Pickleball seems to be all the rage lately. Yes, I have played, and it is fun. I have not played in a league or even an actual game. I’ve just batted the ball back and forth to get a feel for the game. It is great exercise! So, what’s the problem? People are getting injured, and not just run-of-the-mill tendonitis.
In addition to tendonitis of the wrists, elbows, and every other joint, people are getting far more severe injuries, such as fractures, muscle or tendon tears, and even head injuries. How can that be? The court is small. The ball is heavy and moves slower than a tennis ball. The paddles are smaller and lighter than a tennis racquet. The game seems to be designed for the older crowd, which is likely why so many 50+ folks love it. But, the 50+ crowd likely has a higher risk of injury with this seemingly easy game.
Fitness and Risk
Recently I watched two 50ish women kick the very fit-looking butts of a 30ish-year-old male/female team. The smaller court does level the playing field, but that doesn’t mean people should jump right in, regardless of age. You may consider yourself “fit,” but if you haven’t been doing the proper fitness training, you may not be ready to play without risk of injury.
Firstly, there is always a risk. Even if you are the fittest of the fit, there is still risk with any athletic endeavor, even just walking. I would like to talk about minimizing your risk of serious injury, which will also help you avoid less serious but annoying injuries like elbow tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and all the other joints that can get an “itis.” If you feel immune to injuries because you are in great shape, maybe read on about how considering your fascia in creating your pickleball ready physique will help you minimize your risk and play better!
Risk in the Sports World
The world of sports knows that athletes are not even allowed to practice if they lack mobility in their joints, which often happens after an injury, or particular whole-body skills (think squat). Why? Their risk of injury goes up. An injured athlete can’t help the team win or sell tickets. The world of sports has developed many assessments to check these movements and skills. What can WE learn from this? Should we be on the court if we don’t have basic mobility skills? What are the potential consequences? We aren’t selling tickets or care that much about winning. Well, maybe some of us do.
The consequences go well beyond simple injuries. They can be quite serious, as outlined earlier. However, there may also be lost work time. Loss of ability to engage in the activities we enjoy. Medical costs. Future issues in our bodies following injuries such as chronic pain. Even permanent disability! The cost can go well beyond what we initially thought about. If you want to assess your own risk, see the last few paragraphs.
Fascia and the Pickleball Physique
When we are young, our fascia is very hydrated and springy. That is why kids can jump and bounce to their hearts’ content. In the 50+ world, we can get injured when stepping off a curb incorrectly. I had a friend who sprained her ankle and broke her wrist just from an unexpected step off a curb. The step down was just far enough to where she couldn’t catch herself and fell. This is NOT because we automatically lose our bounciness as we age. We lose it literally because we don’t use it.
Patterns of Healthy and Unhealthy Fascia
Retraining Unhealthy “Old” Fascia
In 2014, Hoffrén-Mikkola et al. investigated if fascia can change and designed a study training older adults to hop. The participants met three times per week for eleven weeks. They warmed up for ten minutes on an exercise bike, then did submaximal hops for just 10 seconds, then waited until their heart rate returned to normal. This was repeated 1 to 5 times, depending on each individual’s progress. In this short time, jumping height increased, reactivity increased, and ankle mobility and tendon recruitment increased. The fascia became springy again! Wow! What does this mean?
Let’s talk about hopping and submaximal first. The researchers did the opposite of what many people do when they get on to the court. Many pickle ballers go all out with their lunges to the ball and swings to kill that ball. The researchers recorded each participant’s best possible hop and then asked them to only do 75% of their best hop when training. Notice that they are also using the word hop, not jump. This was likely to ensure the participants were gentle with their efforts and less likely to injure themselves. A hop means at least part of the feet or toes stays on the ground, versus a jump is when the feet come off the ground.
What’s the lesson here? Train your body to hop and jump. It will reorganize your fascia to a more organized and crimped structure. This makes you bouncier and more resilient not to mention more nimble on the court. You may be thinking that you don’t jump in pickleball. Maybe not, but you are likely darting about from one foot to another, which requires many of the same abilities as hopping or jumping. This darting also requires good ankle mobility and strength which hopping creates.
Hitting the Brakes
The other much-needed skill jumping improves is your ability to hit the brakes or stop yourself quickly without losing your balance. When you can’t hit the brakes, you fall. Falling is where people get the worst injuries, such as broken hips, wrists, and head injuries.
If you have stairs in your home, go up three stairs, turn around, look down, and DON’T actually jump, but just think about if you’d feel safe jumping all the way down to the floor. No? Step down to the second step. Could you jump from there and catch yourself easily and comfortably, landing upright with no consequence? No? Try the first step. If you can’t jump and land softly and easily without consequence, you should not be darting about on that court.
In 2019 I signed up a course to become certified in a natural movement form of exercise called MovNat. It was endorsed by Katy Bowmen, a biomechanist I follow, so I signed up without digging to deep. About three months before the course, I decided to download all the materials and see what the certification entailed. I found out that in order to be certified I had to actually be able to DO all movements, not just teach them correctly. OMG! One of the skills I had to be able to do was to jump up onto a platform as tall as my own knees. For me that is 19 inches. Again, OMG!
I got out my step stool and decided to try. I couldn’t do it. I knew I wouldn’t make it and I’d hurt myself. So, I started with what felt safe. I felt safe at 2 inches. I jumped onto a 2 inch platform for several days and then I added 2 more inches. Soon, I added two more. Then I got the step stool back out and it felt safe, so I did it. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
I was also training several other skills at the same time including hanging, lateral jumping, crawling, balancing on a 2×4, lifting and carrying half my body weight, etc.
I attended the certification just one week shy of my 53rd birthday. I was the oldest person by far at this certification workshop. I passed that damn certification!!!! Not everyone did. And, I can still jump pretty darn well. This is me practicing jumping from an uneven board to a higher step stool. I feel pretty confident jumping up and down from three steps…just sayin’. If I can do it, you can do it.
You might think you walk for miles and are in great shape. Great! Walking, biking, rowing, elliptical, treadmill, running, etc., are fantastic but do not include the lateral movement needed in pickleball. What is lateral movement? Stand still, then step out to the side (not forward or backward). When was the last time you trained your body to do that? Can you take a big step out to the side, land softly, then push yourself back up to where you started (without consequence)? Can you take two or three big lateral steps in a row? Quickly? This is a common motion in pickleball. If you can’t do this easily, you risk falling if you can’t stop yourself from going for the save!
How to Train Your Fascia
As a reminder, your fascia is the environment of all your other body systems. When it is healthy, everything functions better. Your fascia needs to be stretched and compressed regularly. All of it. This means we need variety in our daily movement and our training. Linear training won’t keep your fascia fit. Training in all planes of motion with all your joints through their full range of motion is essential. Fascia loves and responds to gentle and consistent movement. With gentleness and consistency, your fascia can change in amazing ways.
Your fascia and your muscles also need to be challenged. You don’t need to join a gym and start lifting heavy weights, but you need to train your body to do the movements you want it to do effectively and safely.
With pickleball being played on a smaller court, not everyone thinks warming up is important. It is. The older we get and the less we move during a typical day, the more we need to warm up before we exert ourselves. If you do a short warm-up, you reduce the risk of straining something. However, warming up will not make up for having a body unprepared for quick movements in all directions. That takes regular preparation long before game time.
We Have a Warm-Up for You
My friend Cheryl and I have teamed up to create Fascia Forward Fitness. Cheryl is a multi-Ironman competitor and Strength Training Coach. I am an Occupational Therapist, fascia expert, posture geek, and lover of movement. We’ve combined our superpowers to help people in our age range (let’s just say 50+) to think about moving into fitness differently. We are creating a YouTube Channel with lots of free resources. One of those resources is an 8-minute Pickleball Warm-Up. If you are a pickle baller, please give it a look. It’s a great warm-up for any athletic endeavor.
If you want to know more about the Pickleball related injuries mentioned earlier, we discuss those, and why we believe they are occurring, in a video as well. Click here.
While you are checking out our channel, we would love for you to like it!
Click here to see the whole channel.
Pickleball is a great sport to pick up at any time in life. It provides so much variety of movement which is excellent for your body. But, if your body is not ready, you can’t make those big saves without consequence. Think about all the movements you do and train your body to do them. You’ll reduce your risk and increase your chance of winning!
Cheryl and I have also created a self-assessment if you are interested in assessing your body for risk. If that sounds like too much to do on your own, make an appointment with Kaitlyn or myself. We can run you through a full body assessment and then make recommendations for improving your mobility exactly where YOU need it.
After I wrote the first draft of this article, I had my first client with a pickleball injury, and it was a very serious injury that required surgery and several weeks of strong painkillers. I’m glad they chose myofascial work to help them in their healing process.
As I finished this article, I had a second pickleball player with much less serious injuries, but they had ‘itises that had become chronic.
Take care of your body!