Each year, while NBA players defy gravity and college basketball players fight to survive until March Madness, recreational athletes take to the courts in pick-up games and organized leagues. Like the pros and college players, rec athletes are subject to injuries—probably at an even greater extent. Elite players dedicate much of their lives to basketball-specific training, but rec players tend to think about basketball only sporadically or at certain times of year.

During the warmer months, "Many people take part in continuous aerobic sports like running and cycling," says Ed Orr, MS, ATC, CSCS, former assistant athletic trainer for the University of Arizona men's basketball team. These athletes are not used to the short, intermittent bursts of activity, the quick stops and starts, and the physical contact of basketball. So if you're planning to play hoops this winter, be aware that making the transition to a different type of sport means training to avoid different kinds of injuries.

Muscle Strains

The quick bursts of speed and direction changes inherent in basketball can make for sore muscles after a hard-fought game. Athletes are most likely to experience muscle strains early in the season, Orr says, when their conditioning level isn't where it needs to be. Even late in the season, however, you could strain a muscle when you're fatigued at the end of a game.

Recreational basketball players can avoid some of the early season muscle trauma by working on strength and conditioning prior to the season. "Work on quick bursts of activity," Orr says. "Try sprinting on the court both the length and the width, with and without the ball."

If you experience a painful muscle strain, ice it right away and keep icing it on and off for 72 hours or until any swelling has stabilized. Don't apply heat to anything that's swollen. You can also take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, which are helpful for relieving the pain of many minor injuries.

Ankle Sprains

When you go up for a rebound amidst a group of scrambling players, you face the possibility of a ]]>sprained ankle]]> if you come down on someone else's foot. These are usually inversion ankle sprains to the ligaments on the outside of the ankle. If you have a history of ankle sprains, Orr says you should consider playing in an ankle brace or taping your ankle.

To treat an ankle sprain, just remember the RICE acronym (rest, ice, compression, elevation). Icing especially will help control the swelling that can cause pain over the several days following an injury. You may need to see a physician to determine if the ankle is sprained or broken.

Jammed Finger

There's not much you can do to prevent a jammed finger in a sport where a ball flies at you fast. If you jam a finger, ice it right away and try to move it as soon as you can. If you think it might be dislocated; you can't move it at all; or the distal part of the finger stays bent get an ]]>x-ray]]> to see what's going on in there.

Knee Sprain

The most common ]]>knee sprain]]> in basketball is a medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain. Orr says these injuries can be caused by either planting then cutting too hard or by hitting the outside of your knee on someone else's planted leg. Preseason leg strengthening helps prevent many knee injuries.

Treat MCL sprains with ice (even though they don't generally swell excessively). Try a knee sleeve for compression and make sure you work on your range of motion as soon as you can. If you tear your MCL, "That's a fairly serious injury," Orr says. Get evaluated and treated by a physician.

Torn ACL

Leg strength specifically and even hamstring to quadricep strength ratio has been identified as a possible factor in preventing tears of the ]]>anterior cruciate ligament]]> (ACL). This usually means you have to increase hamstring strength to achieve parity. ACL tears are fairly common in basketball, ]]>especially in female players]]> , whose hip structures often lead to "knock-kneed" landings. Practice jumping and landing properly balanced on both feet, and on the balls of your feet.

If you think you might have a torn ACL, get evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon. A torn ACL usually needs to be reconstructed, Orr explains.

Preseason Drills

Ideally, start training for basketball season three weeks before it starts, building a base of strength and conditioning and building up from there. But for most recreational athletes, "That's just not realistic," says Kevin Coleman, MEd, CSCS, director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports at the University of Kansas. Still, Coleman says, doing something is better than doing nothing. So try to get at least a base level of conditioning built up in the weeks or months prior to the season. Focus on ]]>strength training]]> squats, ]]>plyometrics]]> , and jumping drills as well as drills that improve your ability to move well on the court.

Here are a few on-court drills Coleman uses with the University of Kansas basketball teams:

Star Drill

Place four cones in a square, eight to ten feet apart. Stand in the center of the square, and have your drill partner point to a cone. Get yourself to the cone, touch it, and return to the center as quickly as you can. Before you're back to the center, your partner should be pointing to the next cone you have to touch. Start with 30 seconds, and build up to 1-2 minutes. This improves your ability to change direction quickly and be aware of body position.

Zigzag Drill

Place six cones on the court in a zigzag pattern (cones should be about 16 feet apart and at 45° angles). Start at the first cone and sprint to the second, then third, fourth, fifth and sixth. Reverse the pattern and return to the first cone. Repeat for 30 seconds; build up to 1-2 minutes. This gives you practice in quick bursts of speed and shifting direction.

Medicine Ball Shuffle

Stand at one end of the court, facing your partner who is a foot or two away from you. Do a sideways shuffle for the length of the court, passing the medicine ball back and forth. This works your shuffling ability, balance, strength, and ability to stay low.