Saturday, February 25, 2012

Masters Athlete Advice - Top 10 List (Part I)

Having been a competitive athlete most of my adult life, I definitely have some observations about the transitions I underwent being competitive in the various age groups. Being 48 now, I think I have some good data to share, especially what it means to transition between being a 30-something athlete and a 40-something athlete.

In 10 years I'll probably write another version of this post, but whoa - let's not get ahead of ourselves (or make me any older!). For now, let's stick to the topic at hand - in classic Letterman, 'Top 10' format.

Top 10 Things to Know about Making the Transition to Masters Training and Competition
(a.k.a - Becoming an old guy that doesn't get fat in the winter)

#10 The Field Doesn't Get Easier
I don't know why this is, but the masters ranks (in both men and women) are among the most competitive out there beyond the collegiate. I can speculate that it's because the aging process has a way of 'weeding' out those that are not as committed or talented (or those that are more injury prone). We masters also have more time to train (as the kids get older) and more disposable income to spend on coaching, training camps and equipment than when we were younger. We're also spending less time on distractions like the bar scene and partying late into the night. For whatever reason though, there are many times where I would actually place *better* in the age group below mine (45-49) and sometimes better two age groups down.

What I'm saying here - is that the competition remains strong and relative no matter what your age, but Masters racers in the 40 - 55 year old range are mercilessly competitive. So read on.

#9 Know Thyself
The downside to aging is that you lose lots of natural biological advantages. The upside is that you've spent more time pushing your body and know how it works. You know where your strengths are, weaknesses that need attention, what sits well in your stomach, how much sleep you need, what workouts have the best training adaption for you, how much time you need to recover properly, etc. So leverage this advantage. Really spend time seeking to understand your body and what it's capabilities are. If you don't keep a training log, then now is a good time to start.

#8 You can (and should) still PR
We've all heard that we 'slow down' as we get older. But that statement ignores the fact that most all of us have operated far below our genetic potential for all our lives. So yes, it's true that our genetic ceilings start to lower as we get older, but there is still a ton of head-room to carry us well into our Master years.

Another thing to consider is how long you've been doing a certain activity. Our bodies continue to adapt for periods of 7 to 10 years (often longer) - meaning we get more 'tuned' to a particular activity we train at. So if you were a regional cycling champ in college, you most likely have already seen you glory days. But if you're 40 and you just started running - well then my friend, you have nothing but a road paved with PR's in front of you if you choose to go get them.

As an exclamation point to this - the picture on this blog post is 'Deadly' Ned Overend who was the NORBA Mountain Bike Racing champion from 1986 through 1992 (and one of my personal heros).

In 2010, Ned placed second overall in the Mt. Evans Hill Climb, one of the most grueling and competitive bike races in the country. Not in his age group, not in the citizens - but overall as a pro. Ned was 55 that year.

'nuff said.

#7 You're Days of Crappy Nutrition are Over
Besides being below your genetic potential, you also are most likely leaving another huge potential improvement on the table - specifically the dinner table. My wife is a registered dietitian with a background in sports physiology and nutrition. We both listen to tons of podcasts and read all sorts of nutritional advice from a variety of sources. We eat a pretty healthy diet, yet we are constantly injecting improvements into our  own nutritional plan (i.e. eating).

Good nutrition is something you shouldn't ignore, and not just on race day. Proper nutrition, matched to your training plan means that every day you are getting 100% out of each and every workout and maximizing your recovery and thus your training adaption response from that workout. You'll also spend less time getting sick (i.e. away from training), have healthier joints, bone mass and muscle, and find it a lot easier to manage to a proper lean body mass.

Can you still train and race well eating empty processed foods, being deficient in key vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes and mis-timing all your caloric intake? Sure. But I'm scratching my head trying to figure out why.

#6 You Have More Going On in Your Life - Accept It
As an older athlete, you've probably got a lot more 'other' responsibilities. Increased responsibilities at work and kids are the two big ones that increasingly create a time crunch for fitting in the secondary things like training. These things also create additional stress on our bodies like lost sleep due to sick kids, 7am company meetings or worrying about this or that. Travel for work that puts you in cramped airline seats, restricted access to your usual training cues and facilities as well as being away from your fridge stocked with healthy alternatives (per #7 above) to the near-nightmarish* nutritional qualities of most restaurant food.

*The deeper you delve into proper nutrition, the more you'll realize that words like 'nightmarish' are not that much of an exaggeration. 

And let's not forget that with school age kids comes more opportunities for your immune system, compromised from a particularly tough morning long run, to be totally overwhelmed by the latest strain of genetically mutated viruses sneezed directly into your face by your 5 year old.

Given all the above, many people just give up. It's too tough to keep any kind of reasonable training schedule with all the additional load of 'life' being thrust upon you.

To this I say, 'bollocks'. I feel I'm justified in speaking about this. I have a demanding job, I travel 4x per year to Asia as well as probably 10-15 domestic trips per year on top of that. I have four kids from ages 4 to 21. And yet I've been able to maintain a reasonably consistent training schedule throughout all my 30's and 40's.

What you have to do is prioritize your free time that you do have and get creative at how you work with what you have on your plate. I've amassed a ton of 'tricks' on this subject (so much that it probably needs it's own posting), but here are a few bullet points:
  • TV is a giant time-sink with little residual value. Most training plans could be accomodated completely with time salvaged away from that luminescent 'litter box'
  • It never gets easier to get up early and head out in the cold / rain / dark for a workout. You just get better at dealing with it. Get your own "Sarge"
  • and Google Maps are your friends when trying to figure out a route when traveling
  • Kids LOVE to be involved. Run your easy runs with them, take them to the track, get a jogging stroller / bike trailer, involve them in your home strength workout (they make great weights) - or just play with them outside vigorously as cross training. Bonus points: you can learn alot about proper running form watching your kids run barefoot around the backyard.
  • Schedule your workouts just like meetings. Eat (healthy) at your desk.
  • To be continued in a future post...
Finally, realize that there are some things that are unavoidable, so don't pretend they don't exist. Meaning, if you had to work late and have a choice between doing a recovery run or sleeping - cut your time in half, do some yoga and opt for the sleep. If you've been up all night with a sick child, then doing that hard tempo run may do more harm than any good.

That's the countdown to #6, I'll pick up the final countdown in Part II of this series

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