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It took only four bouts of intrusive surgery to teach this weekend warrior the importance of stretching.

A pickup game of basketball after dinner one night snapped the anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee (surgery No. 1).

A spur-of-the-moment bungy jump off a 170-foot railroad bridge in New Zealand loosened the screw in my knee (surgery No. 2).

A little touch football on Thanksgiving ripped a nice chunk out of my miniscus, same knee (surgery No. 3).

Then there was that hurricane I just had to surf _ rotator cuff (surgery No. 4).

Each time I might have avoided months of painful rehabilitation if I simply had stretched first.

Don't let impatience or laziness sideline you this road-racing season. Warm up.

The warmer muscle tissue gets, the softer and more elastic it becomes. Warm muscles stretch and contract more easily, which increases performance and decreases the chance of injury. Warming up also increases the blood flow and helps lubricate joints.

So before you hit the road running, walk briskly, then increase your speed to a slow jog. Once you feel warm and limber, hit the ground and start stretching.

This lengthens your muscles and improves your range of motion. Start slow and don't bounce. Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds. If one hurts, back off.

Target problem areas such as the hamstring and Achilles' tendon. Five to 10 minutes of warmups and stretching before a race may be all that stands between you and a PR (personal record).

Once the race is over, don't head straight for the Gatorade line. Take a few minutes to cool down. Jog around the parking lot, then make another loop walking.

Once you've caught your breath, hit the ground again and stretch. This is the best way to avoid post-race, next-day soreness.

Another good way to stay healthy during the season is to supplement your road workouts with a little strength training. A light weight workout enhances performance and gives your running muscles a break.

Remember, most recreational athletes can avoid injury if they schedule a day of rest in their workout schedule and, of course, avoid bungy jumping off bridges and surfing in hurricanes.

To learn more:

Pick up a copy of the Sports Injury Handbook by Allan M. Levy, M.D., and Mark L. Fuerst, published by John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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