It's a spring thing: getting back in shape

Take it slowly, the experts advise, before jumping back into your favorite sport

Health & Fitness

March 21, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

Richard Bright lives and dies by soccer. He grew up in Manchester, England, playing what the Brits call football, and each spring he takes the field with Hangover United -- a Maryland team that, despite its name, takes its league games seriously.

This year, Hangover United's first game is April 5, and Bright has a problem -- he's "not in shape whatsoever.

"With this harsh winter, there was little to no opportunity to get out and do something," says the 38-year-old, who lives near Ellicott City. To make matters worse, he broke his ankle playing soccer last fall, which cut his season short. Now that the injury is healed and the weather is warmer, he is trying to get back into shape.

Bright is not alone. When spring rolls around, many athletes and weekend warriors end their winter hibernation and hope to regain peak form in their favorite sport.

The two times of year in which people focus most on fitness are "just after New Year's -- and that peters out pretty quickly -- and now, when the weather starts getting warm," says Steven Horwitz, a chiropractor and chairman of the Maryland Council on Physical Fitness.

Getting in shape -- especially after an injury or an extended layoff -- is not an instant process, and trying to return to your favorite sport too quickly, with visions of those glory days in your mind, can spell trouble.

Although you don't have to look far to find fad workouts that promise quick results, Rob Marra, a personal trainer at the Meadow Mill Athletic Club, recommends starting slowly and setting reasonable goals.

In most cases, Marra says, it will take from two to three months to begin to see a difference in your physique if you're starting an exercise program or resuming one after a long layoff.

"If you're consistent, and do everything you should do, you'll lose a few pounds in the first weeks, and at week 12 you'll start shedding a pound a week. You're talking about three to four months to get in shape for summer."

Bright needs to get cracking. He is 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighs 195 pounds and hopes to lose between 15 and 20 pounds and get fit by the time the season starts in about two weeks.

The weight loss won't happen in time for his first game, according to the experts, but Bright is not starting from scratch. He already takes long walks and hikes through the woods near his home.

"I have to walk or hike -- coming from England that is all I do," he says. Bright, a self-employed marketing consultant, has a flexible schedule, which helps him find time for long walks, often with his neighbor's Labrador retriever. "I have joint custody of the dog," he says, joking.

Walking, says John Poitras, head strengthening and conditioning coach at Towson University, "will teach you a lot about what you can and can not do. Walk for a half an hour -- see if your knees hurt, see if your hips ache. If not, try a light jog next time. The most important thing is to start slowly."

Poitras also encourages stretching. "You want to stretch the muscles you will use when you are working out," he says. "For walking, this includes quads, hamstrings and calf muscles."

Bright walks but dislikes running -- unless there is a soccer ball at his feet -- and he can't stand the thought of going to the gym. To help prepare for the season, he signed up for two low-intensity indoor soccer games.

This approach -- trying to get in shape for soccer by playing soccer -- is something the experts discourage.

"You cannot play a sport to get in shape. You must get in shape to play a sport," Horwitz says.

"The biggest thing a weekend warrior wants to avoid is just showing up and going out with an all-out sprint," adds Barry Kagan, assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Maryland, College Park. "That is when the muscles are going to scream out."

Kagan adds, "Your body -- especially if you've been sitting around all winter -- is just not ready to start cutting [a sharp, powerful motion], or planting one leg and kicking. The physical aspects that come with soccer are pretty demanding on the legs, never mind the upper body and the back."

To prepare for a sport, Kagan suggests doing activities that mimic that sport. In the case of soccer, he says, "throw the ball ahead of you down the field, and then run to catch up with it."

He also advises running on grass or other soft surfaces, because it's easier on the knees and joints. Squats, balancing drills and lunges are helpful as well, he adds, and will "get the body prepared for the unexpected."

Kagan suggests hitting a ball off a tee in preparation for a softball league, or shooting lay-ups alone before playing basketball with the team. "Get your body used to cutting or swinging or whatever the activity is ... so your body is not shocked the first time you get out there," he says.

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