Strategies for managing aging in sport
Getting older sucks. Every competitive athlete who has experienced the inevitable decline in physical performance that comes with advancing age has had this thought pass through their consciousness at some point. When I was first faced with this reality: that my recovery time was slower and my rate of adaptation had decreased, I met it with a wave of denial. “I’m not that old” and “I just need to improve my diet and sleep more” were my immediate responses. However, over time it becomes clear that there is no hiding from the clock. Changing your expectations and accepting that you need to make adjustments to the way that you train is the only way to remain competitive as you age.
I am an extremely competitive person, to a fault. I’ve had an insatiable desire to beat those around me in just about anything that can be perceived as a ‘competition’ since I was in grade school. Despite the fact that I knew better, and coached my own athletes intelligently, I lived by the “more is better” motto in my training. I knew that I always had to train harder than those around me. The further I got into my athletic career, the more my competitive drive and stubbornness become my undoing. Age and accumulated joint damage from unmanageable training volume/intensity and the increased responsibilities and stress that came with advancing in life-stage took their toll. I would constantly push my body into the depths of overtraining or fight through injuries until they had become so serious that they required significant time off. During the 2013 season, arguably my most successful from a performance standpoint (I took 4th at the Mid Atlantic Regional) I had sustained a near constant string of muscle strains, popped ribs, and respiratory infections from a weakened immune system due to my stubborn drive to train. If allowed to repeat, this cycle would clearly result in the end of my competitive career. I guess in hindsight where I’ve differed from so many athletes who trained themselves into oblivion is that I recognized this pattern was not sustainable and sought out help - in the form of coaching - from Max El-Hag.
When I went through the process of hiring a coach I did my ‘due diligence’ interviewing numerous coaches before final deciding on Max. What sold me on Max was not just his knowledge of strength systems or the fact that we shared the same views on energy-system training, rather we shared his perspective on long-term athletic development. I now know that having a coach that understands the changes that occur as athletes age and what type of training is appropriate at each life stage is the key that keeps people competitive later into their careers. The remainder of this blog is going to look at some of the changes we made to my training program in order to keep me competitive as I’ve moved into the older age categories of the Open division of CrossFit.
1- The Off-season Looks Different
The off-season for older / aging athletes needs to focus first on providing a period of recovery to allow the athletes musculoskeletal and hormonal systems to recover from the training volume and intensity of the previous season. The off-season for these athletes can generally consist of moderate intensity low-impact cyclical endurance training (rowing, cycling, soft-surface running, swimming, etc) coupled with movement (defined by Max in last week’s blog) and structural balance training. This structure is designed to maintain or build the cardiovascular network to support future training and improve movement quality to reduce the likelihood of severe injury in the upcoming season. This is not ‘sexy’ or ‘fun’ in the ways that setting PR’s or crushing metcons is, but for older athletes who want to remain competitive it is a necessity. Athletes who cannot take a long-term view of performance will inevitably struggle with this part of the training season.
2- Management of Volume and Intensity
The volume requirements to compete in CrossFit at the Regional or Games level do not differ for a 22, 26, 30, or 34 year old. However, the recovery capacity for these athletes differs dramatically. Preparing older athletes for high-level competition in the Open category (or preparing masters athletes for CrossFit Games competition) requires that coaches come up with ways to provide training volume while managing the distribution of training intensity to compensate for the delayed recovery time. As well, many older athletes have accumulated training ages that allow them to reduce their focus in some areas of fitness (i.e. strength or technical elements) and shift it toward movement and mobility to help maintain tissue quality during training. Older athletes can remain competitive at the elite levels of sport, but they require a very different combination of training priorities.
3- Emotional and Competitive Management
When you’re young, you can generally get away competing every single day in training. I attribute much of my success in swimming and early in my CrossFit career to having a great competitive training environment. Between the ages of 18-22 your hormonal system can handle frequently recreating the ‘stress’ of competition in a training environment. As we age our ability to produce adrenal and anabolic hormones fades, albeit slowly, but it is inevitable. This requires older athletes to better manage their ego and emotions in training and pick their battles wisely. I generally try to avoid using cliches, however a great coach once told me that when you’re in your 30’s “you only get so many kicks at the bucket before it spills over”. Athletes like me who had thrived on levering their competitiveness to fuel their success may struggle with this as they get older. Again communication with a good coach can help older athletes make good decisions about when and where to direct their competitive fires.
4- Time Management
As we get older, our ability to maintain a singular focus on training begins to fade (unless you are at the absolute pinnacle of the sport). Financial and life obligations become a bigger priority and most competitive or ambitious athletes find that they desire new outlets for their competitive drive. Much of the time and emotional investment in training and competing starts to get diverted towards more coaching and learning (or general career development) to ensure that their competitive energy isn't consistently put into the gym that could lead to injury or overtraining. As someone who has been competing at a high level in sport for over half my life, I’ve found this transition from career athlete to athlete with a career to be difficult but extremely rewarding. Delivering the lessons I’ve learned over the past 15 years of competition to a new generation (or an older generation...I work with about 30% masters athletes!) of competitors has opened up whole new areas of exploration. For those of us who are now full time coaches or affiliate owners, the demands of our career force a better balance in our lives and put sport into perspective. I think this give us an advantage over younger, less experienced athletes both on and off the competition floor.
5- Prioritizing Warm-up / Cool-down / Movement
As I touched on previously, aging athletes absolutely must prioritize mobility and movement in order to remain competitive. If you listen to older athletes, every single one of them will tell you that they: (1) now have to warm-up longer than they did when they were younger; (2) have to spend far more time on movement, mobility, and tissue quality work; (3) can’t just walk out of the gym after a tough training session without some sort of cool-down or it will affect their sleep, appetite, and sex drive for the rest of the day. The fortunate thing is that as athletes age, their training age increases in parallel. More advanced athletes need to spend less time on technical development (the most time consuming component of athletic development) and less time on strength or endurance development as the underlying biological adaptations that support these components of fitness are already built. Older athletes can get far more out of their bodies by optimizing the way that they move and adopting better preparation and recovery strategies than they can by just training harder. While I have found this difficult to accept (imagine sitting in the corner stretching while you’re watching Travis Mayer setting a hang clean triple PR that passes your life-time best…) the results have been well worth the self-restraint. At 30 years old I can move with less pain and more quality than I did when I was 25, and I now finally have the prospect of competing into my 30’s versus ending my competitive career at 30 because I’m “too old”
Obviously this topic holds some personal weight for me. I’ve been struggling with the idea of competing and aging since I swam my final competitive meet at 25 years old. The concept of retiring from competition is unbelievably frightening for someone like me who has identified as an athlete for well over half my life. Working with a knowledgeable coach who can understand and empathize with your fears and needs as an aging athlete is, in my opinion, the only way to remain competitive later into your athletic career (by later, I’m referring to pre-masters competition). I hope that relating my experience may help someone recognize these same indicators in themselves and make the changes that allow them to push their bodies the right way long after their peers have hung up their nanos.