Along with the warm temperatures and long daylight hours of summer comes the irresistible urge to play outside. Maybe that's why 30 to 40 million people in the US participate in organized softball leagues.

"Non-contact" Doesn't Mean "No Injuries"

Though playing softball is a great way to get fresh air, spend time with friends, and impress co-workers with your athletic prowess, it's not quite the injury-free, non-contact sport many participants believe it to be. In fact, softball injuries lead to more emergency room visits in the US than injuries from any other sport.

This is not surprising, given that many summer softball players don't do a lot of pre-season training. "Pro baseball players spend six weeks in warm weather training to prepare for the start of the season," says Stephen Rice, MD, co-director of the New Jersey Sports Medicine Center. "A lot of adults go out once or twice before the season begins and expect to be ready to play."

Softball injuries can include:

Luckily, many of these injuries are preventable.

Preparation in the Off-season

Take a cue from the pros and start preventing injuries before the season begins.

Stretching

The most important thing for softballers to work on is flexibility. Softball entails a lot of starting and stopping and bursts of motion. Good flexibility will save you from a lot of the strains and tears. Dr. Rice recommends following a comprehensive stretching program all year, paying plenty of attention to calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, trunk muscles, shoulders, and arms.

Strengthening

In the off-season, you can also work on developing muscle strength in both the upper and lower body. Focus especially on the shoulders, because "many adults have weakness in the smaller muscles of the shoulder and don't realize it," according to Dr. Rice. When you're throwing, this can lead to injury in the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Dr. Rice recommends trying one-arm push-ups against a wall to strengthen shoulder muscles.

Cardiovascular Training

You should also do some biking, jogging , swimming , or some other aerobic exercise to build up a base level of aerobic fitness. Finally, Dr. Rice says, you should practice sprinting. Softball involves a great deal of standing still, but when a ball comes to the outfield or you're trying to steal a base, you'll need quick bursts of speed.

If you do a little off-season work, it should make your softball season easier and less injury-prone. Don't forget to warm up well before each practice and game.

Warming Up

Cheryl Reed, ATC, recommends the following warm-up routine:

  • Get the blood flowing. Start with a light cardiovascular warm-up to get your heart rate up and your muscles warm. Try taking a few laps around the bases.
  • Stretch your muscles. Do several minutes of total body stretching, focusing especially on shoulders and hamstrings. Repeat stretches three to five times and hold each stretch for a count of 20. (You should be doing stretches like this four to five times per week to maintain your flexibility.)
  • Warm up your arm. Warm up your throwing motion, first without the ball, then with the ball. Throw gently for five or so minutes, gradually increasing speed and distance.
  • Practice your swing. Simulate batting motion, first without the bat, then with the bat. Start with a slow and deliberate motion and gradually increase speed and strength of swing.
  • Stay loose. Remember that you'll be standing still a lot during the game, so try to jog in place and keep stretching to stay warm while you're not in motion.

Proper Technique

Many softball injuries are throwing-related or sliding-related. Proper technique can save you from many of these. Work with a coach or an experienced player to make sure your technique is correct.

"Many players believe head-first sliding is faster, but it puts you at risk for many injuries," says Dr. Rice, an active softball player who always slides feet-first. Doing it correctly can get you to base quickly and help you avoid injury, so find someone to help you with your slide. Studies have shown that head first sliding into first base is definitely slower than simply running.

The same goes for throwing: You need to do it right. Your whole body should be used during a throw, from your legs, through your trunk, to your shoulder and down your arm. Improper technique can cause a lot of pain. And never throw too hard, too fast. Start by throwing short distances, softly.

Common Sense

There are plenty of simple steps you can take to make a softball game safer. Dr. Rice cites the following examples:

  • Communicate with your fellow outfielders. Make sure you know where everyone is and who's going for the ball, and you'll avoid plenty of collisions.
  • Have a good glove. You don't want a glove that's so old or so small it doesn't stay on or the ball pops out of it.
  • Don't block the base. You'll avoid collisions with runners if you give them a clear path to the base.
  • Use breakaway bases. If you're setting up the field, make sure to use bags that give when a runner slides into them. It might make the field less tidy, but they can save many a sprained or broken ankle.
  • Use kneepads and sliding pants. You'll avoid a lot of cuts, abrasions, and bruises.
  • Wear an ankle brace. If you have a history of ankle sprains and you're playing on a field that's not in great condition, you'll need a little extra support.
  • Wear protective goggles over your glasses. You don't want lenses shattering in your eyes.
  • Be alert. Know where the ball is and make an effort not to let it hit you in the head.
  • Treat your injuries. If you do suffer a softball injury, take care of it. Respect a sore arm, and rest it so you don't get seriously injured. If you suffer a contusion, ice the injury and apply compression to prevent excessive swelling. And if you're seriously injured, don't try to buck the statistics. Get to the emergency room.