We’ve covered a lot of ground with articles regarding training, nutrition, mindset, and lifestyle factors affecting the aging athlete. Not to be forgotten, however, are modalities utilized to avoid injury. In the context of strength training, one’s goals must be injury prevention first, get strong second. Long gone are the days of slapping another “quarter” onto each side of the Olympic bar in the hopes of achieving a PR near that of elite lifters. Chasing numbers as a way to boost your ego is a fast track to getting hurt. Truth be told, one’s recovery capacity or resilience decreases as a function of age, even in those individuals with optimal sleep hygiene and nutrition. At base level, you cannot afford an injury; it will set you back months. (There’s a good chance you’re nodding your head in consensus at this point.)
Unfortunately, most of us have been injured in the pursuit of strength and a Herculean physique. Paradoxical, right? Exercise is touted as being protective of the body. But just like water can be considered a poison when overconsumed in a short period of time, the same applies to exercise. A high percentage of exercise-related injuries are due to overtraining or high doses of exercise within a small time window, prohibiting ample recovery from the exercise-induced bodily trauma. Yes, you can overdose on exercise, just as you can on medication. Exercise is just physical medicine. Like theories therefore apply.
And the solution is simple. Back off the Tylenol! Reduce your training frequency, not intensity, but frequency. For example, if you’re training heavy four times per week and find yourself injury prone or failing to make your benchmarks (pun intended), consider a three-time-per-week schedule. And be sure to utilize your newly found day off wisely: for recovery.
What does proper recovery entail? Sleeping, of course, is primary. Those hours spent in the gym may now be spent in REM sleep (critical for neurologic recovery from those dreaded heavy deadlifts). A well-positioned two-hour nap can be rejuvenating and augment your training. Improved nutrition and supplementation are also a must. Have you ever considered having your hormonal profile checked? What about your serum inflammatory markers? Vitamin D3? Ladies, this one is particularly important in the context of cancer prevention. (And don’t assume your level is optimal because you’re hitting the tanning bed three times per week.) A deficiency of vitamin D can take its toll on performance, let alone predispose you to illness.
There are many other adjuncts that can be implemented both in and outside of the gym setting to that can help injury-proof your training:
Proper warm-up: As one ages, there is an increased need for a more regimented warm-up to stimulate synovial fluid production in the joints and augment blood flow to the muscles. For the younger generation reading this piece in staunch disagreement, just wait. We too thought similarly at one time, but just take a look at professional athletes. Their pre-game warm-up typically spans 30 to 45 minutes, not seconds. And yes, there is plenty of science behind this practice.
The same goes for a cooldown period. A brisk walk around your training facility or a short (five- to 10-minute) stint on the treadmill in conjunction with deep breathing will help rid the muscles of accumulated metabolic byproducts.
Proper technique: Since the recent advent of “race style” exercise protocols, injury rates have increased by nearly 50 percent, according to The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Why? Inattention to proper technique. Unfortunately, technique has been surpassed by the stopwatch in relative importance to the appeasement of orthopedic surgeons. This is shocking when you consider that the purpose of exercise is to enhance, not endanger, health. Spend the obligate hours and perfect your technique, particularly as it applies to freeweight, compound, anabolic movements such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and pull-up. (If you want to get into Olympic lifting, get a good coach and take it slowly.) These should be the staples of any strength-training program. Properly performed, these exercise will grant you lifelong strength, elevate your physique to previously unforeseen heights, and prevent the number one cause of workplace disability: low-back pain.
Ancillary movements: Do you have shoulder pain (in contrast to soreness) after a heavy bench day? What about sacroiliac joint pain after deadlifting? Oftentimes, in the absence of a technical breach or an acute injury, individuals will develop pain from muscular imbalance or outright neglect. The anterior deltoid is heavily taxed during a bench-press movement. Do you train the posterior deltoid? What about the rotator-cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) that stabilize the humerus during both the concentric and eccentric phases? And what about your abductors and adductors? Yes, that machine that you think is just for girls is quite important. Quadratus lumborum? A critical lumbar spine stabilizer not to be neglected.
Train these small yet all important muscle groups during that new day off or before one of your weekly endurance sessions. Select a few exercises (Strength Training Anatomy Workout II by Frederic Delavier is a great resource in this regard), and perform the movements for high reps at low intensity.
Attention to tissue: From massage to directed physical therapy to foam rolling to electro muscle stimulation, there is no shortage of easy soft-tissue techniques (just check out the cult followers of MobilityWOD). Truth be told, they all accomplish the same thing: reduce tissue toxin burden, promote mobility, decrease stress levels, and by virtue, accelerate recovery. How you get there is up to you, but you need to start exploring these options. Pilates, anyone?
As many as these adjuncts seem logical, they are all too often neglected with great consequence and debility. For a variety of reasons, the incidence of exercise-related injury increases with age. Yet this can be tempered by supplanting the brute physicality of your youth with insight, knowledge, and an acute awareness of your limitations as gleaned from previous mishaps. As surgeons always say, “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”