For many, the high point of Thanksgiving is the pickup football game. This is your annual chance to prove that, if you'd really focused back in the peewee league, you coulda hit the big time. Problem is, the closest you've come to sprinting this year was when they brought out the last tray of wings at happy hour. And now you have to survive the Turkey Bowl without a sprain, strain, muscle pull or worse.

"If you are out of shape and a little older [late thirties and beyond], you are not only more likely to get injured but you won't recover as quickly, and you might not recover fully," said Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic consultant to the Philadelphia 76ers pro basketball team and author of "Framework: Your Seven Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones and Joints" (Rodale, 2005).

"Your tendons, which used to be like bungee cords, are now like old rubber bands that have sat on the radiator: They've lost their elasticity. The discs in your back, which used to have the consistency of grapes, are now like raisins: They've lost a lot of water content," DiNubile said, and they can't absorb shock the way they once did.

"And any weak link you have" -- like that old ankle sprain -- "you are taking with you out on the field," he added, exposing it to the likelihood of re-injury during a game that involves sprinting.

John Klimkiewicz, chief of sports medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, suggests taking an anti-inflammatory, like Advil, before playing to minimize swelling of old injuries. "Also, it doesn't hurt to ice that area when you get home." Even if you didn't take a direct hit, twist or sprain, the shock to the body of infrequently playing a plyometric sport (one that demands sudden bursts of energy) like football can cause pain and swelling.

Klimkiewicz also recommends checking out the field before you play -- "You can get bad, bad knee injuries from potholes" -- and holding off on boozing until after the game. Alcohol "contributes to a lot of the fractures I see" from holiday football games, he said.

Both experts emphasize stretching -- but only after a warm-up, because stretching when you're cold only increases chances of injury. "Get to the field early," DiNubile said. "Do some jumping jacks, run a couple laps and make sure you break a sweat. Then stretch. Spend time on your calf muscles, hamstrings, lower back and shoulder, especially if you'll be throwing. And focus on any old injuries."

Ankle sprains are the most common Turkey Bowl injury, DiNubile said. If you've had one, he suggests wearing an ankle brace, "with the 'figure 8' Velcro straps and stays on the side." Other common injuries are hamstring strains, knee blowouts, calf pulls, lower back strains and torn Achilles tendons.

Keep the contact light and build up slowly to full speed. "You're not out there to get your jersey retired," DiNubile said. "A sprint is much different than a jog; it's a whole different thing you're asking of a muscle. Same thing with throwing: Don't make your first pass a bomb."

So: Have fun out there. But remember the goal is to get back home in sound enough shape to enjoy passing the turkey. No online chat today; back next week. Comments, meantime:

-- John Briley

To avoid having to navigate the buffet line on crutches, be sure to warm up, stretch and pop an Advil before the first hit.