The Aging Athlete

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The Aging Athlete

The thrill of competition is hard to get out of your system once you have experienced it on a personal level.  Athletics give us a vehicle to push our own physical and mental limits.  No matter what your game is, certain physiological principals of performance are ubiquitous in any sport.  Speed, agility, power, flexibility and endurance are the hallmarks of any great athlete.  These physical traits can improve for anyone who makes an effort to train specifically.

Those who choose to participate in sport accept the risks involved no matter what their age.  Sport specific conditioning and training can decrease the risks of injury and improve performance.  The aging athlete often remembers the intensity of the game from high school or college but seems to forget the months of training and conditioning prior to competition.  Thus is born the weekend warrior who sits at a desk and behind a computer for 50 hours a week then jumps into battle on the field to only strain a hamstring.

The principals of training we used in our youth still works with the aging athlete if we make time to prepare ourselves.  The concept of periodization is a proven strategy to improve performance.  Our muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments all respond to controlled training stress by adapting biochemical, structural, and mechanical changes in our tissues.  This process is known as the general adaptation syndrome.  The body, if stressed with controlled training, will rebuild stronger and better adapted to future external stresses.

So let’s get down to the brass tacks; you need to train before you compete to decrease the risk of injury and improve performance.  However, your training needs to be intelligent. Over training has stopped many an athletes competition goals with injury from repetitive stress leading to tissue damage and decreased performance.  This means train smarter not harder.

Periodization training can be broken down into longer and shorter cycles with the goal of achieving peak performance when competition begins.  The simplified version of periodization is these four cycles preseason, skill acquisition, competition, and active rest or recovery.   It is also important to understand training intensity is inversely related to training volume.  Bottom line, the harder you push yourself, the less reps you should perform.

If you have been away from the game for a while keep it simple and ease yourself into your training.  First, give yourself at least 6 to 8 weeks of conditioning prior to your first competition.  Focus on starting with basic cardiovascular conditioning, for example, jogging, biking, or swimming 3 to 4 times per week.  Two weeks into your training start strength training large muscle groups and multi-joint exercises like squats, pull ups and bench press 2 to 3 times per week.

Your basic cardiovascular conditioning will taper off, as you get closer to competition.  Three to four weeks into your training add lower intensity plyometric jumping and build up sprinting two times per week.  As you get closer to your first competition gradually build the intensity of your strength training and plyometric training but decrease to total volume or number of reps you are performing.

Two to four weeks prior to competition add sport specific training to improve your neuromuscular control ie; catching, batting, setting, spiking, or running bases.  Most importantly, from day one you should focus on improving flexibility with daily stretching.  Flexibility training will improve performance, decrease risk of injury and encourage quicker recovery from training.

Stretches should be done after exercise or competition and held for long duration 2 to 5 minutes and low intensity not causing pain.  Never stretch like this before competition, this can decrease strength.  A general warm up and sport specific dynamic active stretching should be used.  Focus your stretching large multi joint muscle groups of the legs and shoulders.  The goal is to increase the length of the muscle over time.  Flexibility training or stretching is often given little time by the aging athlete but is one of the most important parts of training to improve performance and decrease risk of injury.

Lastly, as an aging athlete it is difficult to accept the normal and natural declination of performance as we mature.  It is important to understand any healthy individual at any age can improve strength, flexibility and endurance with correct training.  It is equally important to realize at age 45 you will most likely not be able to regain your physiological prowess of your 20’s.  Wisdom and knowledge are also critical to ones competitive edge.  Make a goal to become the best you can at age 45 and don’t compete with your 20 year old self.  You are now much smarter than that 20 year old kid.



NickReissNick Reiss DPT, CSCS is the owner of Complete Physical Therapy.  From 1995 to 1997 he was the head throwing coach at Doane College producing a National Champion and six All-Americans. Nick became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in 2002.  He applies the principles of progressive resistive exercises and aerobic conditioning to patients ranging from the geriatric population to collegiate athletes. Nick’s clinical areas of interest include rehabilitation for the aging athlete and the younger developing athlete. He continues to complete annually in the Shot Put and Discus.