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  • Writer's pictureCoach Matt Pippin

Pickleball Playbook: Strategies for a Pain-Free Game


pickleball injuries

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 5-10 years, you’ve definitely heard about pickleball, one of the fastest-growing sports that even professional athletes from the NFL, NBA, and many others are taking part. Like other cult phenomenons, the #1 thing pickleball players love to talk about, is how much they love the sport. 


About 3 years ago, my wife and I picked up the sport after moving to an area that had courts in the development. The first time we played, my wife snapped her new paddle when hitting the ball, then looked at me and said "Never again." Fortunately, I was able to talk her into another game, and the rest is history, like so many others we are hooked. We love it because unlike other sports, you don’t have to be a super athlete or even skilled in racket sports to have a ton of fun and get a great workout.


However, because it can be very easy to pick up and doesn’t “look” like it has a ton of physical requirements, people tend to have a false sense of security for their physical well being when they go on the court.  


This is a wild figure so get ready - in the United States alone, Americans will spend between $250 and $400 million in pickleball related injuries this year. As someone who's in the business of keeping the everyday athlete pain and injury free, and is a fan of the game, I decided to share my tips and tricks on everything you need to stay safe while enjoying yourself on the pickleball court.  


WHAT IS PICKLEBALL?

Pickleball is a racket/paddle sport where 2-4 players hit a “wiffle-like” ball over a 34 inch tall net, similar to tennis. Created in 1965 in Washington state as a fun backyard game, the sport resembles a mix of tennis and ping-pong. I always tell people, “It’s like playing ping pong, but you’re standing on the table.” 


There’s a debate over the origin of why “pickle” is in the name, but it seems to come from the creators of the sport's dog being named Pickles. Regardless of where the name came from, it’s the fasted growing sport 5 years in a row with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.


BENEFITS OF PICKLEBALL

The greatest benefit of pickleball, is that it gets every person of all shapes and sizes, and people of all ages to move more while having fun. One of the hardest jobs I have as a someone who works in the fitness world, is to keep exercise fun. Most people aren’t wired to truck away on a treadmill, bike, or elliptical to get their heart rate up on a regular basis. But if you make it more enjoyable, then staying consistent is way easier.


Fun exercise isn’t the only benefit, there are so many others including:

  • Change of direction - Most people only walk in straight lines, so adding in some variety of movement is great for keeping the body challenged and pickleball has no shortage of it

  • Hand eye coordination - Keeping up with where the ball is going in relation to the paddle challenges the mind-body connection that is so crucial

  • Being outside - Being in nature, getting some sun (vitamin D), and just getting some fresh air is great for the body and your spirits

  • Social - One of the largest contributors to poor mental health is loneliness and a lost sense of community, so getting out there with friends and even strangers can be a huge boost

  • Heart health - Anything that gets your heart rate going will help with your cardiovascular health 

  • Competition - This might not apply to everyone, but for me, competition brings out the best in me and pushes me farther than I would normally go


IS PICKLEBALL HARD ON YOUR BODY?

Pickleball can definitely be hard on your body, when you think about the possible repetitive stress that happens as you run around on a hard court. Another factor though, is it depends on your level of competition. If you’re going all out for every ball, wanting to win every point, and have no regard for your body, then yes, pickleball can be hard on your body just like any other sport. However, if you keep it fun, and stay within your own physical limitations, then you should be able to enjoy the sport without any consequences.  


WHAT MUSCLES DO YOU USE WHEN PLAYING PICKLEBALL?

Like tennis, or other paddle/racket sports, pickleball predominantly uses the lower half of the body for all your court movements, while still requiring your torso and dominant arm to perform your swing. Starting from your toes being able to flex and moving all the way to your neck muscles being able to rotate back and forth, you can think of pickleball as a total body workout.  


DOES PICKLEBALL HAVE A HIGH INJURY RATE?

When looking at all demographics, pickleball doesn’t have a high injury rate however, a medical study showed that over a 10 year span (2010-2019), 86% of emergency room visits due to pickleball occurred in adults over the age of 60. Combine that with the fact that 1 in 5 pickleball players is over the age of 55, and you can see why there seems to be this narrative that the sport is dangerous. 


Those in these age groups tend to have more cases of preexisting lower body issues like arthritis in the knees, meniscus issues, and poor strength and flexibility in the ankles. Since pickleball is a sport that requires you to move back and forth in all directions, you can start to see why injuries may show up in this demographic.  


For those of you under the age of 55, the sport will have some inherent risks, but for most people without any preexisting orthopedic issues, it doesn’t have a higher injury rate than any other sport.  


IS PICKLEBALL A HIGH RISK SPORT?

As I mentioned before, your age and preexisting orthopedic conditions determine your risk of injuries when playing pickleball (or anyt other sport for that matter). However, since the sport can be fast paced, involves lots of change of direction, and it’s user friendly to those with no history of playing racket sports, there can be a risk of injury. Like with any sport, accidents and injuries happen, but I would not consider pickleball a high risk sport.  


DOES PICKLEBALL HAVE MORE INJURIES THAN TENNIS?

Without a doubt, tennis has a much larger injury rate than pickleball. Tennis requires significantly more running since tennis courts are larger, more overhead work, and is usually played at a higher intensity. The amount of shoulder mobility required to hit a serve, or fire a forehand down the line is massive compared to a casual game of pickleball. Lastly, most injuries tend to occur once fatigue has set in, and tennis matches tend to last much longer and require way more endurance than PB.  


PARTS OF THE BODY THAT TAKE A BEATING FROM PICKLEBALL

If you’ve ever played the sport, then you know what parts of the body are a little tender the next day after your pickleball match. For those of you who haven’t taken the leap yet, here’s a list of body parts that take a little beating when playing:

  • Feet

  • Ankles

  • Knees

  • Hips

  • Lower back 

  • Obliques

  • Elbow

  • Shoulders 


COMMON ACHES, PAIN AND INJURY IN PICKLEBALL

The most common pickleball injuries that I see are knee and lower back pain however, other common issues can range from tight muscles to serious injuries including:

  • Ankle sprains

  • Achilles rupture and tears

  • ACL rupture and tears

  • Plantar fasciitis

  • Meniscus tears

  • Knee arthritis and pain

  • Sprains and tears in the calves, quads, and hamstring muscles

  • Hip arthritis and pain

  • Less common are elbow, wrist and shoulder tendinitis



TIPS TO AVOID INJURY FROM PICKLEBALL

If you are about to start on the pickleball journey, here are a few tips to help you stay safe out there:

  • Make sure you do a proper warm-up before playing to make sure all your joints are tissues are ready to go

  • Drink plenty of fluids to maintain proper hydration

  • Set a specific time for how long you’re going to play and stick to it. If you get lost in the game (because you're having so much fun!), your body will inevitably get fatigued and that's when injuries happen. Start with an hour and keep it at that.

  • Use the Two-Step rule - I tell all of my older clients who are just starting out to use the Two-Step rule. This means, if you have to move more than two steps for the ball, just let it go. More injuries happen in the lower extremities when going all out for the ball that's on the edge of your range.

  • Keep it fun - I’m super competitive, so I always have to keep reminding myself that it’s ok if I don’t return every ball and win every point. Keep it fun and people will want to keep playing with you :)  


WHAT TO DO IF INJURY OCCURS FROM PLAYING PICKLEBALL

If a mild injury occurs out on the court, the first thing you should do is stop playing.  You’re not competing in the super bowl, so calling it day shouldn’t be a big deal.  After that, here are a few things I'd tell my clients that will get the healing process started:

  • Ice - If you've read other blogs of mine, you'll notice that I mention icing is not the solution for fixing an injury but the caveat is that during the first 2-3 hours after the injury occurs, icing for 10-15 minutes every hour can be a great way to get the swelling down if a sprain or strain has taken place. After this time window, icing should be discontinued as it may impede the healing process.

  • Movement - Once you take the ice off, I always suggest doing as much movement for the area in pain-free ranges as you can do. Lack of movement after an injury can lead to a slower recovery. You must however, keep it pain-free, otherwise, you make make it worse. I don't think I should have to say this but just in case, I'm not talking about moving if you've broken something. Don't move it and go see a medical professional.

  • Do not stretch the injured area - This is probably the first thing that everyone does, but this only makes it worse.

  • If the injury gets worse, or doesn’t seem to be improving, reach out to a licensed practitioner for an assessment.   


BULLETPROOF YOUR BODY FOR PICKLEBALL

My favorite exercises to bulletproof your body for pickleball include the same mobility and strength training exercises that I'd give my tennis players. Add these quick workouts to your routine to build strength, increase range of motion, and get ready to dominate the pickleball court pain-free. 


Mobility Training Workout For Pickleball


Strength Training Workout For Pickleball


WHAT TO DO NEXT

If you want even mo re mobility goodness, check out my 3 must have mobility moves in the link below. It includes hip, shoulder and spine exercises that are my all-time favorite and I know you’ll love them too. They're completely free, so check it out.

the_best_mobility_exercises

 

ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN

Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change.


Certifications:

  • NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

  • Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist

  • Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach

  • Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)

  • Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor

  • Weck Method Qualified


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