softball field has thawed or your bicycle is pumped and oiled and ready for action.
"Ideally, you should try to find access to indoor activities over the winter, a health club or somewhere you can use a treadmill or swim in a pool, or do a stairstepper, exercise bike or NordicTrack," Dr. Jurss said.
Despite the relatively mild winters in this area, many summer athletes indeed tend to head indoors. Sandra Burt, a member of the Baltimore Rowing Club, said most rowers try to either run or work out on rowing machines during their off-season. The club generally competes from April through October, although its members include beginners and others who row just for fun, as well.
"We try to keep a base of fitness over the year," said Ms. Burt, who lives in Catonsville and works in quality assurance at McCormick. "Rowing machines are the key -- they're the only good way to use the same muscles. Some people like to run as well. It helps to stay in the water as much as possible, though."
Not every summer sport can be duplicated indoors, of course, although indoor running tracks and batting cages have increasingly helped 10K racers and softball enthusiasts to keep a foot in their sport over the winter.
The idea is to keep in general, overall shape, over the winter -- and, indeed, for some athletes, getting away from their main sport with a different wintertime activity is a good idea.
"Psychologically, it's good to stay away from baseball for some of them," said Richie Bancells, trainer for the Orioles. "There are some guys who like to jog, ones who like to ride stationary bikes or StairMasters or NordicTrack. Then we have a group of guys -- I think they're the best off because they really enjoy what they're doing -- who like to play basketball or racquet ball or tennis.
"Fifteen years ago, spring training was to get into shape," said Mr. Bancells, speaking from the Orioles' camp in Sarasota, Fla. "The game has changed so much, though, that that's no longer the case. If they don't get out of shape, they don't have to get back into it. The players all show up in shape now."
Since the O's go to camp in shape already, most of their day is spent on baseball skills, followed by 20 to 30 minutes of conditioning work, Mr. Bancells said. Some athletes like to alternate activities during that 20- to 30-minute workout -- circuit training one day, followed by something aerobic the next day, like riding a stationary bike, he said.
"We sometimes have the problem of putting the reins on them -- they think more is better, but sometimes more is not better," Mr. Bancells said. "One important part of fitness that people forget is rest."
Still, even such highly conditioned and motivated athletes as these pros can't escape aches and pains those first few days on the field. "No matter what you do over the winter, the minute you do baseball, different muscles are being used in a dynamic way," he said. "The thing we usually see is general muscular soreness."
While spring training runs about six weeks, Mr. Lyon recommends a longer training, 12 weeks, for non-pros who have been inactive over the winter and want to enter a race or league sport in spring or summer.
"What I find is people use the event to get in shape rather than getting in shape for the event," Mr. Lyon said.