The Sports Clinic

The Benefits of Physiotherapy for Athletes: From Flexibility to Mobility

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a ballerina, a football player, or a race car driver. All sports are physically demanding and place a significant amount of stress on the body. Unfortunately, even with proper training techniques, athletes face the possibility of getting injured whenever they step onto the field or into the gym.

Physiotherapy is the science and practice of managing all sorts of injuries, disabilities, and pain caused by physical activity. It’s essential to restore and maintain athletes’ physical condition and can even help prevent future injuries by improving your physical condition.

In this article, we will explore the benefits of physiotherapy for athletes, from improving flexibility to enhancing mobility.

What is Physiotherapy?

Also known as physical therapy, physiotherapy is a healthcare profession that focuses on the prevention, treatment, and management of physical impairments, disabilities, and pain. Physiotherapists use a variety of techniques, such as exercise, manual therapy, and electrotherapy, to help their patients achieve their physical goals.

In the context of sports, physiotherapy aims to achieve three major objectives:

  • Enhance an athlete’s performance
  • Prevent injuries
  • Facilitate recovery

Physiotherapists work with athletes of all levels, from amateurs to professionals, and across a wide range of sports. They’re specially trained and regulated practitioners who usually work as part of a team in hospitals, community health centers, or for private sports teams, clubs, charities, or companies.

In a broader sense, physiotherapists do not only work with athletes but with people of all ages who are suffering from health conditions affecting the following areas:

  • Bones, joints, and soft tissue (e.g., neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, muscular strains, and sprains)
  • Brain and nervous system (e.g., stroke, concussion, MS, Parkinson’s disease)
  • Heart and circulatory system (e.g., heart attack rehab)
  • Lungs and respiratory system (e.g., cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD))

How Physiotherapy Works

Physiotherapy involves a physiotherapist assessing the patient’s overall physical condition, not just the specific injury or illness. Its aim is to identify any underlying physical issues that may be affecting an athlete’s performance and address these issues by developing personalized treatment plans or therapy routines.

In general, physiotherapists provide advice and education on ways to approach daily activities safely, such as improving posture and using proper lifting or carrying techniques. They also recommend various exercises to strengthen individual parts of the body and enhance overall mobility.

Depending on the injury or illness, physical therapists may use manual therapy techniques to manipulate joints and muscles to relieve pain or stiffness and restore flexibility. Sometimes, alternative therapy methods such as hydrotherapy or acupuncture may be used to address specific issues.

Benefits of Physiotherapy for Athletes

For athletes, physiotherapy offers many benefits. Some of these include:

  • Improved flexibility
  • Increased mobility
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Faster recovery from injuries
  • Improved overall physical condition
  • Enhanced athletic performance

Let’s explore some of these benefits further.

Improving Flexibility with Physiotherapy

Flexibility is often an overlooked aspect of peak physical performance. Athletes need good flexibility to move freely and efficiently and reduce their risk of injury. However, repetitive motions can cause tight muscles and decrease your range of motion.

For example, if you spend a couple of hours at the driving range without going through proper stretches beforehand, you may increase your risk of straining your muscles and limiting flexibility.

By improving your flexibility with physiotherapy, you may experience benefits such as:

  • Fewer injuries as your body develops greater balance and range of motion.
  • Less pain by lengthening and opening different muscle groups, which leads to looser muscles and fewer strains.
  • Better balance as a result of improving your sitting and standing posture through correct body alignment.
  • Increased efficiency in physical movements, which may lead to improved athletic performance.
  • Relaxation and reduced stress that come from heightened awareness of your bodily function.

Physiotherapists help athletes improve their flexibility by leading them through various exercises that help relieve muscle tension, improve joint mobility, and ultimately increase flexibility.

Some practical advice for improving flexibility that physical therapists often recommend includes:

  1. Pre-workout dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretches loosen up your muscles before you engage in more intensive exercises. There’s a reason these stretches are referred to as “warm-up” exercises because they activate your muscles and reduce stiffness. Examples include jumping jacks, leg swings, push-ups, and other light exercises that increase your range of motion.
  2. Post-workout static stretching. During cool-down after an intense workout, engage in static stretches to loosen up tight muscles and prevent soreness. These are the stretches that you hold in one place for longer periods of time, such as bending over to touch your toes or stretching out your triceps over your head.
  3. Improve neural mobility. This is a fancy way of referring to your muscles’ ability to work together, which helps them deal with greater strain and increase their endurance. To improve neural mobility, you can engage in exercises called “neural flossing techniques,” which pull the nerve back and forth in two directions. For example, lie flat on your back and use both hands to pull one knee towards your chest while the other leg remains straight. Hold for a few seconds then repeat the action with the other leg.
  4. Exercise regularly. Staying active is one of the best ways to remain flexible. In the off-season, or on days when you don’t have the time to do a full workout, you can still keep moving by doing yoga or going for a quick jog.
  5. Stay hydrated. If you don’t drink enough water, you increase the likelihood of having muscle cramps that will limit your range of motion. Remember to drink enough fluids before, during, and after your workout.

Improving Mobility with Physiotherapy

While flexibility refers to a muscle’s ability to lengthen passively through a motion, mobility refers to actively moving your joints through a full range of motion. Poor mobility can lead to compensations, which can increase the risk of injury and reduce performance.

Physiotherapists will assess your range of movement and muscle strength to identify any areas of weakness and come up with an exercise regimen to improve your mobility. Techniques used to address mobility issues may include muscle release techniques like trigger point therapy, or using proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). PNF involves contracting and relaxing muscles in a specific sequence to improve joint range of motion.

Other techniques that physiotherapists use to help athletes improve their mobility or recover from injury include:

  • Balance training and harm reduction during falls
  • Gait re-education after serious injuries that change the way you move
  • Movement patterns for moving from lying down to sitting and standing positions
  • Strengthening exercises for joints in the knees, ankles, and hips
  • Functional movements for going about household tasks
  • Support for using adaptive and orthotic equipment as well as wheelchairs, braces, etc.
  • Hydrotherapy for muscle strengthening

Physiotherapy Techniques for Athletes

When working with athletes specifically, physiotherapists may use special techniques that target improving flexibility and mobility in people who undergo physical exertion on a daily basis.

Since athletes often have similar injuries or occupational risk factors, physiotherapists have developed methods of treatment that can be used alone or in tandem to achieve the optimal road to recovery.

Some common techniques used in sports physiotherapy include the following:

  • Manual therapy involves hands-on techniques, such as massage and joint mobilization, to help release muscle tension and improve joint mobility.
  • Exercise therapy uses a range of exercises, such as stretching and strengthening exercises, to help improve flexibility, mobility, and strength.
  • Electrotherapy, or electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), utilizes electrical currents to help reduce pain and inflammation and promote healing.
  • Shockwave therapy uses therapeutic sound waves to promote natural regeneration and healing by activating cellular processes.
  • Taping makes use of kinesiology tape to support injured or weak muscles and joints.

By using a combination of these techniques, physiotherapists can develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses an athlete’s specific needs and goals.

Insights from Physiotherapists and Athletes

According to a study on the significance of physiotherapy for athletes, “The role of a sports physiotherapist in improving an athlete’s performance is crucial.” [1] Joseph Pilates, the founder of the fitness movement, had this to say about the connection between the body and mind, “A body free from nervous tension and fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind, fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living.” [2] This highlights the important role that the body-mind connection plays in managing the stresses of everyday life, especially for athletes.

Physiotherapist Joerg Teichmann noted the importance of personalized training and recovery plans for people undergoing physiotherapy when he said, “Each body is different. Therefore each rehabilitation must be different.” [3]

And why not take a note from the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan? In terms of the dedication it takes to work hard on the road to recovery, here’s his advice, “I’ve always believed that if you put in the work, the results will come.” [4]

Practical Tips for Athletes who are Interested in Trying Physiotherapy

If you’re an athlete who is interested in trying physiotherapy, here are some practical tips to help you get started:

  • Find a physiotherapist who specializes in sports injuries and has experience working with athletes.
  • Be honest about your physical condition and goals with your physiotherapist so they can develop a personalized treatment plan.
  • Communicate with your physiotherapist about your progress and any concerns you may have.
  • Don’t wait until you’re injured to see a physiotherapist. Regular check-ups can help prevent injuries and enhance performance.

Incorporating Physiotherapy into an Athlete’s Training Regimen

Physiotherapy is not a one-time fix. It’s a long-term commitment to your physical health and performance. To incorporate physiotherapy into your training regimen, here are some tips:

  • Schedule regular check-ups with your physiotherapist to monitor your physical condition and prevent injuries.
  • Incorporate the exercises and techniques recommended by your physiotherapist into your warm-up and cool-down routines.
  • Use physiotherapy as a tool to enhance your performance, not just to treat injuries.

By incorporating physiotherapy into your training regimen, you can enhance your physical condition, prevent injuries, and achieve your athletic goals.