We get so many clients in clinic saying “I’m getting old, I need to slow down.” And although I am often younger than them at age 37, they are usually only 5-10 years my senior. And I wonder, why is our automatic response to injury that we must be one foot in the grave? Does our demise actually start at 35, or is there another possibility?
At the start of April, we spent four days being inspired by the athletes of the National Masters Athletics Championships, held at the old QEII stadium (now Qld Sports and Athletics Centre) in Brisbane. We worked on over 80 athletes before and after their track and field events, aged between 31 and 87. Each had various complaints ranging from muscle strains to broken bones, arthritis to arthroscopies, and joint replacements to heart failure.
But none of the injuries shocked me – we work with these types of amazing humans every day. People of all walks of life just looking to enjoy movement and exercise. What did strike me was that all of these athletes were there to break something else…. a national record, a world record, or most importantly – their personal best.
The athletes who turned up to compete at Nationals gave me a fresh perspective on the issue of aging. This is what I learned from them.
1. Age is NOT just a number – it’s a challenge. The old adage that ‘age is just a number’ is completely untrue. For every additional lap around the sun, you gather additional wear and tear. FACT. But just like any journey in life, the harder and longer you have to work to achieve a goal the more satisfaction you get out of it – no matter how many bumps in the road. The higher your age, the more of a challenge you have, and hands down the more pleasure you get from improving your performance. Especially in the face of culturally expected ‘demise’.
2. You CAN improve your performance. Whenever you start, and from whatever level, every day you train you get better and better. It’s a correct assumption that at 63 years old you will not beat Usane Bolt. But you WILL improve your 60m, 100m or 200m sprint result if every day you show up and do the training and get a little bit better each time. Yes, you will need to work around some ‘cranky and opinionated’ knee or hip joints, but if you love being on the track you should just do it anyway – the hip will be cranky even if you stay in bed. Our oldest client at Nationals was 87, and he competed in all six track distances from 60m to 1500m. We watched the over 75 men’s pole vault competitors clear 2.7m. I treated an 80 year old woman vying for a national record in the weight pentathlon. It makes you reconsider your definition of vitality.
3. Find the sport that suits you – if you can’t run, then throw! This seemed to be a bit of a catch cry for the track athletes and jumpers moving over to throws events when they struggled with the impact of training. But it serves as a good reminder that we all can find something we CAN do despite illness or injury, and often what we can do well, we love doing. So find what you can do while working around an injury and do more of that.
4. Professional advice for injury management can be both patronising and irrelevant:. You need to find therapists who will find a way to keep you going, not tell you to stop. We hear all too often that clients in their 40’s, 50’s and older who want to stay active are told that slowing down is the recommended way to manage ongoing pain, niggling injuries, arthritis and other conditions. But in the same breath, they are told to maintain their muscle mass and metabolism to fight cardiac disease and diabetes, work on their balance training to reduce falls risk and engage in the community to keep the white matter ticking. Medical practitioners and physical therapists need to better consider the drive and achievements of older athletes, and work to continually give advice that supports performance enhancement and ongoing engagement in sport. We need to educate our athletes about their options for injury management and potential outcomes of their training choices so that they can make autonomous decisions – and then support them to follow that path. We need to help people of all ages and abilities find ways to keep training and competing, rather than steering them away from the physical activity and community that brings so much benefit and joy to their lives.
Sometimes I think that massage is such a humble part of competition day for athletes. At Nationals, we were simply delivering massage therapy to warm up tight muscles, flush out tired muscles, and help recover muscles more quickly before the next event. But for some, having us there was the difference between competing and not. From the table, the athletes were asking, “can you do a quick treatment and apply some tape to de-load my adductor strain to get through a full pentathlon? Otherwise I’m going to have to pull out.”
We also had lots of questions about injury management on the day – “should I keep the taping on my calf tear during my events or take it off?” “How do I manage hip bursitis during warm up to give me the best chance of a PB?” “I’m doing six events over three days, do I come before or after each one for treatment?”
All of these athletes wanted advice on how to keep going, how to manage the delicate balance between rehab and performance – and we had so many come back to say that they felt amazing during their event and the advice we gave helped to make some smart decisions that led to a lot of personal and season’s best performances over the weekend, with several athletes achieving this over multiple events.
We were so proud to be able to give them what they needed on the day, and mostly that was just education. THEY were the ones who put in all the hard work, we were simply there to be their cheerleaders. Which we intend to continue to do every day in clinic, for as long as there are people who love to stay active. Are you one of them?
Now, if you think you could just walk into this and win a medal... think again. Here are some of the incredible results from the 2022 Australian Masters Athletics National Championships. Congratulations to all the athletes!!
Women’s 55 4x100m – 53.19sec WR
M 30 High Jump – 1.91m
W30 High Jump – 1.71m
M30 100m – 10.97s
W30 5000m – 19.12min
W 50 Long Jump – 4.56m
M85 Shot Put – 9.10m