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The secret of eternal youth: peak performance, injuries and ageing.

the elixir of eternal youth

The elixir of eternal youth: it's been sought ever since humanity succeeded in surviving beyond the age of about 30. The modern world is filled with lotions and potions, pills and shills all promising just this. And surely at some point genetic research will succeed in halting the ageing process. What a ghastly nightmare world that will be. A world filled with neurotically immature adult homo sapiens possessed principally with the fatuous and narcissistic desire to look good forever. Can't wait. Selfy central #stayoung4eva

Like most things in life, both the reality of a thing and the means of obtaining it are (1) different from the promises made for them and (2) require more hard work and discipline than the majority of pasty faced humans possess. This article is aimed at those who possess the discipline to consistently participate at a reasonably high level in a sport (or sports) for a continuous period of time. In other words those who train hard and understand that it requires hard work in order to accomplish anything in life.

This article is also for you if you are an older, ageing athlete, and this can mean many things - for a gymnast or ballerina you could be in your mid to late 20's, for a bodybuilder maybe in your 30's, or you could be an age grouper competing at regional or national level in your 40's or 50's. Whatever 'ageing' means to you, this article will hold true.

If you want to continue to excel as you get older, if you want to reduce the number of injuries that you have, and the impact that they have, then you will have to start identifying and minimising your weaknesses. Young athletes must maximise their strengths, they're young, their bodies are forgiving (for a while) and they're a long long way from reaching their true potential, possessing as they do mobile, supple bodies chock full of muscles that are largely unconditioned and untrained. Older athletes cannot say the same and yet many train as though this were the case. Assuming you're an older athlete, your potential for improvement through a continued focus on developing your strengths is likely one of the reasons for over training, chronic and recurring injuries, poor recovery and a whole host of niggles.

strength or weakness signpost

Identifying and minimising weakness should be the focus for the ageing athlete, but very rarely do people consider their weaknesses in a considered and thoughtful manner. Let's take an example of the ageing long distance runner who is starting to experience chronic fatigue in the right calf and tightness in the Achilles tendon on that side. This very same individual will most likely identify their calf and Achilles as weaknesses that they should fix. So they foam roll diligently, apply compression post-run and begin performing heel drops (the go to exercise for rehabilitating an Achilles) daily.

This type of athlete comes to see us every week. They run hundreds of miles, may also do track sessions and intense sprints each week, and invariably they all share the same dysfunctions on testing: one hip with restricted mobility; the other with extreme external rotation; under active glutes and over active hamstrings; quads so tight you could play them like a violin; an inability to perform a half decent ass to grass squat and extremely poor unilateral hip stability. And for the most part they've got desk jobs.

This athlete's weakness is not in the calf or the Achilles, in fact these areas have probably been strengths until they became symptomatic. The weakness is in the muscles around the athlete's hip girdle with a range of issues that have resulted, not from their sport or their training for it, but from the 8 hours they spend seated each day at work.

desk jockey

As athlete's get older, life itself has a tendency to get in the way. For most their training programmes also begin to get in the way. Injuries come and (hopefully) go, and for the majority there is the need to hold down a job to pay for life's necessities . Life becomes regular, planned, and routine, and as this happens many things start to congeal around you both metaphorically and physically. We'll pass on the metaphorical debate as it's beyond the scope of this article, but let's take a look at this physical clotting.

With age comes tendency's or habits, such as sleeping, standing and sitting in a particular way, walking less and driving or cycling more. In many ways our movement patterns start to become predictable, dependable, easy, unconscious, the same. Once we've maximised our strengths during our teens and early 20's many of us spend too much time trying to maintain or improve our personal bests by putting in the same or more grunt on the practise track. It happens slowly for some, swiftly for others, but inevitably a day arrives when the realisation dawns that no matter what we do our performances are getting worse.

old man walking

This is age related performance decline. And there's nothing you can do about it. So sayeth the naysayers. But there is a fallacy contained in this truth of age related performance decline.

It is true that there is an age related decline in performance. You will produce fewer anabolic and growth hormones as you age, and you will require more recovery from intense efforts. Many of these things are true. But the rate of age related decline is nowhere near as great as it might otherwise be. And for many people (excluding those who have participated regularly at an international /national level with a full couching staff), it is possible to perform better than a younger you with a little bit of intelligent analysis and understanding of your performance, your strengths and your weaknesses.

In fact, if athletes and sports people became more intelligent (possibly a big ask), and clued up about planning and programming their training in a more holistic fashion, the rate of age related performance decline would be shown for what it is - a false flag based on people applying outdated and unworkable training models that focus on the sport without also focusing on the physical peculiarities of the participant and the impact that the participant's external life has on both their sport performance and on the participant themselves.

And if holistic has you reaching for the sick bag, we're not talking about meditations on the meaning of life here, within the field of sports and exercise, an holistic approach could be seen as trying to understand your goals within a functional, biomechanical framework that looks not only at your strengths and weaknesses, but at what you do when you're not training for your sport.

Cartoon Bodybuilder

Here's another anecdote, we worked with a bodybuilder, a massive guy built like a sirloin steak. Came to us with a bad back, hips and shoulders. On testing his balance (ie standing on one leg) this 30 year old could not stand on one leg as long as the average 70 year old without falling over. Despite this remarkably evident foundational weakness, he could shift tons of weight day in and day out in pursuit of his aesthetic goals. Most of his musculoskeletal issues could be fixed with a 6-12 month focus on developing stability, balance and co-ordination (in addition to his ongoing training programme). A simple fix? Not so. The client was convinced that the fix could be found through adapting his bodybuilding style training. This was not the fix. Balance and co-ordination do not improve with additional weight if you are incapable of maintaining your balance and co-ordination with body weight alone.

The client did not fully engage in the rehabilitation that was suggested to him, and decided to try using unilateral weighted bodybuilding style exercises against our best advice. The last we heard he's still in pain.

The runner above, with their focus on the presenting issue and the bodybuilder trying to use bodybuilding to fix a foundational issue (balance and co-ordination) share the same problem - they consider their problems to arise from their sports. The runner cannot conceive that his or her issue is related to the fact that they sit too much at work and the bodybuilder cannot believe that he needs to train in a way that is not bodybuilding in order to fix his joint pains.

The older athlete's performance is more often than not negatively affected by a broad range of factors many of which lie outside their sport. These cannot be addressed by simply doing more of what you've done before. The secret to eternal youth, and reducing the rate of age related decline, in sporting performance requires the older athlete to assess any obvious deficits in their musculoskeletal system and proactively work to fix them. You can understand where these deficits are by testing them yourself, going to a decent physio / sports therapist, or by paying attention to what you do most of the time - do you have any repetitive movement patterns, do you stand or sit slumped in one hip - such things are the clues to weaknesses that you need to address in order to maintain your sporting performance.

Here's an action plan to get you going, test your body against the following areas:

  1. balance

  2. co-ordination

  3. strength

  4. flexibility

  5. mobility

Do any of these seem particularly bad? Or are there big differences in one side compared to another? If yes then do yourself a favour, do something about them or contact a sports therapist for advice and guidance.

Ryan Giggs

And if you can't be bothered with that then simply pick up a sport or activity that is completely new to you and get good at it - the process will help you to identify weaknesses you probably don't even know you have. Ryan Giggs, one time premier league football player, retired at the age of 40 - a remarkable achievement given the demands of the modern game - his secret for success, a fitness programme based on yoga that worked on his balance, co-ordination, flexibility, mobility and core strength NOT more football style training sessions.

Eliminate your weaknesses - however unrelated they may seem to your sport and you may be surprised at the effect this has on your sports performance.

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