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Mistakes Masters' Make

14 July 2011 Andrew Verdon

Hiking requires some fitness!

"Hiking requires some fitness!"

Photo by:
Kylie Wilson,

Most of the competitors in your average Etchells Class event would fit into the broadly accepted category of a Master's athlete or competitor. As a general rule, we use this term to broadly encompass anyone over the age of 35- 40 years old, but the following mistakes can be seen across all age groups!

Research has shown us that an older person's physiology declines with age, which occurs from 25 years onwards. It's also shown us that we take longer to recover as we age. To find out more information on getting fit as an over 35 year old sailor, I spoke to the expert on Master's Athletes, Professor Peter Raeburn.

Peter is a 54-year-old Associate Professor in exercise and sport science at Central Queensland University, where he has recently finished a highly-successful seven years, as a Head of Department. He received his PhD in Exercise Physiology from The University of Queensland.

I asked Peter what, based on this experience and knowledge, are what he sees as the five most common training mistakes older athletes make, especially for those masters athletes coming back into competitive sport, after many years away. This is what Peter had to say:

Mistake One: Believing body and mind are still 20.
There is no doubt about it. Older athlete's minds are still young. However, our bodies are aging. Research has shown us that as we age, muscle mass drops and the heart does not beat as fast. Thus speed and endurance, in general, decrease with age. Research has also shown us that our ability to recover from hard training decreases and that for genetic or lifestyle reasons, our chronic disease risk factors can catch up with us. These factors mean we need to start training more cautiously and slowly and recover longer and smarter between training sessions. Not go like a 'bull at a gate', as we used to.

Mistake Two: Not using the principles of training.
If there is one lesson I have learnt over the years, it's how important the principle of 'progressive overload' is. Too many older athletes, particularly those new to sport or not having trained for years, train too-hard, for too-long or just too-often. Tiredness, overtraining, burnout and injuries are usually the result. The key is to progressively increase how long, how often and how hard we train. Importantly, they must be done in that exact same order!!!

Mistake Three: Not listening to your body.
You know when you are tired; when a joint or muscle 'niggle' may mean trouble coming; when your training performance is poor; when the throat starts to croak or when you are 'short' with family and friends. These are signs that you need to rest, recover harder and change your training habits. If not, you'll pay the price.

I have a saying: 'Train hard, but recover harder.' For older athletes, this is particularly the case. Research has shown us that our muscles don't bounce back like they used to. This means not only taking longer between quality (hard or long) sessions, but also being very, very focused on the recovery strategies science has shown to work. These comprise of active recovery, compression garments, hot-cold contrast baths/showers, food and fluids, ice (water), pool work, massage, spas and stretching. Older athletes also need to be aware of managing themselves and cutting back during times of stress. Most of us have family and work commitments. I have two (great!) teenage daughters and a patient wife. I have (at times!) a stressful job and community service obligations (netball coaching and cycling club secretary). All these factors have time demands and thus stress demands. I've learnt over the years what the stress research has said for years, and that is that the stress response of exercise and life are the same. Thus, during times of psychological stress, cut back on the intensity, duration or frequency of training and, from my experience, in that order of priority!

Mistake Four: Not training hard enough.
I am a huge believer that performance-focused Masters athletes need to train with intensity. While I appreciate not every Master athlete wants to win a medal, most of us want to perform at our best on the day. Research on athletes, young and old, female and male, sprinters or endurance, black or white, has always shown the same thing. Intensity (how hard we train) is the key. However, intensity also brings with it tiredness, fatigue and an increased risk of injury. Prepare the body well for the hard work by developing a good base, getting the muscles and joints strong and then progressively building the intensity.

Mistake Five: Not training smart.
I see way too many of my cycling or triathlon mates who do what every else is doing. Training with much younger people, or following the pack. As we age our physiologies, our health, our ability to recover, and our fitness all change. While it's great to train and be pushed in groups, there are times when we need to 'do our own thing' and that thing is what our own bodies are telling us, not our minds!

My years as a competitive athlete and sport scientist have shown me that Masters athletes struggle to believe these changes occur, and so battle against the inevitable too hard, too often. Masters' need to 'listen to their bodies', train smart and use the 'principles of training' as their guide. Train hard but recover harder, and cut back on training when the stress of life, family and work get on top.

Interested in learning more? Peter has a fantastic resource in his book - The Master Athlete.

The book is available here


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