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Fighting Father Time - Training and Lifestyle Tips for Older Athletes

By Rick Guter, ATC, PT - from

It used to be that age 30 was old for an athlete. This has changed. Now, professional athletes routinely peak in their late 30's and remain competitive even into their 40s. There's no magic to longevity in sports, and recreational athletes are as capable of achieving it as the elites. It's simply a matter of taking care of your body when you're young and adapting your training and lifestyle in appropriate ways as you get older. Here are a few choice tips on the latter.

Stretch more and better

Loss of flexibility is a natural effect of aging that can be counteracted through a program of daily stretching. However, quite apart from aging, the repetitive movements involved in practicing any sport for a long period of time results in muscular imbalances that get progressively more extreme. These require targeted efforts to loosen and lengthen only those muscles that have become short and tight, because stretching all muscles equally will only take the imbalance to a higher level. I encourage every athlete, but experienced ones especially, to identify their short and tight muscles and devote special efforts lengthening them through stretching.

Rest and recover more

Unless they continue to perform training sessions that match the intensity of workouts they performed when younger, older athletes cannot hope to perform near the level at which they were able to perform in their mid-20s. And many older athletes find that they can continue to perform these tough workouts well into their 40s. However, they cannot do them as often. Older athletes need to allow themselves more time to recover between their most demanding training sessions. The extra time may be given to outright rest, active recovery, or a combination of both.

Pump those antioxidants

Free-radical damage, also known as oxidative stress, is now known to be one of the primary components of aging. Unfortunately, athletes are even more prone to free-radical damage than non-athletes. For this reason, they need to be especially vigilant in consuming antioxidants, those vitamins and vitamin-like compounds that protect against and repair such damage. Vitamins C and E are especially helpful to athletes, as controlled studies have shown they can dramatically reduce post-workout muscle soreness in the short term, in addition to minimizing long-term oxidative stress.

Practice nutritional recovery

A large body of clinical research has also shown that consuming the right nutrients in the right amounts immediately after exercise can enhance recovery substantially. According to Burke, water, electrolytes, carbohydrate, and protein are needed most to rehydrate the body, restore muscle glycogen, and repair tissue damage. Since most athletes experience appetite suppression after exercise, Try to get all of the needed nutrients by consuming one of the sports drinks on the market that is designed especially for recovery. Choose one with a four-to-one ratio of carbohydrate to protein, as more protein will retard the flow of nutrients into the bloodstream and less protein result in a less pronounced insulin spike, hence slower restocking of glycogen stores.

Train more efficiently

Believe it or not, there are actually advantages to getting older, even for athletes. One of these advantages is accumulated knowledge of one’s own body, particularly as it reacts to various types of training. In other words, the more experience you have in training for a particular sport, the better able you become (supposing you pay attention) to determine which exercises, drills, workouts and training patterns work well for you and which ones are less effective, or downright counterproductive. Use this knowledge to your advantage. Design a training program that minimizes the less useful training and maximizes the stuff that gives you the greatest performance bang for the training buck.

Flex those muscles

The older you get, the more important strength training becomes. One of the more crippling effects of aging for athletes is the gradual loss of muscle mass and strength that it entails. Athletes in sports that don’t require tremendous strength are particularly susceptible, as they tend to try and get by without resistance training. When you’re young, very often you can get away with it, but the older you get, the more important it becomes to train for strength specifically, no matter which sport you’re in.

Go to bed

Another thing that many athletes try and get by without is sleep. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation is an epidemic in American society. Researchers have shown that sleeping too little leads to a host of problems from depressed immune function to decreased mental functioning. Skimping on sleep is also harmful to athletic performance, because during sleep the body secretes human growth hormone (HGH), which is a powerful agent of recovery and adaptation to training. Less sleep means less HGH and therefore less freshness for the next day’s workout. Treat yourself to an extra half hour or hour of sleep each night and you’ll feel ten years younger.

Rick Guter, ATC, PT

Rick is the Team Physiotherapist and Athletic Trainer for the D.C. United soccer club. He has twice been named MLS Trainer of the Year and has served as Head Athletic Trainer for nine U.S. National Teams. Rick has also worked as a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Vanderbilt Sports Medicine Center. He graduated magna cum laude in athletic training from Arizona State University and later earned his physical therapy degree from the University of Central Arkansas. Rick is also a competitive amateur triathlete.

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