Is your body cheating on you?

I have been reading a lot about some of the latest advances in understanding the brain and Alzheimer’s Disease. One of the concepts that interests me seems to explain why dementia seems to be so much faster and more brutal in the people who developed and used their minds the most. Research says that this concept is ‘cognitive compensation’ – that when the brain is used to working hard and solving difficult challenges, it finds work-arounds that disguise a lot of the early symptoms and copes for so much longer. And it struck me that the body does the same – that muscles and compensating movements and loading kick-in to get us over the line physically too.

Being an athlete can actually work against us

This issue of compensating is clearly a battle at every stage – other muscles and body systems stepping in and getting us through. It can stop us from spotting the issue early and dealing with it.

It can also be a big challenge in rehabilitation.

We have to stay so focused on the process

When the challenge from the physio is to build up to a certain number of reps and sets, this can become an all-consuming challenge.  And having been so pathetic for so long during the injury, every fibre of our mind and body wants to achieve this and start to return to the person we used to be.

But compensation can kick in so easily! And quietly…

So we really need to ensure that we totally understand the correct form and ways to check that the right muscles and movement are activating. We need to check every rep and be really honest on when the compensation is setting in. And this is why it is really useful to have regular checks from a physio, or starting to work with a Personal Trainer with a Corrective Exercise qualification and focus.

Quality not quantity

Compensated reps are empty reps. So whilst we need to ‘control the inner chimp’ (Dr Steve Peter’s book and philosophy of the Chimp Paradox) about not hitting the headline goal – we need quality reps, followed in such a way that they are pattern forming for our nervous system, muscles (helping ‘muscle memory’) and movement patterns. And if we cannot do it, this is really useful medical information that we can develop a plan to address. But only if we surface the issue and work with it.

Good luck!

Masters athletes: looking after ourselves to avoid injuries

With half of the adults in the UK now over fifty, looking after ourselves and avoiding injury is something that is on the minds of a lot of athletes. And so many training harder for longer, and turning out new age-group records every year, there can be pressure for age group athletes to push ever harder, and potentially into injury.

I was struck by an interview with James Cracknell OBE last week, in preparation for rowing in the Cambridge Blue Boat for the Boat Race this year, aged 46. He claimed that he can still put out close to the power (in endurance terms) that he did in his 20’s when he rowed to Gold medals in both the Sydney and Athens Olympics, but that the recovery is completely different; he talked about nurturing every aspect of his body to make the start-line in a couple of weeks’ time. And of course James Cracknell is an inspiration in terms of injured athletes, having suffered a brain injury after being hit by a petrol tanker whilst cycling across the USA in 2010.

The realities of the body with age

Medical studies show that from our 30’s onwards, there are changes in the body (which we intuitively play into by moving into longer distances and more endurance events, rather than the short, explosive power of our younger years):

  • Muscle loss due to fewer, smaller and weaker muscle fibres
  • Greater rigidity and brittleness of tissues such as tendon and ligaments, reducing flexibility
  • Reduction in bone density
  • Slower release of synovial fluid in the joints
  • Reduced power due to fewer fast twitch muscles
  • Reduction of sensory inputs and responses for good balance
  • The long-term impact of posture and lifestyle factors

The good news is that exercise can hold back these declines

Weight-bearing exercise is excellent for bone strength, and also maintaining power and muscle strength.  There is also clear evidence that sports and interests that develop flexibility and balance can maintain these too – so things like yoga and tai chi can be low intensity things on your rest day that really benefit your body too.

The challenge is injuries get more frequent and recovery takes longer

The part that older age groupers will all tell you is that the battle to avoid injuries is more challenging and recovery takes longer. This just means that you need to listen to your body and give it what it needs.

Some simple ways to avoid injuries

Proven approaches that are worth building into your training plan are:

  1. Warm up for longer and do a good selection of drills that raise your heart-rate to the target zone, as well as mobilising your joints and activating the key muscles
  2. Have a longer and more gradually tapered cool down after aerobic exercise
  3. Follow a good stretching and muscle release schedule – daily if possible
  4. Focus on correct technique and good posture, ahead of the length of the session
  5. Make sure that you follow the goal of each session – and therefore have the right mix of lower intensity and higher intensity, not just always doing the same sessions at the same intensity
  6. Give yourself the right amount of recovery time, taking more if needed. Within this, uninterrupted overnight sleep is really important.
  7. Do resistance training as well as cardiovascular exercise. Use cross-training to reach your goals when you are concerned that you can get overuse injuries, and think about reducing impact and moving in multiple planes and with movements in multiple parts of the body.
  8. Keep working on flexibility and balance
  9. Keep your training plan adaptable, so that you can listen to your body
  10. Keep a training logbook that includes aches and pains, so that you can spot warning signs for injury early and act on them
  11. Take injuries seriously – don’t try and push your way through them. And give your body the rest and recovery that it needs
  12. Go for the health checks that you are offered – especially the checks on blood pressure and cardiovascular health

And of course, above all, enjoy your training and racing.

We only have one body for life, so it is worth taking good care of it as it matures