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

When should pain stop my running?

Most of us have seen track athletes lying writhing in agony with the lactate in their legs, or even track cyclists suddenly vomiting from the amount of lactate that they have built up. And endurance runners always talk about it being painful and ‘pushing through the pain barrier’, so how does anyone know when they should actually stop, recover and rehabilitate? The goal of this is to help to create good training habits in terms of injury management and resilience for runners, triathletes and those who do a lot of running mileage as a part of their training (but it does not cover the impact of high lactate levels from very high intensity work using the anaerobic system).

The key is learning to understand the signals from your body

Development in training is built on the principle of progressive overload of the muscles, and so there is likely to be a level of soreness when you are training hard. This can be during and immediately after the run, or 12-72 hours later in the form of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

The reason that you get this muscle soreness is that exercise creates micro-tears in the muscle and with rest these recover and grow back even stronger, ready to do the challenge again. This cycle is called adaptation. You can help this process by doing a few good things:

  1. Getting some nutrition into the muscles within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. The muscles need protein to build the muscle and carbohydrates to replace the glycogen stores that you have used up. Testing of 4:1 ratio of carbohydates to protein have found these to be good at building lean muscle mass and restocking the glycogen – so things like chocolate milk can be very good (especially as liquids get into your system a little faster than solids)
  2. Giving your body enough time to recover with quality sleep and rest.
  3. Compression clothing on the legs has also been shown to have benefits immediately after exercise (as long as the foot is also covered), which is thought to be from reducing blood pooling in the leg muscles, and pushing all of the waste products out of the muscles and into the bloodstream.

DOMS is an additional level of soreness and lasts much longer. It is often characterised by agony going down stairs – check out the DOMS Stair Test within the Fellrnr wiki: https://fellrnr.com/wiki/Delayed_Onset_Muscle_Soreness.  Many people find that gentle movement is best – walking or very slow recovery runs on smooth, flat surfaces will help to flush out the toxins and let you recover. If you are routinely experiencing DOMS, then you are probably progressing the length and intensity of your runs too quickly, so scale back and replan your training.

But what about those pains that are not just soreness?

There is a different territory of pain: sharp, spikey pains with clear pain centres, or any pains that you would describe as burning, prickling, cramping or spasms. These words tend to match pains that go beyond the muscles, into the harder-to-repair areas of tendons, ligaments, joints and nerves.

I am in the process of writing other blogs on nerve pain, and reviewing some of the excellent material on the impact and treatment of nerve pain for runners and other athletes. But in the meantime the headline is that there are dimensions of pain that if you find yourself describing them with these words, the indications are that it is a lot more than muscle soreness.

This is where a good training logbook is worth its weight in gold

Hence these are all pains to take very seriously and get straight onto monitoring. If you keep a training logbook or diary, you should note down any level of aches and pains, so that you can look back and see when did you first have even a minor twinge in this area, how fast has it progressed, and is there is a pattern of low-level pains. For instance, is there a pain that you get only when running on certain surfaces? Or at certain intensities? Or distances?

In turns out that there is no measurable unit of pain

Whilst most things in life have a measurable scale, pain is sufficiently complex and individual that it has to be scored individually and subjectively. There are lots of different scales https://paindoctor.com/pain-scales/ but the most common one (and used by most UK healthcare professionals) is scored by the individual on a 0 to 10 scale, where zero is no pain and 10 is the worst pain that they have ever experienced.

It is really hard to think about this when you are in pain, so here are some words that might help:

Pain Level Description
0 No pain
2 Pain, but it can be ignored
4 Pain interferes with tasks
6 Pain interferes with concentration
8 Pain interferes with basic needs
10 Pain requires bed rest

But what does this mean for running?

I know how hard people find it to decide when to stop running, so here is my personal suggested scoring for pain:


My table of pain scale and what it means in running, with a suggested recovery action for you to take

I would suggest that whilst racing may take you to all of the way up to a level 5 (where in training you should stop immediately), you need to listen to your body and know whether this is a race that you should choose to DNF or ease back to simply make the line, vs hanging in there at all costs.

And I really hope that in training, at a 3 you would be walking and deciding whether to get your phone out and get a lift home to let your body recover for another day.

I always believe that the mark of a great training plan is the consistent build-up of sessions that progress you, but leave you ready to do the next session with quality, to get yet another progression.

Best of luck out there on the roads and trails! Make good decisions and look after your body!