There’s nothing like a torn knee ligament to throw your fitness plan off course.
Plus, it hurts. A lot. And, it turns out, there’s a lot of us suffering. Research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports in 2011 found that Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction – the centre of the knee where the femur and tibia meet.
According to the study, more than 50,000 surgeries took place over a five-year period between 2003 and 2008. Ouch.
Here’s the not-so-good news for women: experts believe we’re more likely to suffer from ligament damage than men. Brad Walker, sports injury consultant and author of Treat Your Own Knees says there are a number of factors that increase your risk, from hormones (one study from Tottori University in Japan found that female athletes were more likely to experience ACL injury during the ovulatory phase of their menstrual cycle) to sheer anatomical difference.
“Generally, women have wider hips than men so the angle of the femur to the knee is more pronounced,” he says, “This Q-angle makes women more susceptible to knee injury.”
You can’t really change genetics, but Walker says conditioning your knees before you work out is key. One of the most common causes of knee injury is overuse – trying to do too much without a proper warm-up breaks down the structures within your knee over time. Before exercise, focus on improving flexibility and strength around your knees.
“Strong muscles around knee joints provide support, protection and act like shock absorbers every time your foot hits the ground,” he says.
Maintaining a healthy weight will also give knees staying power as piling on kilos only adds pressure to the joints.
“Obesity is a risk factor for osteoarthritis,” says Dr Jodi Richardson, a sports scientist at the Australian Institute of Sport. “The likelihood of osteoarthritis is greatly increased for women who have previously sustained an ACL injury.
Take extra care if you play stop-and-start sports like netball, tennis, soccer and basketball. According to Dr Richardson, “injury mainly occurs in these sports because they require fast changes in direction as well as deceleration and pivoting on a planted foot”.
That’s not to say you should hang up your goal attack bib. Stretching exercises that improve flexibility “allow your ankles, knees and hips to move through a greater range of motion.” They also improve your balance and coordination so you can move on court.
Knee saver“When it comes to protecting your knees, it’s about balancing out the tight and weak muscles to create correct alignment,” says fitness trainer Amelia Burton. One of the biggest causes? A weak vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) – the teardrop-shaped muscle on the inside of your knee. According to Burton, one of the best ways to bump up your muscular strength is to jump on the leg extension machine next time you hit the gym. Set the machine to a light weight – around 5kg.
Sit with the pad across your shins; extend legs out straight, just before your knees lock.
Turn your toes out about 45 degrees. Bend and straighten your legs in only the top third of your full range of movement, keeping your toes pointed at 45 degrees.
Complete three sets of 20-30 reps.
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