Matt Rawlins is a Physiotherapist and Clinical Mentor based in the Midlands. He has a keen interest in football and a wealth of experience providing pitch side and rehab physiotherapy up to a professional level, most recently working for Birmingham City FC Academy.
I have always been a football fan, so being able to help people fulfil their potential on the pitch is something that I’m passionate about.
Hamstring tears and ankle sprains are the most common injuries that I see, but football is very leg focused so you are liable to strain or damage many different areas.
Unfortunately some people can be predisposed to this, particularly if you have been playing for many years, have over trained the muscles or have an underlying weakness.
Injuries can be unavoidable if it’s due to a bad tackle or unexpected move, but there are a number of ways you can protect yourself and stay on top of your game.
10 top tips from Matt
1. Wear the right footwear
You’re using your feet a lot, twisting and turning, so footwear is important. It doesn’t have to be expensive or the latest gear, but your shoes should fit you properly and be changed if you notice wear and tear, or roughly every 12-18 months if you play regularly.
Use the right footwear at the right time. You want to be using old style metal studs for a grass pitch or an area that might be boggy, blades on a harder pitch and moulds on a plastic or AstroTurf pitch.
2. Warm up properly
In football you’re going to be performing a lot of agile movements quickly, so you must prepare your body by warming up key areas like the hamstring effectively.
You should spend a good 15-20 minutes gently warming up. This is about getting the blood flowing to the area, preparing the body for harder exercise and improving the elasticity of the muscle.
If you haven’t warmed up then your range of movement is reduced and you increase your risk of injury. A good warm up should include:
- Low intensity high repetition range of movement exercises that move through all of the positions you might get into during the game, including jogging.
- Sport specific drills – including ball skills, dribbling and jumping.
- Moderate intensity dynamic drills such as shuttle runs or agility runs.
3. Mix up your training
Building core strength and stability in the lower limbs through other forms of training can be hugely beneficial.
A lot of premier league footballers do Pilates and Yoga for this reason as it’s great for balance and stability. Leg training in the gym can also be beneficial as can exercises like swimming and cycling.
People come into clinic and say that their hamstrings feel tight, but often this is due to overuse or an underlying weakness that can be resolved with strength building.
4. Warm down
You’re often training outside in a variety of weather conditions and for a number of hours, so it’s essential that you don’t just stop straight away or go home without warming down. It can be a shock for your muscles and lead to unnecessary aggravation.
Foam rollers are great for reducing the feeling of tightness in the soft-tissue and many professionals opt for ice bath to reduce lactic acid, but leg stretches can be just as effective.
Lactic acid is removed by the body through blood flow to the area and so a warm down helps prevent what we call DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), which is essentially the aching the next day after exercising intensely.
5. Deal with an injury correctly when it first happens
Leave the pitch as soon as you have an injury. If it’s a sprain, strain or injury to the soft-tissue then sit down and follow the principles of PRICE:
- Protection – Ensure you do not make symptoms worse by continuing to play. If there is a cut then cover this with a plaster or bandage. Upper limb injuries may need a sling.
- Rest – The first 48 hours after an injury your body works really hard to remove damaged tissue, so try not to undo this work by over doing things.
- Ice – Use an ice pack safely by wrapping it in a tea towel. Use for a maximum of 15 minutes per hour, 4-5 times per day. If pain increases stop and check that you haven’t irritated or damaged the skin, e.g. if you notice red or white spots where ice has been applied.
- Compression – Lightly compress the injured area as this can help to reduce swelling.
- Elevation – Raise the injured area above heart level as often as you can. Again, this helps to reduce swelling.
If you are unable to weight bear and pain does not improve after 1-2 hours then you should seek additional medical attention by calling 111, attending a walk in clinic or A&E.
Even if you play for a small team then I would strongly recommend clubbing together and buying an emergency first aid kit/equipment.
6. Don’t train through pain or injuries!
If you continue to play football with an injury, pain or when you experience a flare up of an old problem, then you are putting your long term health and performance at risk.
If you have an injury or complaint that hasn’t started to settled down within 4-5 days then stop training and seek help from a physiotherapist or a healthcare professional.
As an example, with an ankle injury if it’s rehabbed well you can be back to normal and playing within a month, whereas if you leave it, it can become a long term chronic problem.
7. Think about your lifestyle off the pitch
Football and drinking often goes hand in hand, but living a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet is important if you are serious about your performance.
Studies have shown that smoking can weaken tendons and it’s really important that if you train regularly, you provide your body with the nourishment that it needs.
8. Give your body a rest
Chances are that you have a day job and other activities that you have to do alongside your training, so don’t be afraid to pair things back if you feel over tired or stretched one week.
Sometimes the pressure and buzz of an impending match can lead you to train more, but it’s important that you leave a day for rest 24 hours before and 24 hours afterwards if you have exerted yourself heavily.
Getting a good quality of sleep is also really important as it allows your muscles and body to repair itself properly.
9. Use manual therapies to stay in top condition
People often wait until they are in a lot of pain before they see a physiotherapist, but it can be hugely beneficial to seek help before a small problem escalates.
If you are serious about your football then you may want to consider proactive physiotherapy every 4-6 weeks even if you are not injured. This physio should include what we call ‘manual therapies’ such as soft-tissue massage and joint mobilisation, alongside a general review of your strength and function.
Professionals have regular treatment and preventative soft-tissue massage as it has been proven to improve the quality of the tissue and the condition of the body.
10. Check your function
Sometimes it can be really frustrating when you feel that you are unable to progress your training or keep getting held back.
Physiotherapy can provide you with a functional body assessment. This is when we look at the biomechanics of how your body functions as a whole, which may reveal areas of underlying weakness that you didn’t know about, for example tight groins or hip flexors.
Together we can work on a plan that will help you to reach your goals and stay in top condition, which may include simple adjustments to your routine or more intensive manual therapies.