Considerations for the older (or Master!) athlete
Are there times when you feel you can’t do the sports that make you tick? Unable to play a competitive game of football? Can’t run that 10km race? These are all too familiar questions facing the aging athlete.
Many people enjoy competing in sport and other intense, physically demanding activities from an early age, whilst others may arrive at the party much later. What is clear is that things don’t get any easier for the body as it gets older. There is an inevitability in physical (and mental) decline. A loss of health and fitness, injury, and pain will all contribute to the rate of this decline. How would you cope without your weekly fix of football or your 10km race at the weekend?… I’m sure you’d rather not find out.
Fortunately, there is also the saying ‘age is but a number’, so chronological age and physiological age do not necessarily have to match. There are things you can do to maintain a level of control over physiological decline and continue to function at the highest level for as long as possible.
What happens to your body as you get older?
A human being’s physical peak, in most sports, occurs somewhere between 25 and 35 years of age. Bodies will age differently, based on factors such as genetics, lifestyle and medical history. But as you get older, even the healthiest bodies will gradually lose strength, flexibility and the healing ability that you enjoy when younger. What you can do at the age of 30 may not be possible at the age of 40.
After the peak years, a number of physiological changes take place (this is not an exhaustive list):
- aerobic capacity (also known as VO2max – the ability to intake and process oxygen) decreases,
- muscle mass reduces (sarcopenia),
- strength declines,
- muscle elasticity reduces,
- lung elasticity declines,
- bone density reduces,
- the metabolism slows,
- the nervous system deteriorates,
- body fat increases,
- tissue regeneration and healing is delayed,
- the immune system becomes weaker.
It is easy to see how these factors, especially when combined with a lifetime of wear and tear on the body, can lead to a reduction in performance, sports injuries and chronic musculoskeletal conditions.
What other factors might contribute to injury as you age?
Many things change in life as you get older that can affect the way your ‘engine’ and ‘chasis’ function. Some examples:
- sedentary jobs that may have us sitting at desks for longer and longer, resulting in a loss of fitness, weight gain, and stiffness of joints and muscles,
- higher stress levels can cause increases in pain and slow recovery,
- children and families that may take up more and more of our time, leading you to cut corners in your training or neglecting injury issues before they get out of control,
- Combining these with a social life can also result in lack of sleep, impaired recovery and significant fatigue.
Again, these factors can affect the body’s ability to perform at its best and impede recovery and healing of tissues, potentially leading to injury.
This may all sound very depressing, particularly if the above rings true with you. However, whilst some things may be out of your control, addressing the others can pay dividends.
What can you do to help yourself slow the decline, prevent injury, and continue to enjoy your sport?
Older athletes can incorporate training and lifestyle changes into their routines that reduce their risk of injury. As we get older, the body is much less likely to forgive poor lifestyle choices. If you don’t get injured, you maintain the ability to train and ultimately the ability to perform at your highest level.
Train smart – less is more, particularly for the older athlete. Fewer, better quality training sessions can allow you to maintain a high level of performance without the risk of overtraining injuries. If you can’t bear losing a training session then try swapping it, for example, with a Pilates class. They say, ‘a change as good as a rest’, so vary your training to reduce monotony and avoid repeatedly loading the same tissues in the same way.
Recover – it’s not the training that counts, it’s the recovery. For the older athlete, a combination of damage accumulated over the years, and the reduced activity of the various anabolic hormones that are responsible for recovery, repair and adaption will unfortunately make this process longer. So, allow longer periods between training sessions. The process of training involves some type of overload, then an adaption, which ultimately produces greater fitness. To perpetuate these gains, the process is to train, create muscle breakdown, recover, then train again. Simple in theory, but timing is key. Rush the process and you risk impaired performance and the injuries that accompany it. If you get injured, the same applies… it will take longer to recover.
Be strong – include dedicated and specific strength training sessions in your schedule to make your ‘chasis’ more robust. Heavy (and I mean heavy!) resistance training will help maintain or increase muscle mass and bone density, and is conveniently associated with a reduction in injury and improved performance.
Sleep more – as you age, more sleep becomes important to allow time for the physiological adaptations to exercise to take place. Good quality sleep is peak regeneration time for all of the body’s systems, so it is really important not to skimp this.
Eat well – eat a healthy, balanced diet, and keep well hydrated. This is as important as ever.
Relieve stress – consider practicing stress management techniques. There are many, but coincidentally exercise and sleep are 2 of them.
Equip yourself – you can reduce your injury risk by selecting good quality and appropriate equipment, whether that be a running shoe, football boot, or tennis racket. Footwear, in particular, is very sport specific and can have a huge effect on performance and injury risk. So get it right, and get advice if necessary.
What else can I do?
If you feel that you are losing the battle, or not doing as well as you would like to then it would make sense to see a physiotherapist or a strength and conditioning coach with a specialist interest in this area. They can help you identify and address areas of stiffness, weakness, and inefficient movement patterns that might be holding back your performance or predisposing you to injury. If, dare I say, the inevitable happens they can also help you rehabilitate from injury.
Doing the sport and exercise you love keeps you happy and healthy, both physically and mentally. Don’t stop, if you don’t have to! Yes, there will eventually come a time when you cannot cope with certain physical challenges, but age on its own shouldn’t determine when you stop or change your sport. If you are being plagued by injury and feel the end is nigh, and you are reluctantly considering hanging up your boots or runners, get a professional opinion. You’ve got nothing to lose, and may even be pleasantly surprised.