Fending off Father Time: Stay-fit advice for aging athletes

In a USA Today article that appeared on the day of Michael Jordans return to regular-season NBA competition, an exercise physiologist talked about various physical aspects of aging that can deteriorate athletic performance.

I found this article quite interesting. But it did not satisfy my curiosity completely. As an athlete myself, I wanted to learn about the measures one can take to counteract the effects of aging.

So I called up Dr. Ed Burke myself and asked him what advice he would give the 38-year-old Jordan, and other athletes in his position. Heres what he had to say.

Stretch more and better

Loss of flexibility is a natural effect of aging that can be counteracted through a program of daily stretching. However, quite apart from aging, the repetitive movements involved in practicing any sport for a long period of time results in muscular imbalances that get progressively more extreme.

These require targeted efforts to loosen and lengthen only those muscles that have become short and tight, because stretching all muscles equally will only take the imbalance to a higher level.

Burke encourages every athlete, but experienced ones especially, to identify their short and tight muscles and devote special efforts lengthening them through stretching.

Rest and recover more

Unless they continue to perform training sessions that match the intensity of workouts they performed when younger, older athletes cannot hope to perform near the level at which they were able to perform in their mid-20's.

And while many older athletes find that they can continue to perform these tough workouts well into their 40's, Burke says they cannot do them as often. Older athletes need to allow themselves more time to recover between their most demanding training sessions. The extra time may be given to outright rest, active recovery, or a combination of both.

Pump those antioxidants

Free-radical damage, also known as oxidative stress, is now known to be one of the primary components of aging. Unfortunately, athletes are even more prone to free-radical damage than non-athletes. For this reason, they need to be especially vigilant in consuming antioxidants, those vitamins and vitamin-like compounds that protect against and repair such damage.

Vitamins C and E are especially helpful to athletes, as controlled studies have shown they can dramatically reduce post-workout muscle soreness in the short term, in addition to minimizing long-term oxidative stress.

Practice nutritional recovery

A large body of clinical research also has shown that consuming the right nutrients in the right amounts immediately after exercise can enhance recovery substantially. According to Burke, water, electrolytes, carbohydrate, and protein are needed most to rehydrate the body, restore muscle glycogen, and repair tissue damage.

Since most athletes experience appetite suppression after exercise, Burke recommends getting all of the needed nutrients by consuming one of the sports drinks on the market that is designed especially for recovery. Choose one with a 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein, as more protein will retard the flow of nutrients into the bloodstream and less will result in a less pronounced insulin spike, hence slower restocking of glycogen stores.

Train more efficiently

Believe it or not, there are actually advantages to getting older, even for athletes. One of these advantages is accumulated knowledge of ones own body, particularly as it reacts to various types of training.

In other words, the more experience you have in training for a particular sport, the better able you become (supposing you pay attention) to determine which exercises, drills, workouts and training patterns work well for you and which ones are less effective, or downright counterproductive.

Use this knowledge to your advantage. Design a training program that minimizes the less useful training and maximizes the stuff that gives you the greatest performance bang for the training buck.

Flex those muscles

The older you get, the more important strength training becomes. One of the more crippling effects of aging for athletes is the gradual loss of muscle mass, and the loss of strength that it entails. Athletes in sports that dont require tremendous strength are particularly susceptible, says Burke, as they tend to try and get by without resistance training.

When youre young, very often you can get away with it, but the older you get, the more important it becomes to train for strength specifically, no matter which sports you do.

Go to bed

Another thing that many athletes try and get by without is sleep. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation is an epidemic in American society.

Researchers have shown that sleeping too little leads to a host of problems from depressed immune function to decreased mental functioning. And according to Burke, skimping on sleep is also harmful to athletic performance, because during sleep the body secretes human growth hormone (HGH), which is a powerful agent of recovery and adaptation to training.

Less sleep means less HGH and therefore less freshness for the next days workout. Treat yourself to an extra half-hour or hour of sleep each night and youll feel 10 years younger.

Copyright 2002 by Poweringmuscles. Published with permission. For cutting-edge sports nutrition info, visit www.poweringmuscles.com.

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