Hey you aging athletes! The key to sustained physical awesomeness is exercising smarter. Being injury free is the key! Here are some pointers and a few common injuries to avoid.
NO MATTER how awesome you are as a physical specimen, there is a fact of life that you’d be well advised to absorb:
And with time comes age.
Though we may rail against it, and act in various, specific ways to push it over the horizon, age happens.
It’s not all bad.
Certainly, getting comfortable in your skin, learning what in life can be (or is) worth changing and coming to terms with what is not, gaining wisdom and old friends – these things are the upside of getting long in the tooth.
However, in the physical realm, certain things are diminished with age. If, like me, you seek to make that body stay as strong for as long as you can, understanding not only what to do, but how to pace things are essential for remaining fit as the clock ticks away.
As I’ve been hobbling around these past three weeks with a very sore Achilles tendon, I realize that this is a lesson that I keep relearning.
The Amigos: Four Case Studies
Mitch, Dan, Lance and yours truly will be used as examples to underscore a few pointers on managing injury-free fitness for the long run.
We four have been friends since college years. All of us are former athletes. All have maintained an unusually high level of fitness relative to our peers. We’re all now in our fifties.
And we’re all painfully learning, slowly and with resistance, the aging athlete’s ultimate lesson: In the long run, less winds up being more.
Since a teenage lad, Mitch’s thing has been cross-country running. He still holds a high school record. In his thirties, he added competitive kayaking. Over the years, he has won many contests and still competes in local races in both sports. Basically, the guy’s a bad ass who can push his body harder than his competitors can push theirs.
Dan played basketball in high school and college. In the decades since school, like Mitch, he’s competed in running races, and was very competitive in distances between 400 meters to five kilometers. Interspersed with the running, Dan has pretty regularly pumped iron. He gets large and strong fast.
Lance was born with bulging muscles. A California state-ranked wrestler in high school, he became the University of California, Santa Barbara’s most salient example of an exercise nut. On any given day, you could watch Lance blazing by, probably on a run to the weight room where he’d work-out, not pausing between sets, for a 1.5 hours of intensity. (I know because I was often with him, always a few steps behind.) He dropped the running, mostly, post college, took up bodybuilding, won a Hawaiian island contest, and earned a second-degree black belt in Kempo. He is such a consistent exerciser, that many Hawaiians set their clocks to Lance’s arrival each morning at the gym – 5:30 AM.
I’m the dilettante of the group. I did play an organized sport in high school and college (b-ball), but since then have not competed. In keeping with the overarching theme of my career of being a jack of all trades, master of none, my physical pursuits have been more broad than deep. On any given day I might be “doing” yoga, barbells, kettle bells, calisthenics, biking, sprinting stairs, meditating, detox cleansing, juicing, or simply drooling.
Our common connection, other than friendship, has been our pursuit of fitness while managing our injuries.
If you’re anything like us, you can expect to deal with certain injuries as you attempt to maintain the exercise effort and frequency of your youth. This is inadvisable.
What we need to do as we age is get smarter about exercise. In this case, smarter means doing more preparation before, and more recuperation after exercise.
Smarter also means using less resistance with more form.
Everyone is different and so your vulnerabilities may not be mine, but there are a few body parts about which we all ought to be more cautious.
All four of us have developed “tweaks” in our calves that have completely altered how we approach running. This is an ailment common to aging athletes.
Dan, Lance and Mitch would scoff at my use of the word, “tweaks”, because their calf injuries have been of sufficient prevalence and intensity to have made them stop running completely for long swaths of time.
When this happens, Mitch throws as leg over his bike, Dan pumps weights, and Lance (whose always pumping weights anyway) beats up his gym’s stair machine.
What I do is more formulaic.
I do the cold/hot thing in the beginning of the injury. When no longer benefiting from that, I take a lacrosse ball and knead the muscles in my injured calf and stretch it intensely. Once I can again walk without limping, the bike gets saddled up. Next, I’ll tentatively reintroduce stair sprints, they being favored over running, as I find this activity less impactful to my calves.
My mother is not part of this “case study” per se, but she is one grand data point that underscores a near-certainty: If you are chronically tight in your hips, ankles, quadriceps and an assortment of other muscles and ligaments, you’re knees will suffer.
Mom has just had her second knee replaced.
Naturally, there are exceptions. Dan has the flexibility of a two-by-four, but his knees are bulletproof. Lance’s knees are fine too, probably due to a lifetime of both strength training and stretching. Mitch, however, has at least one knee that competes with his calves for attention, and has yet to figure out how to solve this recurring issue.
Me? Well, every once in awhile one knee or another shouts at me, but I find that a few yoga postures makes them mute.
If you have knee issues, test the mobility of your lower body.
-Can you comfortably sit cross-legged?
-Can you easily touch your toes while your knees are only slightly unlocked?
-Can you perform various quad stretches?
-Can you “sit” in the “peasant squat”?
I’d like to know how Lance has been able to regularly hoist 175 pounds over his head in his seated, behind-the-neck shoulder press exercise during the last 30 years without decimating his shoulders.
Mitch and Dan have no shoulder issues, but haven’t abused them either.
I haven’t been so lucky.
A few years ago, I started getting a twinge in my right deltoid while doing shoulder presses. One morning I got up and I could barely lift my arm. It got worse.
The diagnosis was “adhesive capsulitis”, commonly referred to as “frozen shoulder”.
As the name suggests, adhesive capsulitis is the condition whereby fibrous bands of material (think scar tissue) form between the shoulder joint surfaces that do two things:
- Causes a remarkable decline in shoulder mobility, and
- Creates deep, constant throbbing pain.
This ailment completely stopped all physical activity. You’d think that an upper body issue wouldn’t affect your lower body, but au contraire, dear reader… during the time I fussed with this injury, the only caloric expenditure occurring on a regular basis came from whimpering.
Physical therapy was, for me, worthless. Those little stretchy bands that you’re taught to anchor to a door so you can pull it at various angles did nothing to help.
What did work for me was to grit my teeth in pain as a former orthopedic surgeon from China now working as an acupuncturist in California grabbed my arm and tore through the adhesion as he jerked it around.
Strange, given his ethnicity, that is name is “Rocky”.
His office walls are adorned with testimonials from grateful patients who now amble about walking on their hands, or some such.
I focused upon these signals of success while he manipulated my shoulder and looked at whimpering me in near disgust, whispering that the Chinese are tougher than we white devils.
In between torture sessions with Rocky, my homework was to grab something as high as I could reach that was immovable and hang on it.
At first, I could only painfully reach to eye level. I would tenaciously grip onto a barbell resting on a rack and tentatively bend my knees, thereby loading weight on my throbbing shoulder, till the pain got strong.
And there I held myself, concentrating on my breath.
Each day, I cold reach a tiny bit higher, and apply more weight. Soon, I was hanging by one arm, and that frozen shoulder was completely thawed.
Though there is a solution to a frozen shoulder, the process is long, arduous and painful. Better to not put yourself into that position. Be gentle on your shoulders. I suggest:
- Thoroughly warm-up with light weights, perhaps lateral raises with dumbbells, and various shoulder stretches before you add load.
- Don’t do barbell presses behind the head. Dumbbell presses and front presses are good enough.
- Rather than lift heavy, lift slow (five seconds up, five down), which will increase intensity with lighter weight.
- Stretch after your shoulder workouts.
My Achilles heel is my Achilles heel. Both of them, it seems. The other dudes highlighted in this post sometimes get sore tendons -– sufficient to lavish them with tender mercies – but this is not their weak point.
Not so for me…
Some years ago, I was dribbling at the top of the key in a pick-up basketball game, deciding upon which of my many dazzling moves I would employ to off-balance my opponent as I exploded to the basket.
I stepped forward with my left foot and somebody with a bat smacked my heel hard.
Swirling around, I dropped the ball and clenched my fist ready to do battle.
Imagine my surprise when I saw no one and no bat. And that I was dragging my left foot.
When the Achilles tendon snaps there’s often an audible sound. My brain instantaneously connected that sound to getting hit with a bat, no doubt because the basketball court was beside a baseball field.
Befuddled, I slowly lowered my fists, faced my fellow slack-jawed players, and followed their gaze down to my floppy foot.
Can you believe that I spent the next three days hobbling around the house determined to believe that I was experiencing yet another of those painful ankle twists of my bygone b-ball playing years?
Well, the surgeon showed me a simple test to determine if your Achilles tendon is still intact.
Put the knee of the offending leg on a chair so that your thigh is perpendicular to the floor, and your lower leg is half on and half off the chair. Reach down and squeeze the tendon just under the bottom of the calf. If your foot moves, the tendon is still intact, although it could be only partially so. If your foot is unresponsive, it’s time to see the doctor.
If severed, you can either have it surgically connected or have your lower leg put in a casket. I did the former.
The tendon is now thicker, and presumably, stronger than before, but the calf never returned to its former, full, thick b-ball, glory, despite a lot of exercises thrown at it.
Which brings me to what inspired this whole, long post to begin with – my right Achilles tendon. (You’ve just been reading about my left one.)
For near the last three weeks, I’ve been limping. I did what I’m no longer supposed to do — play basketball.
I was in Santa Barbara and was asked to join a few friends for a half-court game. I didn’t immediately say “yes”. I paused and ruminated for a beat or two about unintended consequences. I remembered that the last game I played was in Santa Barbara with the same group of guys.
That ended in a sprained calf muscle.
But this time it should be different, I reasoned. After all, I’m now about two months into some high intensity interval training wherein I sprint up stairs, perform certain plyometrics and jump rope.
Surely, this is sufficient preparation?
For the first game, it was. During the second game, I – again – strained a muscle in my left calf. As I hobbled off the court, I also noticed some soreness in my right leg’s Achilles tendon, but the throbbing of the calf overshadowed it.
It only took a few days for the calf to heal, but the Achilles tendon took its place on the injury list. I’m still limping around and being careful not to exacerbate the problem.
The moral of this story is to know your limitations and behave accordingly. If I want to return to basketball, I will need to begin slowly and practice drills specific to it.
Even then, I’d be taking a chance.
My Achilles tendon injury has kept me from continuing with and improving my fitness with the high intensity exercises I had been doing. And that’s what often happens as you get older and do not sufficiently prepare for or recover from exercise – you get injured and lose those (very) hard-earned fitness gains.
It’s much smarter to subscribe to ambitions that you can actually maintain.
I own this one. My buddies have yet to encounter this problem.
For me, my back problem didn’t assail me in my dotage, but rather in the prime of life, and caused an early end to my basketball career.
I have a long torso. As a teenager, I worked my upper and lower body, but entirely neglected my core, including my lower back. The result was a large upper and lower body connected by a long spindly middle. Yes, my waist was trim, but so was my lower back, bereft as it was of muscle.
I was in my junior year of college playing in a pick-up b-ball game on an outside court. This guy I was covering drove to my left. I quickly shuffled my feet to place my body in his path and cut off his drive to the basket, but with the deftness of a mongoose, he spun to my right. My slow, clumsy feet could not keep up, so as my momentum was moving left, I twisted right and reached for the ball.
Well, not exactly a snap. The spine stayed intact, but two disks encapsulated within its vertebrae were squished and pushed out. I had herniated two disks in my lower spine, the so-called “L-4” and “L-5” (“L” for lumbar and “4”/”5” designating which vertebrae).
I didn’t crumble to the floor. I wanted to, but my spine wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t stand. Again, I wanted to, but my spine wouldn’t let me. I was locked in a sideways, slightly forward, bent position, and trembling.
I was in shock.
My college girlfriend was watching the game. She wheeled her bike over. I leaned on it as we slowly walked to the campus version of a hospital.
For the next 10 years, L-4 and L-5 were the bane of my existence, as I would repeatedly heal and re-injure myself.
You know that adage about making lemonade out of lemons? Well, this injury was my lemon, and the lemonade I made of it came from my efforts to heal myself.
I put myself on a path to learn meditation for pain control, yoga to gain muscle balancing, mobility and flexibility, nutrition to speed up healing and grow the muscle that my lower back so needed.
Now I have a flexible and strong back, though I will not challenge it with heavy dead lifts, which brings me to an assertion that you post 40-year olds ought to carefully consider:
It’s no longer about heavy weights. At this point, bragging rights come from consistency and mobility.
Of course you can deny that you need to accommodate your age. Indeed, it could be that you’re just as strong and can still run as well as you ever have.
An extreme few of you who could dunk in college may even be able to do it after 40. But know that even former NBA players lose that ability with age, because one of the first things to go is explosiveness.
Exercise for the Long Life
One of these fine days I’m going to redo this blog and fully align it with my focus, which is living a long and strong life.
It is my intention to live a long and strong life and I’m often asking myself if whatever I happen to be doing (or thinking!) supports or undermines that intention.
Of course, genetics will play a role, but as the science of epigenetics demonstrates, adopting the right behaviors will overcome weak genetics.
“Genetics loads the gun, but behavior pulls the trigger.”
There are a hundred large and small things that constitute the “right” behaviors to maximize the length and quality of life.
Exercise is a big one.
The science clearly shows that exercise enables a person to live a longer and higher quality of life. I’ve written a few posts about this, such as these:
But, as mentioned already, the key to exercise as we get older is to choose routines that:
- Maintain or slowly improve building muscle,
- Maintain or slowly improve mobility (flexibility over the full range of motion), and
- Maintain or slowly improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity.
So, focus more on:
- Form rather than heavy weights,
- Moving through resistance slowly rather than explosively,
- Thorough warm-up routines rather than jumping into the main routine, and
- Thorough post-exercise stretching rather than heading straight to the shower.
Over and out.
P.S. If you’d like to get a conversation going about any of this, begin it by making a comment in the Comments section below.
Published on August 29, 2012