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Preparing for Your Athletic Dreams

What does it take to make a competitive team, pursue your first road race, or go after your athletic dreams?

Hear from Haley Harrison, DPT, and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with Emerson's Sports Medicine and Performance team, about how to know you are ready to take on your athletic dreams.
Preparing for Your Athletic Dreams
Haley Harrison, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Haley Harrison, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS is Physical Therapist Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Orthopaedic Physical Therapy Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Pronouns: she/her/hersĀ  Emerson Hospital Clough Family Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies Center for Sports Medicine and Performance Division

Scott Webb: If you're like me, you often think about going for a run or maybe heading to the gym, but you stop yourself because you're just not sure that you're physically or mentally ready to pursue your athletic dreams. And joining me today to help us all know when we or family members are ready to pursue our athletic dreams and explain the role that physical therapists play in developing an attainable athletic plan for us is Haley Harrison. She holds a doctorate in physical therapy and she's a certified strength and conditioning specialist with Emerson's Sports Medicine and Performance team.

This is the Health Works Here podcast from Emerson Hospital. I'm Scott Webb. So Haley, thanks so much for your time today. We're talking about pursuing athletic dreams and how do we do that, when should we do that, and maybe what your role is as a physical therapist. So as we get rolling here, are there any signs to know when our body is ready to pursue that athletic dream, like a 5k or triathlon or something like that?

Haley Harrison: I think the idea that is really key here is specificity. So if I'm in the gym all the time, it's going to help me become stronger and more fit, but it won't necessarily prepare me for something like swimming, for example, right? Only being in the pool would prepare me better for that. So if your goal is to hike a mountain while you're on vacation, but you live in a flat area, training your body on the stairs or performing exercises, like step-ups at the gym can help you get ready for that.

So just thinking about the goal that you want to accomplish and preparing yourself and testing yourself as specifically as you can, is what's going to help you know when your body is ready. So there are certainly benefits of cross-training and variability in training. However, you also must prepare your body and your tissues for exactly what you want to accomplish.

Scott Webb: Yeah. Or as you say, as close as we can get, right? As specifically as we can get, which is, yeah, just a great suggestion. So I have a teenage daughter, she's 13. She wants to try out for soccer. She does run recreationally. I always find it funny when she's like, "I'm going to go for a run." And I'm like, "Okay." So I want to find out, Haley, is she ready to try out for the team? Like how do we know? Just because our child, in this case, my daughter runs recreationally, how do I know if she's ready for the soccer team?

Haley Harrison: Yeah, that's a great question. So when we're talking about kids and adolescents, the cool thing about them is how resilient they are and how many new things that they can manage to try without getting hurt. Whereas as we get into adulthood, that's just not always the case. So the good news is that, you know, most likely soccer's not only going to be great exercise for your daughter, but it's also going to have the added benefits of discipline and just being a team player.

However, we also know that there are injury risks to any sport and especially in adolescent females when it comes to ACL tears in soccer and other sports there. But I think getting kids into athletic programs that also prioritize sound techniques in the weight room can be especially helpful with injury prevention and also working with a good soccer coach who prioritizes load and volume management and adequate recovery between games and practices. That is going to be key.

During the off season from high school sports, there are a lot of great programs out there for athletic development and performance. So I think finding something that's sort of geared toward her age group could also be something that I would recommend.

Scott Webb: Yeah. And as you mentioned, recovery is so key and it's so hard with teenagers. So speaking of family members, my 80-year-old dad came to me and said that he wants to be more active and I was thinking, "Okay, what does that mean? Does he want to walk? Does he want to run?" And he was sort of asking my advice, so I'm going to pass this onto you, Haley. How do I know if he's really ready to be more active?

Haley Harrison: Yeah. So with elderly folks, I mean, exercise continues to be so important. But as PTs, we really do want to prioritize safety and minimize things like fall risks. So if your father isn't typically active, I think it is actually a great idea to maybe get him in with a PT for an assessment, sort of like a wellness tune-up so that someone can assess his balance and his strength and just his overall functional mobility. And this can just help him address any concerns and give both you and him confidence to begin an exercise program in an approachable way.

Scott Webb: Yeah. That's great advice. I want him to be more active of course, but I want him, as you say, to do it in an approachable way, something that works for him and doesn't jump into it too fast as many of us do. We sort of have these dreams and goals and we sort of jump in too fast and then we get injured and then we get sidetracked and all of that. And that kind of leads into my next question. You know, what's the harm in pursuing an athletic goal that maybe we're not quite ready for?

Haley Harrison: Yeah. And I think you kind of started to answer it already in the sense that what we see most often in these scenarios is what we call over-training, which is the idea of training too hard and/or too fast. So this can not only lead to injury, but also like irritability, fatigue, just that sense of just being too run down day to day. With proper training, we expect people to feel better, not worse. So sometimes the goal of whatever we're trying to accomplish just gets in the way of approaching things gradually or even sometimes with common sense.

Scott Webb: Yeah, that's so true. And I find that when I get that burst of energy and I think, "Okay, I'm going to start doing this. I'm going to start doing that. I'm going to get on the treadmill. I'm going to do whatever it is," right? That, you know, if I set my standards too high, set the bar too high and I can't reach that, then I end up feeling bad about myself and disappointed in myself. And I'm sure you have some thoughts about people setting those like attainable goals.

Haley Harrison: Right. And so I think being realistic with yourself, but also not being too hard on yourself, right? And, you know, you've got to listen to your body and do what feels good to you on that day. And every day, it's just going to be different.

Scott Webb: Yeah, it sure is, especially as we get older, I'm 53 and everyday sure is different. So let's talk about how we can prepare our bodies for these athletic endeavors, whatever they are, you know, climbing mountains or just simply walking around the block. What can we do to prepare ourselves?

Haley Harrison: Yeah. I think the first thing is habit formation, right? So building physical activity and exercise into your life with consistency, not only forms a habit, but it's also going to produce those physiologic changes at the tissue level in order to prepare the body physically. So I come back to this quite a bit with my patients and I probably will today, but the key is graded exposure to activity or, in other words, a gradual and not sudden progression into what you want to be doing.

So injury occurs because an activity or a stress on a tissue exceeds the capacity of the tissue itself. So the easiest concept to understand is a broken bone by which the force on the bone exceeds its strength or capacity, which would cause a fracture. But this is also the case with muscles, tendons, ligaments. And sometimes even without an actual injury to the tissue, we can just exceed what our tissues can tolerate by simply overdoing it, which can lead to the experience of pain.

So we have a saying in PT that hurt doesn't necessarily equal harm. Pain is complex. But the key to any endeavor is just gradual exposure into the desired activity with consistency and with adequate recovery within that training. So all of these things and doing this with intention can actually build the capacity of the tissues so that they can tolerate more and more load over time and become more resistant to injury. It sounds like a simple concept, but sometimes the guidance of professional can be really helpful with this, so like working with a personal trainer or a strength coach or a PT who builds you a well-designed program can definitely help you prepare for a performance goal.

Scott Webb: Yeah, a well-designed program, that's something that I don't do for myself, but I completely understand the value in that. And you did mention injuries in there. If we're injured, how do we know if that's when we need to see a PT or an orthopedic surgeon? Like what's the threshold there? Is it just sort of individualized, that whatever that person can take or is there a kind of a rules of thumb, if you will?

Haley Harrison: Yeah, that's a good question. And I mean, everyone's going to make that decision a little bit differently. But in general, like if something is bothering you, I really would recommend getting in to see a physical therapist sooner rather than later, because a PT can just simply help you determine whether to continue training or maybe just take it easy or, if it's bad enough, stop completely. And if the injury is severe, a PT can also determine if a referral to an orthopedic surgeon for further evaluation is necessary. So this being said, many aches and pains do just resolve on their own, but it certainly can be helpful to sort of have a guide along the way.

Scott Webb: Yeah. it definitely can. And Haley, I've heard this expression before, listen to your body. I hear people say that, "Well, you know, to listen to your body." And I think I don't know what that means exactly. And what if my body is misleading me? So from your perspective, from a PT's perspective, what does that mean, listen to our bodies?

Haley Harrison: Yeah. And I think I probably already said it once today to you. And I do say this to my patients all the time. But it is a good question because it, you know, is a phrase that we hear a lot. And there's so many things in life that can impact our tolerance to activity, like the amount of sleep we got, the stress at work, what we're eating and our nutrition, family dynamics.

Even if you are on a well-designed program tailored to reach your goal, there's going to be hiccups along the way. There's going to be days when your body feels like it needs rest or maybe just gentle movement. There's going to be days when your workout feels really hard, even though you're doing less. And that's okay. So it's sort of all part of the process and listening to your body is 100% okay and recommended. So if your training or activity feels like it's aggravating a nagging injury, maybe back off a bit. If you're feeling like a million bucks and you want to push it, you know, do that, push it a little bit harder that day. But I think the biggest thing to remember is just that we are dynamic organisms living in a dynamic environment and every day really is going to be different.

Scott Webb: Yeah, it definitely will be. And, you know, watching the Olympics, which is always exciting. And as we saw with Simone Biles at the summer Olympics, you know, competing and chasing athletic dreams, it takes both physical and mental toughness. And you and I were discussing before we got rolling here the complexities of some of these moves that they do. And you can understand completely why just because someone's physically capable of doing something, that mentally they just may not be where they need to be and the risk of injury is so great that it causes them to withdraw from events or, in our case, maybe just sort of not go out for that run that day. So what are some of the ways to know if we're really mentally prepared to compete?

Haley Harrison: We understand as PTs how mental and emotional health both affect the performance of athletes. But, you know, in our line of work also the experience of pain. What's going on mentally impacts so many things. And, you know, I am thankful that these conversations are becoming more prominent. And athletes of all ability levels should prioritize their mental as well as physical health.

So I think just learning to protect themselves is very important. And instead of just going out there and doing what the world wants them to do or giving into the pressure that they put on themselves to perform, thinking about more than that and what's going on mentally and physically. And like you said, the simplest argument for this is safety. You know, for instance, if Simone Biles is not in the right head space as she's upside down and feet off the ground, there's significant safety concern and injury risk from both a musculoskeletal standpoint, but also neurological injury risk or worse, you know? So I think thinking about that before criticizing someone is really important. But it's more than just safety alone and prioritizing mental health just in my opinion should not be stigmatized. And for athletes at high-levels, people like sports psychologists can be really helpful with addressing the stress of performance and competition and just balancing that drive to perform with also taking care of themselves.

So, for folks at any ability level, you've heard how much I've talked about how our tolerance to physical activity relies on so many different factors in our lives. And so I think that just speaks to the fact that all aspects of our lives need to be addressed in order to accomplish an athletic goal.

Scott Webb: Yeah. I think you're so right. It's not just physical. And just in the case of Simone Biles, I just can't imagine anything more frightening than being upside down and not being sure that I'm going to land on my feet and that risk of injury. As you say, if you're not in that mental space to be able to compete at that level or any level, you probably shouldn't do it. And I'm certainly in no position to question, you know, any athletes, especially Simone Biles, like the greatest gymnast of all time, right?

So this is a great conversation today, Haley. As we wrap up, what are your takeaways about folks who want to be more active, want to get out there and run, lift weights, whatever it is, how do they know they're ready? What should they do if things aren't going well or they sustain an injury. What are your takeaways?

Haley Harrison: I think the biggest takeaway for me, which I talk about every day in practice is, you know, that idea of gradually progressing into something new. I think, you know, especially with the fads on the internet and social media, it's so easy to just pick up a new program and go 100% in maybe from doing nothing or doing less with the pandemic and everything. Letting our bodies adapt to something new over time is the most important piece. And we saw it a lot with our patients over the past several months, just trying to get back into activity a little bit too fast after being maybe more sedentary during the pandemic. So I think allowing yourself to have a little guidance from a professional is also a really great idea, especially if you're wanting to accomplish something high level. So overall, I appreciate the conversation we had today and I hope that it was helpful for all the folks listening.

Scott Webb: You know, I'm sure that it is. And I think you're so right. There are professionals out there like yourself, and I think a lot of people think of PTs as people to see after they've sustained an injury. But as you've pointed out today, you all are a wealth of information not only after the injury, but really helping people to avoid those injuries and to develop a plan, you know, that is attainable to them and customized and individualized to them so that they can avoid injuries, avoid let-downs to be able to stay mentally and physically on track. So such a great conversation. Thanks so much, Haley, and you stay well.

Haley Harrison: Yeah, thank you so much, Scott. Take care.

Scott Webb: Call (978) 287-8200 or visit for more information or to schedule an appointment with a sports therapist. And thanks for listening to Emerson's Health Works Here podcast. I'm Scott Webb and make sure to catch the next episode by subscribing to the Health Works Here podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever podcasts can be heard.