by Russ Ebbets
In Aristotelian tragedy the common denominator all tragic characters possess is the inability to accept change. Whether it is Shakespeare’s crew (Hamlet, King Lear or MacBeth) or the Greeks (Oedipus, Icarus or Odysseus) the genesis of the tragic flaw is a blinding stubbornness to have it their way, all day, every day. Life just does not work that way for kings, conquerors or the common man/woman for that matter.
Athletic longevity is also about change. Whether one sees these changes as a “slow decline” or an opportunity for Dylan Thomas’ admonition to “rage, rage, rage,” there is admittedly an erosion of skills as time progresses. But this need not be a time of despair and depression. The physical changes offer the challenge of mentally refocusing efforts that may in many respects create a “new and better” you.
Detailed below are nine areas that the ravages of time can accelerate the erosion of skills. Some common areas of breakdown are identified and can be mitigated with various behavioral changes and physical practices. These new behaviors may prove to be the change needed to slow the progression. Ending this discussion will be some simple strategies that can slow or delay the erosion of skills and in many ways ensure a more active and healthful life.
1. Macro trauma/accidents – Macro trauma is where one single incident causes an injury. For runners it could be stepping in a hole or on a stone, tripping over a curb or even getting hit by a car. Macro trauma and accidents are what insurance companies call “unplanned events.” We can chide ourselves that it is due to a lack of awareness or some other personal shortcoming, but the greater reality is that sometimes crazy things, unexplainable things happen.
2. Repetitive motions – Training, at a most basic sense, is done to groove or “train” the nervous system (which controls the muscles and joints) to execute actions in a smooth and coordinated manner. The way this is done is to repeat, again and again, a desired action until it can be executed in a fluid and often unconscious manner. The problem here is that actions done relentlessly, without adequate rest will create a wear and tear pattern in the body that starts to break things down. Those “things” can be cartilage around the ends of bones or create micro tearing of soft tissues like ligaments, tendons or stresses on the fascial planes of the body. This is one of the reasons one cannot “get in shape in one day,” although every spring many people try to do this. Training and personal development needs to be a slow and progressive process that takes place over days, weeks, months and even years.
3. Linear actions – Most aerobic activities involve a repeated set of linear actions or movements. Figure 1 illustrates nine common aerobic activities most gyms offer. While it would be a losing argument to deny these activities cause aerobic development the repeated use of solely linear activities is a form of repetitive motion that can cause breakdowns within the body.
4. Asymmetric motions – The action of running is ideally performed with the rhythm of a metronome with a tic-tic pattern. This tic-tic pattern is a great example of symmetric motion. The problem is that you, me and the next person are not symmetric when we move. As much as we try there are asymmetries within our bodies that cause an uneven running pattern that puts unequal stresses on one side of the body versus the other. Much of this asymmetry develops because of one’s “handedness,” (or leggedness) leading one to favor one side of the body over the other. But asymmetric actions can also be the result of one’s occupation, such as the repetitive motions of assembly line work. This presents a dilemma. To run and train with symmetry invites potential injury due to the repetitive nature of the sport mentioned above, but on the other hand, not paying attention to or training without movement symmetries also presents a training insult that can cause injury. This problem is even worse for athletes in one legged events such as the long, triple or high jumps. This is why a certain amount of training time must be dedicated towards preventive measures to strengthen potential weak muscular or kinetic links within the body.
5. Lack of multi-lateral development – Multi-lateral development (MLD) is strength and conditioning “around” the body. Many confuse the various linear aerobic activities illustrated in Figure 1 as examples of “cross training” and examples of MLD, which they are not. While these aerobic training variations do offer a different set of stresses for the body this type of cross training is simply another set of linear actions repeated endlessly, potentially creating its own set of problems.
True MLD has diagonal patterns that cross the body’s midline. Examples such as the infomercials P-90X or Tae Bo are exhausting and effective because they involve actions that one does not routinely perform. The twisting and turning, side steps and rotary kicks all challenge the smaller muscles of the multi-axial joints (like the hips and shoulders) in ways that can be rapidly exhausting while at the same time particularly effective in toning the muscles that create a state of dynamic stabilization.
6. Instability – Postural stability begins with the foot. This makes total sense, if you think about it as the foot is the first area of the body that makes contact with the ground. Problems with the foot are transferred up the kinetic chain of the leg, always searching to find the body’s “weak link” for an injury. Compounding the problems with the foot is that modern shoes represent a soft cast for the foot leading to decreased sensation, muscular atrophy and a loss of balance and coordination at the foot. Further complicating all this is that the neuromuscular pathway from the brain to the foot is the longest in the body, therefore taking the longest to transfer messages back and forth, brain to foot and back.
This combination of factors can produce an unstable base for single support that in turn compromises power production, speed actions but also may allow undesirable side-to-side (or front-to-back) actions that strain the holding elements of the joints and possibly force some tissues to act as stabilizers that are not designed to do that job. The trauma of ground contacts can also exacerbate these issues producing sore or injured knees, hips or low backs.
7. Adaptive postures – Adaptive postures are not really something that results from training but nonetheless can negatively impact the quality or quantity of one’s training. In our modern lifestyle there are several adaptations humans have made that are problematic. Number one would be the proliferation of sitting in our lives. Sitting is a resting position that by itself is a beneficial respite from the stresses of life. But when sitting becomes an 8-10 hour a day activity, for 30-40 years of one’s life there are problems that develop. Physiologists have come to call prolonged sitting the “new smoking” for the cardiovascular deconditioning it causes. Anatomically, sitting has both the hip and knee in a 90° flexed position causing the hamstrings and the psoas (on the anterior portion of the spine, responsible for flexing the hip) muscles to become chronically shortened which affects upright posture. Prolonged sitting also allows the ligaments of the hip to shorten, limiting hip extension (the ability to get the leg behind the torso) contributing to the forward lean of the torso, characteristic of elderly adults. The sitting position also promotes a forward head carriage as we lean forward, over our work and execute what are called “gathering actions.” The forward head carriage can lead to a shortening of the chest and neck muscles, further exacerbating the forward leaning body posture when walking.
Oddly, one’s sleeping posture also can contribute to adaptive muscle shortening. We all sleep with our feet plantarflexed (a toes down position). Why is this problematic? This causes the calf muscles to rest and recover in a shortened position and contributes to a loss of the foot’s ability to dorsiflex (a toes up position) as we age that has negative consequences on our Achilles tendons, calves, balance and force production. Having the head cocked forward with large pillows also promotes the forward head carriage position noted above. Ultimately the forward head position creates a rounded shoulder posture that decreases the total capacity of the lungs decreasing potential oxygenation of the body. And the proliferation of cell phone use is only making this more of a problem for younger and younger ages.
8. Poor training design – Poor training design can be summarized as “too much, too soon.” The body can adapt to most training stresses if they are introduced in a gradual manner. The problem usually comes about when a suddenly inspired or motivated athlete attempts to make a significant increase in one’s training volume or intensity. While the effort can be applauded the sense of the upgrade is questionable and sore muscles and joints may be the result. For an aging athlete this is a concern as recovery for this mistake disrupts one’s long-term participation, compromising what is left of one’s career. A safer strategy would be to observe the 10% Rule – don’t increase training volume more than 10% and when doing so schedule in an increased rest and recovery time of 10%.
9. Hydration – Water is the body’s solvent. What this means is that virtually all the processes of the body (circulation, assimilation, respiration and elimination) require water and proper hydration to function optimally. The same is true for the “systems” of the body. The muscular system, skeletal, hormonal/enzymatic, lymph or nervous systems all require water to operate properly, especially if one is an athlete.
Unfortunately, about every six months a story circulates through the news cycle questioning the value or wisdom of drinking eight glasses of water a day. Often the authors cite the lack of scientific “proof” that this is necessary. But there has never been a scientific study “proving” a parachute is necessary when one sky dives, leading the foolish to conclude that a parachute should be optional, at least once. Common sense is not so common and as financial guru Dave Ramsey has said, it is also a marketable quality in the United States.
Water plays a critical role in the physiology of the body but is also an important component in the hydration of the spinal discs and the cartilaginous end caps of the long bones. Chronic dehydration leads to a loss of the protective cushioning these structures offer making the stresses of ground contacts, repetitive motions, linear actions or asymmetric movements all the more traumatic by accelerating the wear and tear of athletic participation.
Solutions for Career Longevity
While there are many things that can go “wrong” there are also a number of actions or strategies that can make things go “right.” In no particular order here are some suggestions to combat or correct the challenges of creating career longevity.
Number one – begin to employ a dynamic warm-up on a daily basis. What a dynamic warm-up does is allow one to design a series of activities that not only warm-up the body but also introduce actions or movements that can check the box for multi-lateral development by using circular or spiral type movements that counter the repetitive, linear movements of most aerobic training. YouTube has a wealth of video clips on dynamic warm-up. What is the best one? That is simple, the one you will do.
Secondly, adopt the mantra that movement is life. This will help you break-up the day, especially if one has a “sit down job.” The simplest suggestion here is to get up and move, every hour, on the hour. Start with some simple arm swings and easy trunk rotations. These few moments can also be used for a posture check. Get your head-up and chin up and pull your shoulders back. Take a few deep breaths and then get back to the grind. See Figure 2 for the simple Head-up, Chin-up Posture Exercise.
Number three is to incorporate some type of flexibility into your weekly training plan. I have always been partial to Hittleman’s 28 Day Guide to Yoga. This book is a “nose to toes” approach to the discipline that covers all the bases in a safe, progressive manner that will positively affect one’s training, recovery, sleep patterns, posture, digestion, attitude and outlook. T’ai chi is another Eastern discipline that combines rotary and spiral movements that keep all the joints limber and works on one’s timing and sequencing of movements, balance and coordination and can be done virtually anywhere, even during the posture break mentioned above.
Mentally the number one mindset is that one must become receptive to change. In one’s performance days, chasing personal bests necessitated change in the training plan or one would plateau. With aging there necessarily is a shift from chasing PB’s to being satisfied with seasonal bests. There should also be an acceptance of different training methods, training surfaces or types of workouts with the inclusion of new activities such as the dynamic warm-up and the consistent flexibility routine mentioned above. Training, in essence, needs to be redefined, but it still will have the all important feature of movement, albeit movements in a slightly different manner.
Another mental component of this new change will be to foster the attitude of mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening at this time, in this place. One can apply mindfulness with a broader application of the idea of “training with intention.” From the dynamic warm-up, through practice time, to the flexibility routine there should be a reason for what is being done. Employing a zombie-like attitude of mindlessly repeating the same workouts allows one to drift into thoughtlessness, unhealthy or sloppy movement patterns and mechanical decision making that evidences little regard for a changing landscape.
A related thought pattern is to refuse to get injured. Initially, that sentiment may seem laughable. Who trains to get injured? No one consciously does this, but I would contend that those athletes who mindlessly repeat the same workouts day after day, who do no dynamic warm-up, never stretch and expect life to unfold on their terms are ripe for some type of overuse injury.
By refusing to get injured, one takes a proactive, even mindful approach towards training. A moment is taken to consider – should I be doing this? Or – why am I doing this? Missing a day or two to nurse a sore spot can be more valuable than priding yourself on the mental toughness to limp your way through another workout. There are different forms of toughness.
With regards to training, be judicious with maximal efforts. Consistently pushing to the point of pain or attempting to better past workouts can become a self-defeating process. As the fictional Greek philosopher Mediocrates said, “sometimes good enough, is enough.” Longevity dictates that participation is more important than performance. This is another change in mindset some may not be comfortable with, but change is never easy.
Maturity often teaches us how to self-monitor the body like never before. Learn to heed the hints. Missing a day here or there, is not the end of the world. That was one of the great challenges of coaching, learning to recognize the difference between what needed to be done and what could be done. The ability to compromise is a sign of health. Attention should be paid to one’s personal habits. Questionable lifestyle choices are inconsistent with a long athletic career. Although the popular media may champion a daily glass of wine or a cocktail, care must be taken so that this “solution” (i.e. - alcohol) does not morph into the solution, (i.e. - the cure for all challenges).
Finally, there is hydration. If you ever have the time to delve into outdoor survival literature one topic that continually arises is the Rule of Three. The Rule of Three states that humans can survive about three minutes without oxygen, three hours in an extremely hot or cold environment, three days without water and three weeks without food. Granted, there are circumstances that may increase or decrease the “threes,” but approaching the extremes of any one of the threes is not something that will induce life longevity. With that in mind, skimping on water intake on a daily basis, especially for an athlete is indefensible. I have often said one’s 25th high school reunion is very telling as to who has spent the last 25 years productively, with some degree of self-care and who has spent that same time on a barstool.
Most tend to make life choices through force of habit or by choosing the path of least resistance. On one hand this makes sense. Continually evaluating the pros and cons of multiple options takes time and may be a means to procrastinate or waste time. We choose something that has worked before and reason it will work again. But just as improvement necessitates change, so does longevity. The ability to re-structure goals and re-direct efforts presents new challenges, both physically and mentally, that will ultimately create a stronger and more resilient you. It is a form of lifelong learning that can deepen understandings or open new vistas. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear and MacBeth were the blessed individuals of their given societies. But their rigidness, their inability to consider change created frustrated and unhappy people, even tragic figures whose stories have served as cautionary tales for many generations. Collectively these characters have come to serve as timeless examples of the importance that adaptation and change play in a human’s life.
Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. His 2019 book, A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running articles was a 2019 Track and Field Writers of America Book of the Year finalist. A Runner’s Guide 2 was published in February 2023. Books are available from Amazon.com. His USATF Niagara High Performance presentation on Career Longevity and the Masters Athlete can be found at – USATF Niagara HP Zoom. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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