How to Survive a Game of Touch Football When You're Totally Out of Shape

If your idea of exercise is walking from the fridge to the couch, that annual game of touch football many people play around Thanksgiving may not be so friendly. To avoid the pain of a life-sidelining hamstring pull (and the embarrassment of telling your friends your kid sister’s two-handed tag did the damage), you need to follow a little pre-game prep.

Get your body used to the idea of moving around

There’s a reason athletes have a preseason: they need to condition and prepare for no-holds-barred activity after a long offseason. The average person is no different. Even if you’ve slacked off for months and your big family game is next week, do yourself a favor and squeeze in a few sweat sessions before you hit the field. Keep them light -- a combination of walk/jog intervals and stretching are a good place to start -- to avoid excessive soreness.

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Stay (somewhat) sober

I know, I know. Staying sober during a family reunion may sound more painful than suffering a sprained ankle, but a football injury’s ill effects are guaranteed to outlast an afternoon of ribbing from your dad. Alcohol may numb the brain, but it also slows your reflexes, makes you clumsy, and can even interfere with your pain receptors, which could prevent you from immediately noticing when an injury has occurred.

You’re already tempting fate by hitting the field unconditioned -- don’t make things worse by stunting your brain’s response time. Save the cocktails for after the game... but maybe try to liquor up the competition? All’s fair in love and football.

Don’t go in cold

Unless you actually want to spend the week after Thanksgiving in a doctor’s office, I’m begging you, don’t go from couch sitter to backyard sprinter in the matter of a minute. While there may be a lot of standing around in football, it’s an incredibly active sport that requires cutting, quick changes of direction, and sprinting. These movements are not designed for the weak of heart (or the weak of legs). Before you get to the line of scrimmage, put yourself through an active warm-up. Try doing five minutes of jumping jacks, walking lunges, a slow jog, and lateral slides to help prepare your muscles for the game. Your siblings may laugh, but they’ll be hurting after that first series and you’ll be in mid-season form. More or less.

New Line Cinema

Set a few friendly rules

Flag football is supposed to be a low-contact sport, but if cousin Stu is secretly fuming about Gam-Gam’s unspoken favoritism for cousin Craig, it may not take long for that “friendly” game of Pass the Pigskin to turn into a passive-aggressive (or just regular aggressive), elbow-throwing, knee-tripping, shove-in-the-back game of Settle the Family Feud.

Most flag football injuries are due to contact with another player, which is strange, since it’s flag football. But if you can effectively manage that contact, you might be able to limit or eliminate injuries.

All players should agree on proper tagging technique, and what constitutes a penalty (for instance, what’s the difference between a two-handed tag and a two-handed shove?). Tackling should be considered completely off-limits, since we’re playing touch football here.

More esoterically, all players should commit to wearing pants or shorts without pockets. Pockets can catch a finger during a tag or grab, leading to sprains, fractures, and dislocations. Finally, it’s a good idea to recruit a couple neutral participants to ref the game and call penalties. These measures can’t guarantee an injury-free game, but they can help, and it gives Gam-Gam a way to get involved. Unless she really does play favorites

Scope out the field

Before you play your first down, walk the field to look for divots, loose dirt, wet grass, or any other environmental hazard. Try to correct the problem if you can, or, at the very least, mark the spot with a cone so you don’t forget about it when sprinting toward the end zone. Don’t trip over the cone, though!

Be kind to yourself

No one wants to be reminded that they’ve lost a step (or 10), but overdoing it during a flag football game is a surefire way to live with a constant reminder for days or weeks after the game. Own your current level of un-fitness and be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to move slowly and to sub yourself out of the game if you get too tired. It may require a slice of humble pie (and taking a few laughs from your mean-spirited relatives), but it’s a whole lot better than throwing out your back.

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Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who grudgingly admits her back can't take a game of flag football. Follow her "Crap, I'm getting old!" tweets: @girlsgonesporty.