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Overtraining a concern for older athletes

  • Adventure Sports Weekly
  • Published Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, at 11:47 p.m.

Most masters athletes feel younger than their age, and certainly younger than their peers. However, these athletes — in their 40s or 50s, depending on the sport — can be in danger if they pay attention to the way their mind feels, rather than how their body feels.

Studies have proven that most of the symptoms blamed on age are really the result of a sedentary lifestyle. Spending most of the day sitting around and getting little to no activity will cause the same “symptoms” of age, whether you’re 30 years old or 65.

If you’re a masters athlete, especially a serious one, you probably train consistently. But that can create one of the biggest dangers of your fitness program: overtraining — pushing your body past its ability to fully recover from the effects of physical stress. This recuperation process actually goes down to the cellular level. When you train and exercise, your muscle cells produce the energy you need to do it. They do this through the mitochondria, which are basically miniature cellular organs, called organelles. In a simplified description, the organelles take in nutrients and transform them into usable energy in the form of a chemical called adenosine triphosphate.

However, the cells require a lot of energy to complete this process. If you use up too much of your cellular energy training or competing, the cells will be left empty, without enough energy to produce enough adenosine triphosphate for your needs.

The result is an actual condition, with subtle but predictable symptoms. They include a slump in performance, constant fatigue, insomnia, increased irritability and even a loss of interest in your sport. This condition can last for weeks, even months, depending on how seriously the cells are depleted. Physical rest is the only cure.

The older you are, the more time you need to recover from physical stress. No matter how young you may feel, your body will no longer recuperate as fast as it did when you were 20. Most masters athletes have to limit their conditioning sessions. Some can only work out twice a week without overtraining. Protect yourself by paying attention to your body.

Another danger for older athletes is not eating a proper diet. As humans age, digestion becomes less efficient. At the same time, the appetite decreases with age. Yet the more active you are, the more calories you need — and the quicker you need them after any exercise. New studies have shown that masters athletes who ate a meal containing both carbs and protein within a half hour of physical activity recovered quicker and made more strength gains than athletes who didn’t eat until several hours later.

While most symptoms of aging are due to lack of activity, there are still definite drawbacks to being an older athlete. Everything slows down a little, including your heart rate and the speed at which you heal from injuries. There’s a decrease in muscle mass, and a thinning of bone. All of that means it’s easier for a masters athlete to get injured, and healing up takes longer. This is where ignoring your body can be dangerous. If you feel a pain in a joint or a “hot” feeling in a tendon, cut way back on your level of activity. Pain or discomfort is your body’s way of communicating. It’s telling you that something’s about to give out.

It may be frustrating to do what your body is telling you and take time off from training or competing. It’s even more frustrating to admit to yourself that you must take your age into consideration. But always remember that it will take much longer to recover from the results of pushing yourself harder than your body can handle.

Wina Sturgeon is an active boomer based in Salt Lake City who skates on both ice blades and wheels, lifts weights and gardens to stay in shape.

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